The cannabis plant produces literally hundreds of specialized molecules — cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids — that have been shown to deliver medicinal efficacy, lifestyle enhancement, and even performance enhancement to human beings. For those afflicted with disease, medical cannabis has been found to offer a wide range of health benefits, from killing cancerous tumors to alleviating the pain of arthritis to reducing the number of seizures experienced by epileptic children.
Of these molecules, cannabinoids are the most cited and understood. The most infamous cannabinoid is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the molecule responsible for most of the psychoactive (psychotropic) and euphoric effects of cannabis, but that also has been found to successfully treat serious conditions, such as PTSD and cancer. Another notable cannabinoid is cannabidiol (CBD), a mostly non-psychoactive chemical that has been found to provide a wide range of medicinal benefits, including reductions in pain, anxiety, and depression.
Endocannabinoids vs. Phytocannabinoids
First discovered in 1964 by Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam, phytocannabinoids from the cannabis plant interact with the human body by mimicking the molecular characteristics of chemicals produced internally. Called endocannabinoids, these internally manufactured molecules include anandamide and 2-AG.
Anandamide has been dubbed the “bliss molecule” because of its ability to decrease depression in humans. It plays a central role in the regulation and modulation of critical bodily functions such as mood, appetite, sleep, immune system efficiency, and one’s ability to deal with stress and anxiety.
Synthetic cannabinoids emerged in the 1970s and are created in a laboratory. An example of it would be dronabinol (Δ9-THC synthetic), which is the active compound of Marinol, a medicine that comes in capsules and has been consumed in the US since 1985 to prevent nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and loss of weight.
The Endocannabinoid System
All mammals, not merely humans, have evolved with a network of specialized cellular receptors throughout their bodies that are designed to bind with cannabinoids — both endocannabinoids such as anandamide and phytocannabinoids from cannabis — that is called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
The fact that the ECS is present in all mammals is why companies and product lines dedicated to the health and wellness of household pets are beginning to emerge in legal cannabis markets. Dogs and cats suffering conditions such as arthritis, digestive issues, anxiety, and pain can gain significant benefit from the cannabinoids in cannabis and hemp.
Anandamide production has been found to increase and temporarily spike in those who engage in endurance exercise on a regular basis. However, it metabolizes quickly, exhibiting a relatively short duration of effect. Anandamide hints at the chemical underpinnings of the significant health benefits of frequent and intense exercise—and the fact that the mere consumption of cannabinoids is not enough to establish and sustain optimal health of the ECS (a condition called homeostasis that means “balance”).
Both internally produced endocannabinoids and plant-based phytocannabinoids interface with the ECS via specialized cellular receptors that were discovered in the 1990s and called CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are found mostly in the brain and central nervous system, whereas CB2 receptors are located primarily in the organs and tissues of the immune system—including the thymus, skin, bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen, bowel, and the mucous membranes of the bladder, genitals, nose, and throat.
Major Cannabinoids + Acidic Precursors
More than 113 cannabinoids have been isolated and identified within the cannabis plant — which is, technically, also a vegetable. Beyond the two major cannabis-derived molecules, THC and CBD, are a plethora of healthful cannabinoids that deliver a slew of desirable and beneficial efficacies for lifestyle consumers and patients alike. Among these are cannabichromene (CBC), cannabigerol (CBG), cannabinol (CBN), and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV).
Additional healthful cannabinoids include tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA). These chemicals represent a class of cannabinoids dubbed acidic precursors. Think of acidic precursors as the larval caterpillar stage of what becomes the butterflies of THC and CBD.
While they provide significant benefits in terms of health and wellness, the exact effects of these molecules differ from their non-acidic versions. For example, while strains of cannabis that are potent in THC can exact a significant toll in terms of psychoactivity and euphoria, THCA delivers no such psychotropic effect. THCA does, however, offer anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects, making it helpful for conditions as wide-ranging as Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, cancer, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s.
