These days, everyone knows someone who uses cannabis oil. For those who want to self-medicate though, sourcing a good quality oil from a reputable supplier can become a daunting task. Separating the good from the bad, the mediocre from the exceptional and the therapeutic from the useless, is entirely on the shoulders of the buyer in South Africa. Because of the legal status of cannabis, regulation is non-existent and there are so many unscrupulous snake-oil salesmen, making the task of finding medical grade cannabis even more difficult.
Besides for ensuring that the raw product comes from a good source, extraction methods and carrier liquids all play a vital role in the therapeutic qualities and efficacy of medical cannabis oil. Many “back-yard” manufacturers are passing their products off as medical cannabis, while these oils contain impurities like herbicides, pesticides, residual extraction solvents, like alcohol. Coupled with this is the fact that many manufacturers infuse their oils into carrier liquids that have no therapeutic value themselves, and for some people can be outright dangerous, buyers need to be made aware of the inherent dangers that could lurk in their cannabis oil.
Taking a look at the various extraction methods that are currently popular in South Africa:
Rick Simpson Oil (RSO)
The RSO method of extraction involves “washing” the cannabis in a hydrocarbon/alcohol solvent to extract the desired oils. These oils usually contain the most amount of plant compounds and were extremely popular with medical users in years gone by. Essentially a crude oil of the cannabis plant, RSO is usually high in THC, with the risk of residual solvent/extraction chemicals still present in the finished product.
Butane Honey Oil (BHO)
As the name implies, these oils are extracted using Butane. Generally producing a recreational product, most BHO users tend to “dab” or vaporize these oils. These oils are usually high in THC and flavours or “terpenes”. BHO is simply the term coined and these days producers use a variety of light hydrocarbons, most popularly Butane and Propane. BHO may vary in consistency from crumbly waxes and glass-like shatters to golden, sticky honey.
Supercritical CO² Oil
Supercritical fluid extraction, more commonly referred to as CO², doesn’t involve any solvents. Carbon dioxide is compressed until it becomes a supercritical fluid, which is a substance that acts as both a liquid and a gas. The supercritical carbon dioxide strips away the cannabis plant’s essential oils in a controlled manner, and this allows the final product to contain more terpenes. The most appealing thing about this process is that it is solvent free – that eliminates any possibility of toxic compounds being left behind in the oil that you consume. Supercritical fluid extraction requires sophisticated machinery which is only found in a laboratory. Often hailed as the holy grail of medicinal cannabis.
Typically made using a solvent or oil, tinctures are concentrated liquids that often include a small amount of alcohol, allowing for rapid absorption in the mouth. As with the previous alcohol-based oils, tinctures are primarily for medical use and often disregarded as a recreational substance. Many Supercritical CO2 oils are also called tinctures, so always be sure to ask about the extraction process.
The extraction methods above are the more popular and widely used methods of extraction, though there are other methods used as well. For therapeutic purposes, assimilated oils, such as cannabis infused into grape seed oil, sunflower oil, olive oil, coconut oil cannot be concentrated, so much more is needed – this type of infusion is used more by cooking enthusiasts than for medicinal purposes.
It is also important that any product that is going to be used for therapeutic purposes, is infused or suspended into a carrier liquid that firstly, has no negative side-effects and secondly, maximizes the potential medicinal value of the product. Let’s have a look at some of the popular carrier liquids used:
1. Alcohol-Based Cannabis Tinctures
Alcohol was likely one of the first liquids used in cannabis tinctures, dating back to the early 1900s when marijuana was a common occurrence on pharmacy shelves. Alcohol can also be used to pull phytocannabinoids from raw cannabis flower—you’ll find plenty of recipes for how to do this online. In this scenario, you usually let the flower soak in alcohol for a period of time, strain and then consume the tincture as needed.
Another method, which involves the use of laboratory equipment, involves using alcohol to extract phytocannabinoids from raw flower, then evaporating off the alcohol, leaving a concentrate. Alcohol is then mixed back into the concentrate to create a tincture. Alcohol tinctures can have a bad taste, so it’s common for producers to add honey to make products more palatable.
