Isolate vs. Entourage

The cannabis industry’s open debate is finally getting some science to back it up

My wife and I had some family visit us in Seattle a few years back. They were real conservative types with some, frankly, backwards ideas about cannabis. During their trip, one had some chronic wrist pain flare up.

Without telling her what it was, my wife offered up Flow CBD Deep Tissue & Joint gel, made by Fairwinds Manufacturing. Her pain subsided and she asked what the product was so she could buy some to bring home.

“See,” said my wife, “here’s the thing …”

We explained what it was, what was in it and where it came from. They all know where I work, of course, and often have questions about exactly what makes marijuana “medical.” This usually means an explanation into cannabinoids and the difference between THC, which makes you feel good, and CBD, which makes you feel better.

The next thing I knew, I was taking my conservative family member to a local pot shop so she could try not only the Flow, but a few other CBD products.

She took them home and when her husband had some pain, she gave him the Flow. It worked for him too and he asked what it was.

“See,” she said, “here’s the thing …”

Both of them now have entirely new perspectives on cannabis in general and CBD specifically.

But with CBD products becoming more readily available in traditional retail stores across the country, people increasingly ask me about the difference between the products they can get at their local pharmacy versus the ones they can get at a licensed recreational or medical marijuana shop.

The simple answer, obviously, is THC.

Both hemp and what we think of as “marijuana” are the same plant, Cannabis sativa L. By law, to be classified as hemp, a cannabis plant must not contain more than 0.3% THC, the chemical in cannabis that provides the “high” we all know and love.

THC is, generally, the most popular of more than a hundred cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. CBD is a close second and gaining ground. The fact that you’re reading “The CBD Issue” of “Marijuana Venture” is proof.

However, one of the big debates in the industry these days, is the difference between “full spectrum” products and those made with isolated cannabinoids. This discussion is particularly relevant now that the Feds have decreed that CBD is A-OK as long as it doesn’t contain any THC.

Scientists have figured out how to isolate the cannabinoids, but the real question is how they all work together to form something bigger and better than the sum of their parts, or what is commonly known as the “entourage effect.” It’s the other cannabinoids and terpenes working together that can make a flower with 17% feel more potent than the stuff labeled at 31%.

First identified back in 1998, the entourage effect posited that “inactive” metabolites and other molecules in the plant increase the activities of the primary cannabinoids. There have been dozens of studies since that have found corroborating evidence.

None of this is to say that pure CBD isolate won’t do all of the wonderful things it is said to do. The question is if the combination of CBD with THC (and the other cannabinoids) works better, or if all of that is just anecdotal.

It’s something of an open debate in the industry, especially in the medical-only states where CBD products are now being sold in non-cannabis stores and potentially disrupting the businesses of licensed dispensaries. Just on the CBD side, the argument rages between those pushing isolates and those pushing “full-spectrum,” even if the THC content is extremely minimal, due to federal law.

The problem is that because of federal illegality, the discussion becomes more about marketing than science. And that needs to change. The idea that something can be “medicine” when we know almost nothing about how it works just feels wrong. The passage of the Farm Bill should open up the doors to more actual, academic research on CBD and how it does what it does, but until then it’s mostly anecdotal.

Personally, I am a believer in the entourage effect and in my time talking to professionals in the industry, the properties and importance of the minor cannabinoids have become even more pronounced.

I used to describe it like this: Let’s say the entrance into your body is like a door. A CBD molecule walks up to the door, opens it, walks through and closes the door behind it. The next molecule walks up, opens the door, walks through and closes the door behind it. As does the next, and the next. When THC and other cannabinoids are included, those molecules open the door and hold it open for the CBD to get in so it does not have to open and close the door each time.

(Bear with me; I’m a writer, not a scientist; I work in metaphor. And while it works to some extent, it’s not quite right. I’ll get to that in a minute.)

Again, this is not to say that CBD is ineffective as an isolate or that it doesn’t work without the THC assist. It’s still effective, but it seems to work better when it brings all of its cannabinoid compatriots with it, including some THC.

Flow, for example, the product we gave our family members, contains 140 milligrams of CBD per jar, as well as 6 milligrams of THCA and 4 milligrams of THC. That’s not enough THC to get you high (even if ingested), but it’s certainly enough that you’re not allowed to take this product across state lines.

There’s not a lot of established science when it comes to cannabis thanks to its classification as a Schedule I drug, but there has been some research. Perhaps the best I have found when it comes to explaining the phenomenon was published in 2015. The study, conducted by three Israeli scientists, compared the effects (in mice) of a high-CBD, low-THC flower extract to purified CBD isolate.

According to the study, purified CBD gives a “bell-shaped dose-response curve.”

“Healing was only observed when CBD was given within a very limited dose range, whereas no beneficial effect was achieved at either lower or higher doses,” it states.

But when the full-spectrum extract, with 17.9% CBD and 1.1% THC, is given, the anti-inflammatory effects were better and though there was still a bell-shaped curve, the full-spectrum extract seemed to allow for a better response when more is given. The study’s conclusion states the full-spectrum extract “was more efficient for alleviating pain than CBD.”

A study published in the January 2019 issue of “Frontiers in Plant Science” reaches a similar conclusion. Conducted by Dr. Ethan B. Russo, it finds support for the entourage effect and concludes “The plant does it better.”

That’s pretty straight-forward: CBD works on its own, but evidence suggests it works better when combined with terpenes and other cannabinoids, including small amounts of THC.

So remember my doorway metaphor? Now, when visiting friends and family ask me about the difference between the CBD they can buy at a drug store and what we get at licensed dispensaries, I tell them this: Let’s say your body is a bar or a party with a bouncer controlling the flow inside by only letting a CBD molecule or two in at any given time, creating a line out front. THC and the other cannabinoids distract the bouncer so the CBD can all pile in and hit the dance floor at once.

Is it 100% accurate? Probably not; again, I’m a writer, not a scientist. But it gets the message across: the entourage effect is not just anecdotal or marketing anymore. It looks more and more like a real thing.

And while the Farm Bill that opens the CBD market is certainly good for people looking to treat minor ailments with a natural, non-pharmaceutical methods, the best news is that someday soon, the scientists may finally turn to the marketers and say, “See, here’s the thing …”

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