The process by which the transmogrification from the chemical state of acidic precursor (THCA) to its child molecule (THC) occurs is significant (and can be accurately controlled by anyone). A process called decarboxylation, this conversion involves the application of heat (via flame, as in combustion, or from a hot surface or airstream, as in vaporization) to catalyze a chemical reaction in which the THCA molecule drops a carbon and two oxygen atoms (called a carboxyl ring, or COOH) to become THC — and gain its euphoric effects based on its newfound binding affinity with the CB1 receptors of the ECS.
Technically, maximum decarboxylation for a sample of cannabis flowers occurs most effectively when exposed to 220 degrees F (104 degrees C) for a period of 30 to 45 minutes. Decarboxylation is easy and convenient because it can be accomplished using a standard consumer oven.
Thus, one who eats the raw flowers of cannabis will gain significant medicinal benefits, but no euphoria. The simple application of a flame or hot air, however, leads to the nearly instantaneous transformation of these molecules into their chemical cousins, delivering beneficial — but sometimes very different — effects.
A 2017 research study entitled “Medicinal Cannabis: History, Pharmacology, and Implications for the Acute Care Setting” that was published in the journal Pharmacy & Therapeutics found the cannabinoids of cannabis, such as THC and CBD, to be effective in the treatment of a wide range of diseases and conditions.
The study’s researchers stated, the “Beneficial cannabinoids exist, as evidenced by single-entity agents derived from cannabis containing the compounds THC and CBD.” The study concluded that “cannabis is relatively safe; therapy is self-titratable by the patient; and…therapy is relatively inexpensive compared with pharmaceutical agents.”
CBC is a powerful cannabinoid first isolated in 1964 by Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam. It is considered one of the “big six” cannabinoids that, according to Steep Hill Labs in Berkeley, California, is ten times more effective than CBD in treating anxiety and stress.
In a 2011 study conducted by cannabis research pioneer Ethan Russo entitled “Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy and Phytocannabinoid-terpenoid Entourage Effects” and published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, Russo found that a CBC-extract displayed “pronounced antidepressant effect,” meaning it may be helpful for humans suffering from anxiety and depression.
Additional evidence of the medical benefits of cannabinoids derived from cannabis — this time for an ocular disease — was revealed in a 2008 study entitled “Possibilities of Applying Cannabinoids in the Treatment of Glaucoma” that was published in the journal Klinika Oczna. The study concluded that cannabinoids like CBG are “able to decrease intraocular pressure. These compounds are characterized by neuroprotection and vasodilatation properties that additionally substantiate their therapeutic utility in conservative treatment of glaucoma.”
The Mighty Trichome: From Bag Appeal to a Billion Dollar Business
There are an ever-increasing amount of methods to ingest cannabis these days, but it all comes down to the mighty trichome and the microverse of molecules swirling inside. Our knowledge of the importance of the trichome is still developing, but let’s take a trip back to the good ol’ days… back when eyeballing an eighth was an earned skill and legendary strains like Hawg’s Breath, Bullrider, and White Widow were pushed in ziplock bags out of the backpacks and trunks of your local neighborhood hustler.
If you’ve ever scored weed on the streets you can probably relate, and in those wilder days money and product often changed hands quickly, leaving the buyer with little time for any sort of inspection of the goods. We were trained to hone in on certain aspects that collectively took on a name of their own: “bag appeal”.
Our crew has always sought out the best of the best, and before we knew all that we know now, we already recognized that buds that had a heavier blanket of sticky, shiny crystals typically led to a tastier and stonier experience.
Taking a Closer Look at Trichomes
Once we started growing our own cannabis we began to recognize those crystals for what they actually were — trichomes, the microscopic mushroom-shaped outgrowths that produce and house the very cannabinoid and terpene profiles that differentiate our favorite cultivars from one another.
There are quite literally hundreds of known cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes which when combined in varying ratios produce the gassiest OGs, the heaviest purps, and the headiest hazes that we all know and love. The trichome is essentially the factory where all of those compounds are created and combined. Everything from the strength, the aroma, the flavor, and the overall effects of a particular strain of cannabis all emanate from the trichome.
