The most common question I get from both medical professionals and consumers looking for hemp, CBD, and cannabis (aka marijuana) products is: “What do I need to know to pick the best products?”
I prefer to talk about conscious and clean cannabis and all that entails in my personal world, and educate, rather than recommend specific products.
I often use the acronym F.L.O.W.E.R.S. to help people remember and know how to pick the absolute best flowers and cannabis (especially medical marijuana) products possible! But it all circles back, always, to conscious cannabis:
F - Full spectrum
L - Lab testing
O - Organic/oils/others
W - Whole plant
E - Extraction methods/ethical pricing
R - Residual lab testing/responsible agriculture
S - Safety/sustainable packaging
But First...What Is What?
Folks often get confused about the difference between hemp, cannabis, marijuana, and all the other terms used to describe this plant. So let’s start with the what before we get into the how.
Basically, we’re talking about one thing - an annual flowering plant technically known as Cannabis sativa, which humanity has been cultivating and using for fiber and medicine for at least 10,000 years.
Different strains of the cannabis plant contain different combinations of chemical compounds known as cannabinoids, which bind to receptors in the body’s network of neurotransmitters known as the endocannabinoid system.
The cannabis plant has hundreds of cannabinoids, but the two which get the most attention are CBD and THC. THC is the primary compound known to make people feel high and as a great choice for pain management. CBD does not reportedly get you high, but may help people relax, sleep, manage pain and a host of inflammatory conditions.
You can’t tell the difference between cannabis that has THC and cannabis which doesn’t just by looking at it - which is part of why testing is so crucial.
We won’t get into the history of cannabis prohibition right here (for that you can read Jack Herer’s The Emperor Wears No Clothes), but from a modern legal perspective, hemp is a cannabis plant which contains less than 0.3% THC.
Hemp is extremely versatile and can be grown for fiber and oil (among other uses), but at NurseGrown Organics, we grow hemp for the flowers (commonly known as buds) which we use in our products.
We should note that you can’t tell the difference between cannabis that has THC and cannabis which doesn’t just by looking at it - which is part of why testing is so crucial.
We should also add that for serious medical conditions, it’s extremely beneficial to have THC as part of the cannabinoid mix, but due to the patchwork nature of how it’s been legalized, most of us are constrained in how and when we can use it.
Ok, on to the F.L.O.W.E.R.S.!
All full spectrum extracts and products should include all cannabinoids present in the cultivated plant, including CBD, THC, CBG, CBC, possibly THCV and CBN, and acidic (or not yet decarboxylated) cannabinoids, like CBDA and THCA.
Broad spectrum hemp products have all the plant’s cannabinoids except THC, which is removed through extraction, and is often an option for those that cannot tolerate or legally consume THC.
Let us not forget that the worst side effect of this plant isn’t medical. It’s the legal repercussions and how this plant was - and still is - used to subjugate and incarcerate minorities. This is a subject we won’t explore further at the moment, but can never ignore.
The most common, and convincing, anecdotal evidence I see repeatedly, in patient after patient, is how beneficial adding CBD to a regular THC/marijuana consumer's routine is.
Isolates are singular cannabinoids which have been extracted for their specific properties.THC isolate is the base of many smoking or vaping pens and concentrates. CBD isolates are popular amongst those that cannot have THC. With CBD isolate, we see a bell curve response, with a narrow therapeutic window. This meansthat when the amount of CBD exceeds a certain point, its therapeutic impact declines dramatically.
Despite the variety of options available, incorporating full spectrum, rather than isolated cannabinoids, has a profound and positive impact. The most common, and convincing, anecdotal evidence I see repeatedly, in patient after patient, is how beneficial adding CBD to a regular THC/marijuana consumer's routine is, and how much better a patient does when switching from a CBD isolate to a full spectrum CBD product with that little bit of THC.
When we understand how enzymes break down cannabinoids, we understand why this makes so much sense. For example, the endocannabinoid (made internally by our own body) Anandamide and the phytocannabinoid (made by the plant) THC are both broken down by the enzyme fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH). The phytocannabinoid CBD can inhibit the enzyme FAAH, which then allows THC and/or Anandamide to work longer and more effectively.
Persistent use of THC will cause the body to produce more FAAH and therefore produce less Anandamide, so additional CBD can be very beneficial to inhibit the FAAH - which is a great reason to advocate for full spectrum cannabis.