2. Vegetable Glycerin Cannabis Tinctures
Vegetable glycerine is a clear, odorless liquid that’s used in many industries. Chemically speaking, glycerin makes up the backbone of fats called triglycerides. Vegetable glycerin is made by taking these triglycerides from plant sources and breaking them down. Typical plant triglyceride sources are coconut oil, palm oil, and soy. For this reason, it’s important to ask where a company sources its vegetable glycerin from, especially if you’re on a special diet or using tinctures in conjunction with a serious medical condition.
These types of tinctures can be made by soaking raw flower in vegetable glycerin or dissolving a cannabis concentrate in vegetable glycerin. Glycerites are frequently used as a substitute for alcohol. Science proves that glycerin by itself is not a good carrier of THC and CBD. Unlike alcohol, that has quick access to the liver, glycerin is approximately 30% slower absorbed by the digestive tract and is utilized through a secondary pathway in the liver (known as the 'gluconeogenic' pathway). While glycerine may have a sweeter and more palatable taste, the cons outweigh the benefits by far:
- Glycerin can’t hold as many phytocannabinoids as alcohol, so more product needed to get therapeutic effects
- Shorter shelf life than that of alcohol tinctures
- Sourcing can be questionable
3. Medium-Chain Triglyceride (MCT) Oil Cannabis Tinctures
Medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oils are becoming quite popular in the cannabis tincture market, with top-shelf brands touting their health benefits. MCT oil comprises saturated fatty acids, usually derived from coconut and palm oils. However, unlike most saturated fatty acids, MCTs are metabolized quickly and stored minimally as fat in the body.
Cannabinoids are fat soluble, and a few studies involving rats indicate that consuming cannabis with fats can increase the body’s absorption of THC and CBD. Basically, it’s thought that healthy fats, like MCTs, may enhance the plant’s therapeutic effects.
These types of cannabis tinctures are usually made from a cannabis concentrate that’s then dissolved in MCT oil. Pure MCT oil, unlike coconut oil, does not contain lauric acid, or C12 MCT. The benefit of this is that the oil needn’t pass through the digestive tract for absorption, but is delivered directly to the liver, for better absorption and faster metabolism.
While MCT oil is evenly absorbed by the liver, the effects are felt more quickly. And, because MCT oil evenly absorbs cannabinoids, dosing is far more accurate.
4. Olive Oil Cannabis Tinctures
Olive oil can be used to extract phytocannabinoids from raw cannabis flower. Similar to the alcohol method of extraction, cannabis flower is soaked in olive oil for a period of time, strained and then consumed as needed.
One study published in the journal Cannabinoids found olive oil to be an optimal choice for extracting cannabinoids, in comparison to other solvents, like petroleum ether and naptha. When olive oil is used as a solvent, it can’t be evaporated off like alcohol, so tinctures made in this manner can’t be concentrated.
One of the pros of using olive oil is that it is cheap and easy to make, and can be made at home. On the downside, it cannot be concentrated, so more is needed to get any therapeutic effects.
The other way to get an olive oil-based tincture is by having a cannabis concentrate and using olive oil as a carrier oil. These types of tinctures are usually mild in taste, but the low saturated fat content of olive oil means that it can’t hold as many cannabinoids as MCT oil can.
Desperation may likely drive many buyers into settling for anything they can get their hands on, including sub-standard products. Finding a reputable supplier who has insight and experience with the effects, quality, and dosage of their products, is of utmost importance. Never forget that you would be using a product with the potential to cause an intense high, so making sure that your supplier is aware of the ratios (CBD/THC) and dosage amount, is essential for medicinal use. It is up to each individual to separate the pros from the noobs, and doing your homework first is a vital first step. Where many companies will offer either oils, tinctures or capsules as a preferred method of ingestion, always note that accurate dosing is of utmost importance. With many extraction methods, accurate dosing is impossible, and oils are haphazardly inserted into capsules and syringes, leaving it up to the individual to “guess” what amount and concentration they are getting!
Unless you know someone who supplies medical cannabis oil, your only resource in South Africa is word of mouth or sourcing your supplier online. Because of the legal status of medical cannabis in South Africa, no physical dispensaries with full extract cannabis oil exist, thus the only means to get your hands on good, full extract cannabis oil, is via the web.
Always consult ASK MARYJ, your cannabis advisor, before choosing to buy cannabis oil from just anyone.