The cannabis plant produces trichomes naturally on its flowers, fan leaves, branches and stalks. This coating of trichs is more abundant in the later stages of the plant’s growth cycle and is fueled by UV light as its contents continue to mature. This is the main reason why plants grown indoors typically have a higher THC content than the same strain grown outside. The consistent light source may boost the percentages, but we have learned that more trichomes do not always necessarily mean a “better” bud. Outdoor-grown weed lovers will contend that a broader spectrum of light (sunlight) leads to a broader spectrum of cannabinoids and terpenes.
Quality over Quantity
Zooming in on the cannabis plant, you’ll notice that trichomes generally form in three different fashions, and that form tells us quite a bit about the contents within.
Capitate Stalked Trichomes
The average human eye can detect items as small as 40 micrometers, or microns. As the largest (50-100 microns wide) and most abundant of the three categories of trichs, the Capitate Stalked Trichome is visible to the naked eye and is what puts the bling in bag appeal. When the plant is being grown properly, these multicellular trichs will feature a strong stalk leading to a waxy, round head. It is in that top floor that top-shelf trichs are formed.
Capitate Sessile Trichomes
Slightly less abundant in number than their Stalked counterparts, the Capitate Sessile Trichome will resemble a stunted version of them. They still play an important role in the ‘entourage effect’ that we get when we consume the full spectrum of cannabinoids.
At about a quarter of the width of a human hair, you are 100% more likely to notice a human hair in your bag of weed than you will the Bulbous Trichomes blanketing your buds. Even without a stalk, these basic microscopic bulbs also contribute to the full spectrum that many medicinal users seek. Like all trichomes, the abundance of these sticky outgrowths also serves to deter pests, particularly on plants grown outdoors and in greenhouses.
As a grower, it is crucial to become familiar with the ideal growth cycle of the strains in your stable. The difference between chopping plants down on Day 58 or on Day 64 can change an uplifting Sativa-like hybrid into a couch-locking sleep aid and that has way more to do with the maturity of the trichomes than it does the cultivar or phenotype.
There is a fine line between maturing and degrading and most cultivators make use of a handheld microscopic lens, perhaps a 50x zoom, to monitor the development of their plants’ trichs as they get closer to their target harvest date.
Though this can vary from strain to strain, clear heads on trichs generally indicate that the plant Is not fully mature. THC and other desirable cannabinoids are being formed, but be patient.
Once the trichomes display a milky or cloudy composition under the scope the plant can be harvested and the resulting buds and concentrates should deliver as heady and uplifting of an effect as the phenotype allows.
Over the course of the next few days, the observant grower will notice swaths of trichs turning to an amber color. It is very common for growers to chop their crop as soon as they determine that 30% of their heads are amber. With many strains, this will deliver the blend of heady vs. heavy that most consumers are after but it definitely varies.
For example, Beard Bros. Pharms is known for our superior cut of Extreme Cream which is absolutely caked in glistening trichs. Bill Levers, co-founder, reveals some insider information on their phenomenal phenotype.
“We first began harvesting her at just over eight weeks when her trichomes first began turning amber from cloudy,” said Levers. “We found that by allowing her another seven to 10 days and not harvesting until half or better of the trichomes were turning amber, that we received a much more desirable terpene and cannabinoid profile.”
As a consumer, it is important to recognize that trichomes continue to degrade even after the buds are trimmed, cured, packaged and sold. Factors like ambient temperature, light, physical agitation, and even time will age your trichs. What is the best solution? Smoke them before that happens!
For real though, any grower worth their weight in worm castings will take great care in producing potent trichs and it’s up to us to appreciate them. Regardless of how big the cannabis industry eventually becomes, it all begins in the dome of the trichome.
