The benefits of juicing raw cannabis have been widely proclaimed over the last few years, but very little empirical data has been published to scientifically confirm the benefits. However, the anecdotal evidence is mounting up, and many swear by it—but are there inherent risks, and if so, what are they?
What’s behind the hype?
A more apt question could be ‘who’s behind the hype?’ as it is largely due to the promotional efforts of one man—Dr William Courtney. Dr Courtney is a California-based physician who holds a B.S. in Microbiology from Michigan University, an M.D. from Wayne State University and a Post Doctorate in Forensic Examination and Forensic Medicine.
Dr Courtney’s wife Kristen Peskuski reports to have successfully fought symptoms of lupus by using fresh cannabis juice. Since then, the couple has enthusiastically promoted the treatment, claiming its benefit in a range of illnesses for which its efficacy has not yet been assessed.
Many of Dr Courtney’s claims are unsubstantiated and easy to debunk, and the trend for juicing cannabis is in grave danger of being dismissed as a fad—but is there any basis to the claims? There are very few reputable sources from which to draw a conclusion. The majority of articles available come from alternative lifestyle and counterculture blogs, and are not based on scientific studies.
Cannabinoid acids explained
On the living plant, up to 90% of Δ9-THC is present in the form of Δ9-THCA, a carboxylic acid (hereafter referred to as simply THCA). Cannabidiol (CBD) is present in the form of CBDA, cannabigerol (CBG) as CBGA, cannabichromene (CBC) as CBCA, and so on.
Carboxylic acids (the most abundant group of organic acids) are defined as such by the presence of at least one carboxyl group linked by a single covalent bond to another functional group. In organic chemistry, a functional group simply refers to a group of atoms within a molecule that is responsible for characteristic reactions of the molecule.
A carboxyl group is comprised of a carbonyl group (C=O; a carbon atom linked by a double covalent bond to a hydrogen atom) and a hydroxyl group (O-H; an oxygen atom linked by a single covalent bond to a hydrogen atom)—which overall is usually expressed as -COOH or -CO2H. For simplicity, THCA is expressed as THC-CO2H (although its chemical formula is C22H30O4; that of THC itself is C21H30O2), CBDA is CBD-CO2H and CBG is CBG-CO2H.
Thus, before any processing of cannabis plant material, cannabinoids exist in these acidic forms. Acidic cannabinoids are non-psychoactive and hence they stimulate enquiry about their potential medicinal benefits.
When cannabis is dried or subjected to heat, the acids transmute into their neutral, psychoactive forms, in a reaction known as decarboxylation.
Decarboxylation of carboxylic acids
When decarboxylation occurs, carbon dioxide (CO2) is lost, breaking up the carboxyl group. The leftover hydrogen atom forms a single covalent bond with the remaining part of the molecule, thus supplying an extra proton (a hydrogen atom consists of one proton and one electron; the electron is shared to form the covalent bond).
With cannabinoid acids, the process of decarboxylation occurs very rapidly through exposure to heat (for example, through the action of smoking or heating to make cannabis butter). It also occurs very slowly at room temperature, although by the time the cannabis has dried the process may be far from complete. For all intents and purposes, cannabinoid acids undergo a process of degeneration by heat to form cannabinoids as we know them.
Several weeks’ curing post-drying should allow sufficient time for decarboxylation to fully occur, but may also allow THC to degrade to CBN. To avoid this, cannabis should not be exposed to air or sunlight while curing.
How decarboxylation occurs
If handled roughly when fresh, the resin glands break and the process of decarboxylation begins, albeit slowly. Hence, hand-rubbed hash and extracts made from fresh plants will cause intoxication, but require weeks of drying and curing before being ready for consumption. In some (particularly hot, tropical) climates, decarboxylation of cannabinoid acids may even begin while the plant grows, as it approaches maturity.
It is possible to speed up the process by gently heating cannabis in an electric oven at a temperature of around 110-120°C for 30-60 minutes. This is sufficiently hot for decarboxylation to occur, but not hot enough to cause degradation of cannabinoids, flavonoids and terpenoids.
Decarboxylation of cannabinoid acids in the body
The biomechanism of cannabinoid acids in the body is not well understood. Until recently, the actions of the cannabinoids themselves have been of far greater interest to researchers.