Always look for a Certificate Of Analysis (COA) for lab testing, though remember that third part full panel lab testing COAs can be fabricated or edited, so use caution. You have the right to call the lab to verify the COA if you have any concerns.
Third party testing is when products are analyzed in an independent laboratory that has no connection with the grower, manufacturer, company or consumer, and which has no financial stake in the test results. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), is the gold standard for third party testing.
The Blue Dream I grow in my bedroom in Vermont won’t have the same profile as Blue Dream grown in a California medical dispensary.
It’s important to note that the conditions under which a plant is grown can alter what’s actually inside the plant, thereby affecting its potency. The Blue Dream I grow in my bedroom in Vermont won’t have the same profile as Blue Dream grown in a California medical dispensary, or outdoors by a first time grower in Arizona. Lab testing is the only way we can truly know what’s inside that specific plant and help consumers know exactly what cannabinoids and terpenes work best for them.
So, even more important than knowing the potency, the percentage of particular cannabinoids, or what terpenes a plant has, we need to know a plant’s purity, and whether or not it has any contaminants - which we do NOT want, and cannot have - in cannabis medicine.
It’s all too common to see a product or company advertise lab tested, yet they only test for cannabinoids, NOT a full panel, which includes purity. A full panel should test for mycotoxins and bacterial contaminants like mold, mildew, E. coli, heavy metals, pesticides, and residuals when necessary.
- Cannabis is also an amazing bioremediator, which essentially means it heals the soil by pulling toxins out of the soil and into the plant. This is great for the soil, but not so good for your medicine. Heavy metals are common environmental contaminants in the soil, and can also get into the cannabis from machinery used in the production, extraction, or packaging process. According to NORML’s Report, out of 240 products tested, over 70% were contaminated with heavy metals.
- Cannabis is also the perfect environment for the proliferation of molds and fungi, which can create their own chemicals known as mycotoxins. According to NIH, mycotoxins are defined as “secondary metabolites produced by microfungi that are capable of causing disease and death.” For example, organophosphates and carbamates affect the nervous system, while others are known to damage the endocrine system, and some are known to be carcinogenic. CDC estimates Salmonella bacteria cause about 1.35 million infections, and 420 deaths annually (no pun intended).
- Pesticides also pose risks to humans. During any extraction process, pesticide residues on the plant material will be concentrated in potentially toxic levels, increasing the consumer’s risk of pesticide injury. This means that cultivating and processing organically is a must.
The Trouble With Organic
The USDA recently began allowing the use of herbicides on certified organic farms. This is a step in the wrong direction, so professionals and consumers must diligently research what any organic certification actually means, given that it’s primarily a labeling and marketing program, and does not give us any more assurance for consumer safety.
Not only is it not enough to help ensure consumer safety, we need to go an extra step beyond organic and give back to the earth. Responsible agriculture and sustainable farming means more than just an organic stamp for marketing. Regenerative or biodynamic farming builds rather than depletes the earth and our soils. Some simple examples and practices include:
- Supporting biodiversity with companion plants and vegetables
- Avoiding plastic rows in fields
- Conserving water and using rainwater collection systems
- Using fewer plastic fertilizer bottles
We can and need to do better and much more than just filing paperwork for an organic label.
There are other certification programs specific to cannabis that hold much more value and accountability. Clean Green is the oldest and largest nationally recognized third party certifying body for cannabis.
To be Clean Green Certified means a grower and processor has passed a rigorous review that proves they uphold sustainable and responsible practices coupled with organic inputs, legal compliance, consumer safety and transparency, and an annual carbon reduction mandate.
We need to advocate for more than the typical USDA organic label. Organic is only one way to look at the overall impact of any given product. Carbon footprint is another important issue to consider, given the immediate threat of catastrophic climate change.
Carrier oils are a very popular way to administer cannabis, and it's vital to know if the carrier oil itself is organic. But, what else do we want to look at beyond that organic stamp?
Organic olive oil from Costco might be fairly clean and certified organic, but it’s also shipped overseas from 7 different countries - giving it a very high carbon footprint compared to hemp seed oil grown and shipped in the United States. In fact, hemp seed oil is my favorite carrier oil - in part because it doesn’t have to travel as far, and keeps the plant spirits within the plant.
When looking at carrier oils, we also have to consider the environmental impact of particular forms of agriculture.