Beard Bros. Pharms has earned their reputation as a trusted source for cannabis news, content creation, and culture preservation. With decades of experience in cultivation and marketing, their fearless voice for the plant includes advocacy for veterans, inmates, people of color, and anyone else who has been oppressed by generations of cannabis prohibition.
Celebrate 710 with the Aficionado Guide to Cannabis Concentrates
For many enthusiasts, concentrates are among the most enjoyable and versatile of cannabis products. While a little concentrate goes a long way, these extracts are easily vaporized, smoked, or used to make infused topicals, edibles, and more. Not all concentrates, however, are created equal. The way that different cannabis concentrates are prepared has an impact on the end result.
In order to delve deeper into the past, present and future of cannabis concentrates this 710, we have called in the expertise of the team from Oleum Extracts. The Washington-based, multi-award-winning processor company is considered to be one of the best in the industry, developing consistently innovative products — like their THCA crystalline Wizard Stones — and producing high-quality extracts.
Here’s what every aficionado needs to know about cannabis concentrates.
The Evolution of Cannabis Concentrates
Oleum Extracts believe that the evolution of cannabis concentrates has seen a shift away from the wants and needs of producers towards those of the consumers.
“As consumers become more educated, they are asking better and more meaningful questions regarding the products they are ingesting/consuming, which is a good thing,” said Team Oleum. “New topics such as cannabinoid profiles, terpene profiles, how the products made, what kind of materials are used, and knowledge of the manufacturers are making their way into the purchasing decisions of consumers.”
They also think that as consumers become savvier to which companies and products have the most stringent production policies and consistent products, “brand trust and loyalty are beginning to make their presence felt.”
When purchasing cannabis concentrates, asking for the cheapest products with the highest THC levels should not be at the forefront of consumers minds and Team Oleum believes “we’re starting to see this shift happen away from that type of thinking.”
Oleum’s THCA Crystalline Wizard Stones are a good example of this. They pride themselves in the purity of their extracts, and test results of the Wizard Stones “often come back at 99.8%+ pure,” they said.
“We are anxious to see what comes out of the isolation of these other cannabinoids, as these compounds are often only found in trace amounts in flower form (less than 1%). Now that we are able to isolate them, we will be able to see the implications of larger doses and combinations of these cannabinoids and/or cannabis-derived terpenes on the human vessel.”
All About Solvents
The majority of cannabis concentrates require a solvent to extract. A solvent is a substance, usually a liquid or a gas, that separates trichome resin glands from unwanted plant material. The separated essential oil is then collected and further processed to create the high-potency oils and products that are so popular today.
Many different solvents can be used to make cannabis concentrates. Of these, however, there are three solvents that dominate the market: butane, carbon dioxide, and ethanol. Each of these solvents is used to effectively remove cannabis resin from the plant and concentrate the resin into the sap-like oil aficionado’s everywhere have come to know and love.
Butane is one of the cheapest solvents to use when making cannabis concentrates. It was also the first solvent to be used to make concentrates for dabbing, and concentrates made with this solvent are often referred to as butane hash oil (BHO). In general, concentrates extracted with butane tend to preserve more aromatic qualities than those extracted with carbon dioxide. For this reason, butane is used to make live resin, a concentrate rich in aromatic molecules called terpenes. No other solvent can be used to make live resin.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is most commonly used to make syrupy extracts for vapor pens. The solvent, however, can also be used to make other forms of concentrates. Oils extracted with carbon dioxide can be dabbed, used to fill capsules, or used as oils put underneath the tongue. Unlike butane, however, carbon dioxide tends to remove much of the terpene aroma molecules found in cannabis flower. As such, CO2 oil can feature a strikingly different chemical composition than the cannabis plant from which it came.
Concentrates extracted with ethanol are among the most expensive around. And yet, this solvent is perhaps one of the best to use during cannabis extractions. For those hoping to maintain aromatic terpenes in their concentrate, products made with ethanol are typically the way to go. Ethanol captures more terpenes and pigment molecules called flavonoids than other concentrates. Concentrates made with ethanol are sometimes processed into full spectrum cannabis oil (FECO), while others are used to make products for dabbing.