Conversion from THCA to THC in the body is apparently very limited, so if an individual consumes fresh, undried cannabis, there should be little to no psychoactive effect (although terpenoids and flavonoids may produce some change in mood).
In one study, researchers were only able to decarboxylate a maximum of 70% of THCA present in the sample used. In another earlier study, researchers were only able to convert 30% of THCA to THC. There is much speculation about the maximum decarboxylation rate. At as little as 85°C, THC begins to degenerate into CBN, and it’s likely this occurs even during decarboxylation.
Dr Courtney’s assertion that consuming decarboxylated cannabis means sacrificing a highly medicinal cannabinoid (THCA or CBDA), is therefore questionable. According to the research mentioned above, even users of decarboxylated cannabis may be consuming a limited amount of cannabinoid acids.
Metabolism of THCA in the body
One study has shown that THCA is present in the blood and urine (in concentrations 5.0-18.6% that of THC) after ingesting cannabis. The study also indicated that the body eliminates THCA faster than THC, as the highest ratios of THCA to THC were found in individuals that had most recently smoked cannabis.
Another study investigated rats that had been orally administered THCA, analysing urine samples for metabolites that would indicate a biochemical pathway. They found that THCA undergoes hydroxylation to form a substance known as 11-OH-THCA, which then oxidises to form 11-COOH-THCA (similarly, THC hydroxylates to 11-OH-THC, which then oxidises to 11-COOH-THC).
Potential benefits of raw cannabis
There is now a growing body of evidence to suggest that cannabinoid acids are more bioavailable to the human body than decarboxylated cannabinoids. However, it is also generally accepted that inhalation delivers the greatest bioavailability, and it is nearly impossible to smoke raw cannabis flowers. Oral ingestion poses one of the lowest bioavailabilities, which can be increased if ingested raw.
It has been shown that both THCA and THC exert a neuroprotective effect. THCA is showing promise as a treatment for Huntington’s disease and other metabolic, neurodegenerative and neuroinflammatory diseases.
Raw cannabis still contains all the terpenoids, flavonoids and plant alkaloids that otherwise would have been lost during heating or drying. Research into health benefits potentially conferred by these compounds is not extensive, but there are indications that terpenoids and flavonoids may increase cerebral blood flow and enhance cortical activity (useful for conditions such as Alzheimer’s). They may also kill respiratory pathogens and exert a generally anti-inflammatory effect. Although not generally considered psychoactive, they may also exhibit some sedative effect.
Dr Courtney explains the benefits of juicing raw cannabis
In the video ‘LEAF’, Dr Courtney describes the benefits of juicing raw cannabis. Kirsten Peskuski also features in the film, who used fresh cannabis to treat systemic lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and endometriosis:
Drawbacks & risks of consuming raw cannabis
Cannabis leaves contain variable cannabinoid acid content, and without time-consuming testing, it is almost impossible to establish if the correct dose has been achieved. Dr Courtney has stated that a ‘dietary dose’ of 600-1000mg of THCA should be consumed, but in practice this amount of cannabinoids would necessitate consuming vast quantities of fan leaf or significant amounts of bud.
Dr Courtney has stated that people with gall bladder or kidney problems should not consume raw cannabis; nor should individuals prescribed with blood-thinning drugs, due to its vitamin K content (vitamin K is the only vitamin found in cannabis, and it can prevent metabolism of such drugs in the liver).
Raw cannabis may also harbour bacteria and other pathogens that can cause illness if ingested—salmonella and E. coli have both been found on herbal cannabis—while pesticides and foliar feeds may leave traces of harmful chemicals on the harvested cannabis. For these reasons, it’s advisable to only juice veganically-grown cannabis (organically grown, without the use of animal products such as manure).
Is it safe to consume raw cannabis?
Further empirical testing should establish the relative efficacy of raw cannabis over any other form. It does not appear that there are any serious risks, save for those with the aforementioned conditions. Certainly, raw cannabis preparations have been in use for thousands of years, and if any severe risk could result, it would likely have been established by now.There are undoubtedly benefits to be gained from consuming raw, organic fruit and vegetables for most healthy individuals, and there seems to be no reason why cannabis should not be included. Further studies are required to assess the bioavailability of raw cannabinoids, and this poses an interesting avenue of research into the medicinal application of cannabis.
- Disclaimer:This article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with your doctor or other licensed medical professional. Do not delay seeking medical advice or disregard medical advice due to something you have read on this website.