When looking at carrier oils, we also have to consider the environmental impact of particular forms of agriculture. Coconut oil is preferable to palm oil, in part because palm oil often comes from plantations which have decimated the habitat of endangered species like orangutans, pygmy elephants and Sumatran rhinos - as well as thrown millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
In my experience, popular medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) carrier oils often don’t specify what their oils actually are, and if it doesn't say coconut, it may be palm.
It’s important to check and see if a cannabis product contains other additives or flavorings such as essential oils or sugar. I know many medical professionals and aromatherapists who do NOT recommend ingesting essential oils, and we all know that sugar (in an edible) can aggravate inflammation when you’re trying to treat it.
Proprietary formulas don’t mean you don't need to know what is in your medicine.
A true purist would also refrain from adding terpenes to plant medicine. Pure cannabis medicine would only have the original plant’s constituents and terpenes, rather than adding anything else. If they are adding terpenes, what terpenes are they, and is the company transparent with those additions and lab tests? Proprietary formulas don’t mean you don't need to know what is in your medicine.
Conscious Cannabis And The Entourage Effect
Ultimately, what we’re talking about here is what I call Conscious Cannabis, which, to me, is about you knowing exactly what you’re taking, and about the energy of whole plant medicine.
Whole plant to many, simply means full spectrum, where all the cannabinoids in the plant are included in the final product. Including everything a plant has to offer in the final product leads to the highly beneficial entourage effect, where the therapeutic properties of each individual cannabinoid get enhanced by working in concert with all the other beneficial plant constituents, like terpenes and flavonoids.
Some extraction methods strip out those components, leaving the whole plant no longer wholly intact. CO2 extraction and Supercritical Fluid Extraction (SFE) typically separate plant constituents, which then get pieced back together. I wholeheartedly prefer to honor the plant's spirit and keep her together, keep her whole.
Extraction And Ethical Pricing
Given my love of old school herbalism and wholism, I prefer organic ethanol extraction. Ethanol has been used for thousands of years as an effective and affordable botanical solvent - though be sure to look for certified organic food grade ethanol.
By keeping the plant intact and extracting both polar and nonpolar molecules, ethanol extraction captures the whole plant’s energy, as well as other beneficial compounds including flavonoids, terpenes, and chlorophyll. We find that ethanol extracts have an earthier, richer flavor and darker color.
Before we move on from extraction and our E, I have to mention ethical pricing, because if it isn’t affordable, it isn't medicine. So, check both the price point and the price per mg when you are vetting products.
Speaking of ethics and affordability, most companies that do NOT use full panel testing will tell you it is due to financial constraints. While full panel testing is costly, if you break it down, you’ll see it from a different perspective.
I have to mention ethical pricing, because if it isn’t affordable, it isn't medicine.
On average, I spend $700 to fully test each product. If, for example, I make a batch of 500 bottles of oil, that is only $1.40 per bottle. Well worth the cost! Companies with the highest of ethics WILL have full panel lab testing readily available on their website.
Extraction methods often include solvents for extraction, which can - and often do - leave possible residuals. Cannabis in the form of smokable flower would NOT need to be tested for residuals, but products like tinctures and edibles using extracted components would absolutely need to. This goes for all CO2, ethanol, and hydrocarbon extractions.
Testing can and should happen in several stages throughout the formulating and manufacturing of products. Testing of the initial biomass crop and smokable flower, then testing the concentrate after extraction, and again the final product, is the best practice.
Last - but definitely not least - is safety. You HAVE to START with clean cannabis to be safe. Full panel lab testing.
But safety also includes:
- Low and slow dosing and education on consumption methods
- Safe storage with children in the home, while being mindful of packaging access for senior and disabled patients
With packaging, I encourage you to look for and use sustainable packaging. The cannabis industry is notorious for single use plastic and we must do anything we can to bring about environmental awareness and promote conscious behavior as well as Conscious Cannabis.
I know this all feels like a lot to keep track of. But my feeling is that cannabis is an immensely powerful gift to all of us. And as we know, with great power comes great responsibility. Growers, makers, vendors, and medical professionals are tasked by their engagement with this marvelous plant to be guardians of both public and planetary health. Anything less, anything done in service of profit rather than patients, anything done out of laziness rather than reason, dishonors that gift.
So be sure to pick your F.L.O.W.E.R.S. wisely, honorably and consciously.