How To Spot Quality Concentrates
Searching for truly high-quality material? There are three basic factors to keep in mind: color, consistency, and lab reports. A hallmark sign of quality in almost all cannabis concentrates is a golden-amber coloration. Most solvent-based concentrates should appear amber, although the color can range a light gold to warm rust.
Some concentrates, like FECO and RSO, may look almost black. The deep coloration in these products indicates that greater amounts of chlorophyll were extracted along with other cannabis compounds. While more chlorophyll may provide a bitter, herbal taste, the inclusion of a greater variety of plant chemicals may make these types of concentrates more appealing to medical consumers.
The introduction of alternative methods and new equipment has resulted in an improvement in cannabis concentrates — good news for the aforementioned medical patients and dabbing enthusiasts alike.
“Equipment manufacturer’s from other industries are now tailoring their businesses to accommodate cannabism, which has been a great thing to experience,” said Team Oleum. “I’m sure we will continue to see this trend moving forward, especially as extraction and processing evolve to service high volume needs as the market expands.”
Concentrates should feature a fairly consistent constitution. No one, for example, wants to find hard chunks in their budder, nor do they want to find leaf matter or stem fragments in their hash. If a concentrate doesn’t take on the form that is advertised, chances are it is a low-quality product.
“In the beginning, good concentrates were known pretty much by aesthetics and the way they looked,” said Team Oleum. “Followed up with a sniff, the color and smell of the product were the easiest ways to spot a good concentrate back in the day. Now, a concentrate can look great, and even smell ok, but once dabbed or vaped might taste horrendous.”
Team Oleum believe that regulations and laws in Washington’s market are making people purchase products on looks, rather than smell.
“With the legal market here in WA, the consumer is not allowed to open the package of concentrate or smell the product before purchasing,” said Team Oleum. “This takes away what beforehand was a vital component in making a decision of what product to buy and how much to purchase. As a result, it seems to be aesthetics and brand trust that leads most in their decisions today in spotting good concentrates.”
Third-party lab reports are essential, proving the manufacturer and consumer with information on the chemical constituents in the concentrate, like the terpene profiles of the flower.
“While a concentrate may look attractive, low-quality flower with low terpene content may have been used during the extraction,” said Team Oleum. “Most lab reports list information on the potency and dominant cannabinoids in the product. Some reports, however, will also list the primary terpenes in the concentrate as well. In general, the more terpenes preserved in the concentrate, the greater the flavor and aroma.”
“The only individuals really doing any quality control of the products before going out to market are the producers and processors themselves. If these individuals are not cannabis consumers, and/or are not trying their own products it is doing a great disservice to both their brand and their consumers.
“If the owners and operators of these brands do a good enough job at this, the reward is consumer trust in both the brand and its products. When people can trust where the material is being sourced, how it is being processed and the care that goes into its production from start to finish. These are the brands that are earning the most market share and seeing the most positive feedback from consumers.”
Most Common Concentrate Preparations
Walk into any cannabis shop these days and you’re sure to find a plethora of containers filled with sticky goo. The market for cannabis concentrates is growing faster than ever, with data suggesting that concentrate sales may surpass sales for dry flower within the next four years. Here are some of the most popular cannabis concentrate products — including some specialties from Oleum Extracts.
Shatter is easy to spot in a dispensary but relatively difficult to make for extractors. Shatter is a cannabis concentrate that takes on the consistency of an amber-colored glass shard. These shards can be broken up and dabbed, although the oil’s crystalline constitution makes it slightly more difficult to work with than other concentrate preparations.
Wax and shatter are made in essentially the same way, although wax tends to be physically agitated more during processing. As a result, the preparation loses its glass-like consistency and instead develops a waxy, honeycomb-like constitution. Some individual strains may also be more inclined to “wax up” than other strains. In general, waxes tend to be softer and easier to manipulate than shatters.
