Cannabinoids are one of many plant compounds found in cannabis, and they are the primary drivers of potency. The two most common cannabinoids we consider for medical purposes are THC and CBD.
In order to release the full potential potency of THC and CBD in cannabis, these cannabinoids need to be activated through a process known as decarboxylation. The process of decarboxylation involves activating the cannabinoids through the application of heat. Some common methods of heating including vaporizing and cooking.
“Actual” potency reflects the amount of cannabinoids (THC and CBD) that the dried flower contains in its natural state before decarboxylation – it is the amount you would get if you were to consume a dried cannabis bud without heating it. For patients, “potential potency” is the more important value. This figure represents the total amount of THC and CBD that are activated and available to the body once the cannabis has been decarboxylated by heating.
The reason that decarboxylation is necessary is because in their natural (raw) plant form, cannabinoids are not readily usable to the body’s cannabinoid receptors. Both THC and CBD contain an acidic molecule and are in their inactive forms known as THCA and CBDA. These inactive forms are unable to bind with the cannabinoid receptors, and therefore will not produce the therapeutic effects a patient would expect.
For cannabinoids to be readily used by the body, the acidic molecule needs to be removed through the process of decarboxylation. For this process to take place, two main catalysts are required: heat and time.
THCA —————————————> THC
CBDA —————————————> CBD
Drying cannabis over time will cause partial decarboxylation, whereas heating will immediately decarboxylate the cannabinoids making them readily available for use by your body. Common decarboxylation methods include vaporization, combustion (smoking) and cooking.
Heating cannabis at a lower temperature allows the cannabinoids to be decarboxylated (activated) in a way that preserves the integrity of the plant. This is one of the main reasons why vaporizing is the recommended method of cannabis consumption over smoking (combustion); vaporization provides the ability to control and monitor the temperature at which the cannabis is heated. This results in more efficient decarboxylation and ultimately the use of less cannabis needed to have an effect.
It is essential to understand how medical cannabis interacts with the human body. Learning about the process of decarboxylation helps you, as a patient, better understand the characteristics of cannabis and its associated therapeutic effects. Still, more ongoing research is necessary to help uncover how individual cannabinoids and other plant chemicals interact with each other and in the human body.