Understanding Raw vs. Activated Cannabinoids

Most of us are familiar with the “grow it, dry it, smoke it” approach to cannabis, but that’s not what all medical marijuana patients like to do. For some, the main goal isn’t to get high; it’s to get every last bit of therapeutic power out of cannabis in the safest, most effective way possible for their particular illness. With that in mind, researchers and individual patients alike compare the effects of raw cannabinoids to activated cannabinoids to find the highest therapeutic value between the two. Before you run your own personal experiment, here are a few things you should know:

How do raw and activated cannabinoids differ?

Contrary to public opinion, fresh cannabis has almost no THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). Instead, all those mushroom-shaped trichomes are filled with THCA (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol acid). THCA can be thought of as raw THC and must go through a chemical conversion, usually through heat, to turn into active THC, the psychoactive form, which makes you feel high or intoxicated. When you smoke or vaporize cannabis, the heat directly activates the THCA, turning it into THC. The same thing happens when you bake your cannabis in the oven at the right temperature for the right amount of time, or when you slowly cook it in butter or oil to make cannabis butter for edibles. The activation process is better known as “decarbonization.” Raw CBDA (cannabidiolic acid) changes to activated CBD (cananbidiol) in exactly the same way. Neither CBDA nor CBD are psychoactive on their own, so they will never get you high. However, CBD interacts with THC to moderate the psychoactive effects for a calmer, more relaxed feeling, and it has a different set of medical effects compared to CBDA.

Do raw cannabinoids have better medical benefits than activated cannabinoids?

For medical purposes, raw cannabinoids might be better than activated cannabinoids for two reasons. First, simply because they are not psychoactive, patients should be able to consume more total raw cannabinoids than activated ones for more therapeutic benefits, assuming that THCA and CBDA have at least as much healing power as THC and CBD. However, research was unable to prove this theory. In cancer studies, scientists found without question that CBD was more effective against breast cancer than CBDA. Individual patients, on the other hand, disagree. Some raw cannabinoid users suffering from autism, ALS, fibromyalgia, neurotic pain and multiple sclerosis have anecdotally reported a noticeable decrease in their symptoms within days to weeks of adding raw cannabinoids to their treatment regimen. Once stopped, symptoms quickly returned. Second, raw cannabinoids work differently compared to activated cannabinoids. Activated cannabinoids are usually better for immediate relief of acute pain, nausea and appetite. Raw cannabinoids tend to be more effective for long-term treatment for chronic conditions such as insomnia, inflammation and slowing cancer. This is because raw and active cannabinoids interact with different receptors and enzymes in the human body. THC primarily activates the CB1 (cannabinoid) receptors in the body’s endocannabinoid system. THCA, on the other hand, acts predominantly through the 5HT-1A (serotonin) receptors. CBD and CBDA are much more similar. Both work through the 5HT-1A receptors like THCA, but CBDA seems to be much stronger than CBD. Raw cannabinoids also block COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes to control inflammation and pain that results from inflammation. This is promising because inflammation is the underlying cause of many diseases and other NSAID drugs that block the same enzymes have been blamed for heart attacks and strokes in some patients. Raw vs. activated cannabinoids doesn’t have to be one or the other. Lab results show that smoking cured buds only converts 30% of THCA to THC. Extracts are a little more efficient, but you still only get about 70-90% success rate. And some people do partial decarbonization when they prepare their buds for edibles or for a broader spectrum of medical benefits. So far, we’re not sure if raw cannabinoids are better for medicinal use than their active counterparts. The studies are promising, but the results are mixed. With a better understanding, we hope that in the future patients will have better access to safe, targeted medicinal marijuana treatments designed to provide them help from their specific symptoms. Regardless, cannabinoids are powerful compounds; both raw and activated, they have great potential, so let’s hope that research continues to explore their useful applications.