Budder is whipped wax. Instead of walking on eggshells trying to create a glass-like shatter, budder is whipped automatically in order to create a smoothe yet opaque concentrate. The end result is soft, fluffy, and easy to manipulate.
Cannabis oils are concentrates that maintain a consistent liquid state. Oils are most often made with ethanol, which preserves the widest array of phytochemicals found in any cannabis extraction. Oils of this type are often referred to as full-spectrum cannabis oil (FECO) or Rick Simpson Oil (RSO). These oils are often used under the tongue or are ingested orally. Carbon dioxide, however, can also be used to make a syrupy oil, such as that found in vapor cartridges.
Live resin is a king among concentrates. Unlike all other concentrates, live resin is made using fresh cannabis flowers that have been flash-frozen in order to preserve terpene quality. These fresh flowers are then processed using butane as a solvent, creating a wet and semi-solid concentrate that features superior flavor, aroma, and overall terpene quality.
Using a solvent is the easiest way to extract cannabis concentrates. Solvents, however, are not required to make a concentrated cannabis product. Products like hash and rosin do not require solvents at all, which makes them preferable to many consumers. Although, solventless concentrates tend to be less potent than their solvent-based counterparts.
Rocks and Sauce: Oleum Extracts
“Rocks and Sauce is a product where THCA crystals grow in their own high terpene extraction,” said Team Oleum. “They are often made from fresh frozen material but can be made from dried/cured material, too.”
Honey Crystal/CryoTek: Oleum Extracts
“This product is fully dewaxed, quad filtered and highly processed,” said Team Oleum. “We make Honey Crystal/CryoTek from dried/cured material. CryoTek means that the Honey Crystal has gone through an additional stage of processing to further refine the material.”
Hash is one of the oldest cannabis preparations available. It’s also one of the simplest to make. Hash is most often made by rubbing dried cannabis flower on a screen, breaking off trichomes via agitation. The broken trichomes are then collected and compressed into hash.
Bubble hash or ice water hash is another type of concentrate made using agitation. Only, this variety of hash uses ice water to freeze trichome resin glands. The cold temperature makes trichomes more brittle, which allows them to more easily break away from plant material. The end result is grainy trichome goo that is then dried and compressed into hash.
Rosin is one of the most popular concentrates available today. Like hash, rosin is relatively easy to make. This solventless preparation uses heat and pressure to melt trichomes off of plant material. These trichomes are often melted between two solid hot plates, which compresses them into an almost shatter-like consistency. Rosin tends to be slightly translucent, although it remains mailable and soft, a stark contrast to shatter’s glass-like nature.
Terpsoline: Oleum Extracts
“Terpsoline is another one of our products that is made of up of THCA Crystalline Wizard Stones and cannabis-derived terpenes,” said Team Oleum.
Exciting Advances and New Developments in the World of Cannabis Concentrates
Team Oleum believe that isolates, the separation of cannabinoids and terpenes are exciting developments and new in the field of concentrates.
“We are now starting to understand isolation and separation on a much deeper level,” said Team Oleum. “This allows us to reconfigure ratios of cannabinoids to terpenes — to alter the experience, flavors and effects of these products.
“This has never been an option before with cannabis concentrates, we believe the future will incorporate a lot of these unique and novel combinations into the cannabis consumer’s diet. For instance, our IceWalker is a product that incorporates THCA Crystalline Wizard Stones, Delta-8-AquaTek Distillate and cannabis-derived terpenes. These types of concentrate concoctions were not possible a few years ago, we are excited to see what will come available in the next five years.
“In addition to isolations, we are also starting to retain terpenes (flavors) and their respective cannabinoids in such a way as to mimic the actual taste, smell and effect of the flower it comes from. It wasn’t too long ago that material was just put into a column and blasted with solvent, hoping for the best outcome in the end product and it was often hit or miss. Now, a lot more science, better cultivation, and preparation of materials, and better understanding and innovation of equipment have allowed us to employ much more efficient methods in cannabis extraction and processing. This, in turn, allows us to produce a much higher quality product much more consistently. Something that benefits both the producers and the consumers.
“Last but not least, CRC (Color Remediation Cartridge) seems to be making an introduction by offering solutions to the removal of unwanted colors and compounds in cannabis concentrates. These colors and compounds include lipids, chlorophyll, carotene, xanthophyll, pheophytins and lycopene,” said Team Oleum. “Due to the compounds being used in this process, it should only be done by those with proper equipment/lab and training. It definitely has its place in the concentrate industry as a means of cleaning up product, but in the same breath, good concentrates should always come from good starting material. As the tried and true saying goes, “Fire In.. Fire Out”.
“These methods of remediation can often take away from the true and original character of the strain and extract. We try to stay as close to the original cultivar as we can…in most cases it’s what we and the end consumer prefers.”
The Complex Relationship Between Cannabis and Mental Health
The month of May is coming to a close, and with the end of Mental Health Awareness month comes one of the most difficult topics of discussion among the cannabis industry: Does cannabis improve mental health, or make it worse? Many dedicated consumers and patients would be quick to tell you that the plant has had a profoundly positive influence on their lives. And yet, emerging science on the topic has revealed that cannabis and mental health have a much more complicated relationship than ever predicted.
What is Mental Health?
Before diving into the ways in which cannabis affects mental health, it’s useful to paint a picture of what mental health actually means. For most, mental health means being free from depression, free from psychiatric illness, and perhaps even blissfully happy. Unfortunately, while more people are aware of mental and emotional health than ever before, the concept is still far too often boiled down to either a means of coping with severe mental disorders or as a reinforcement of the idea that you should strive to be happy all of the time.
Both of these popular beliefs are a myth — most people must learn how to develop mental health skills at some point in their lives, and, although it is difficult to admit, being happy all of the time is a scientific anomaly. Contented and peaceful, sure, but moments of blissfulness and pure happiness wax and wane for just about everyone. Of course, this is not to discount the lives or experiences of the many who struggle with severe mental health concerns, such as post-traumatic stress, severe depression, and other psychiatric ailments.
For Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and a world-renowned psychologist, mental health can be broken down into four primary components: mindfulness skills, interpersonal effectiveness, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance. While the names may seem like a mouthful, Linehan believes that each building block is essential for being able to both tolerate and relate to the world in a healthy way.
First, mindfulness is the ability to observe what is happening in the present moment without judgment. Secondly, interpersonal effectiveness relates to your ability to ask respectfully for what you want while setting clear boundaries and saying no what you don’t want. Emotional regulation refers to the ability to feel your emotions without clinging to them or letting them get the better of you. Finally, distress tolerance is the ability to tolerate daily stresses and bounce back from stressful situations.
For Linehan, mental health means practising and maintaining fitness in all four of these skills. Even those with a diagnosed psychiatric disease can still practice these skills to improve their mental health. The therapy was initially designed for those with Borderline Personality Disorder, but the concepts have taken root in the world of psychology and are often readily applied to individuals experiencing all sorts of mental health concerns — from addiction to depression to schizophrenia to struggling with an unexpected life transition.
The Complex Relationship Between Cannabis and Mental Health
So, why bring up Linehan? The definitions of mental health are perhaps as vast as the types of therapies available. As such, there are numerous ways to approach the broad topic of mental health. Most psychiatrists offer a mixture of skill-building and medications in order to treat their patients. Is cannabis a worthwhile therapy for mental health? Well, if early research is any indication, it appears that it would depend on how you use it.
Cannabis for Mental Health: The Pros
For many, cannabis is a go-to remedy for mental health concerns. Whether that means popping a CBD capsule to get through a stressful day or if that means developing a treatment plan to keep symptoms of traumatic stress at bay, cannabis is oft touted as an effective way to improve your state of mind. Cannabis has a long-held reputation as a mood-lifter, inspiring laughing fits, improving sleep, and promoting all-around feelings of well-being.
In patients with serious diseases like cancer, the plant has been proven to reduce pain and improve quality of life, factors which have a profound influence on mental health. There is some early evidence that specific cannabis compounds may be helpful for reducing psychosis related to advanced diseases like Parkinson’s Disease.
Similarly, early experiments suggest that isolated cannabis extracts may reduce agitation associated with dementia. In early clinical trials, CBD treatment has even improved the lives of patients living with treatment-resistant schizophrenia. In the area of post-traumatic stress, cannabis compounds are being studied as uniquely viable treatments for the condition. Amazingly, research suggests that chemicals in the cannabis plant may be able to address possible neurotransmitter deficiencies in PTSD patients.
Further research still explores the ability of low to moderate doses of cannabis medicines to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, perhaps offering patients an alternative to medicines like benzodiazepines, which come with a greater addiction potential and a host of severe side effects. Cannabis, in contrast, has been dubbed as well-tolerated with limited side effects in most of the mental health trials conducted so far.
The Risks of Cannabis For Mental Health
But, is cannabis a cure or a crutch? While a body of positive research on cannabis as a mental health aid exists, the plant cannot simply be lumped into a category as either good or bad. Instead, research seems to indicate that cannabis may be beneficial in some circumstances, but it may also worsen overall mental health in others. In high doses, for example, the primary psychoactive component in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), may increase anxiety and cause panic attacks.
Further, professionals also have concerns about the chronic consumption of high-potency cannabis. Several epidemiological studies have suggested that long-term cannabis consumption, especially of the high potency variety, is correlated with increased rates of depression, anxiety, and poor mental health. While correlation does not always indicate causation, researchers have found that the younger you are when you pick up a regular cannabis habit, the more likely you are to experience negative mental health outcomes.
And then, of course, is the argument that cannabis can cause psychosis in some people. This is not exactly the same Reefer Madness argument that has dominated since the late 1930s. Instead, modern genetic research suggests that cannabis consumption may contribute to psychiatric illness in those with a genetic predisposition, especially in those that heavily consume the plant. In teens and adolescents, regular cannabis consumption was correlated to an earlier onset of psychotic symptoms in those with a predisposition to this type of mental health trouble.
Finally, both cannabidiol (CBD) and medical cannabis consumption show potential in treating some forms of addiction, including alcohol, nicotine, and opioid addiction. Regular cannabis consumers, however, can also develop a dependency on the herb. For some, this dependency can cause symptoms of withdrawal after stopping the herb. For this reason, many health professionals are reluctant to offer cannabis as a mental health treatment.
Everything in Moderation
What Linehan describes in her Dialectical Model of Behavioral Therapy are a series of skills that an individual must learn in order to developmental and emotional resilience. While progressive mental health and medical professionals see cannabis medicines as tools that better enable patients to focus on these skills, the plant itself is not a cure-all for mental health problems. In fact, in some cases, overreliance on the herb may lead to greater problems, such as dependence on the plant in order to cope with stressful situations.
And yet, it is almost impossible to evaluate the subjective benefits of the herb. When consumed in moderation, the cannabis plant has a knack for providing sudden shifts in perspective and for opening mental doors that once seemed impossible. After a stressful day, a little cannabis may feel like a nudge in the right direction — a glimpse into another way of thinking that was suffocated by a sour mood. A time-out from a stagnate way of thinking can be an invaluable source of healing and self-compassion.
Scientists and medical professionals have yet to decide whether or not chronic and continuous cannabis consumption is an effective treatment for mental health issues. When consumed in moderation, with mindfulness, and with proper support, however, it’s difficult to deny that the plant holds real value and has the ability to affect lives in a positive way.
Ultimately, it’s up to the patient and their trusted medical professional to decide when the plant is helpful and when it has become an unhealthy diversion.
If you or someone you know needs help with mental health issues, please reach out to Mental Health America or your local helpline.
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