Cannabis Confusion: Hemp, Marijuana, CBD and THC 7 years ago

With the tremendous growth in the cannabis extracts and isolates market we are seeing many sites, webpages, social media pages and groups that are now dedicated to this market, and with that comes rampant misinformation perpetuated by people either lacking education or pushing an agenda. Regardless of the reasons, so much false and conflicting info is out there that it’s leaving the average consumer confused and skeptical. This is unfortunate because these products really do have huge medicinal potential and so I find myself often setting things straight via comments in social media groups, multiple times over, in a never-ending battle against the myths that are becoming more widespread. It’s almost like revisiting the essential oil and aromatherapy industries from the 1990s all over again.

Most people who are into essential oils and aromatherapy know who I am by now from my over 21 years of writings and publications in this arena. But I am not only writing this work for my fellow essential oil aficionados, but also for the long time cannabis enthusiasts, among whom I am largely still unknown, and I am hoping this work will get published on many of those groups and social media pages so that we can all start having clearer, more accurate and more productive dialog. For the cannabis folks learning of me for the first time, they are probably wondering “Who is this guy, I’ve never heard of him and what makes him any kind of authority on cannabis?” Well, that is not what I am trying to be, but cannabis is a plant that is made into an extract and my focus has been the analysis and research of hundreds of plant extracts, including cannabis, for quite a while now. For those wondering about my background, I refer you to my LinkedIn page if you want to review it. You can also review some of the analysis work I’ve done in various posts about cannabis extracts that I have done on the Facebook page.

Yes, it’s true that I am most known for my work with essential oils, but it’s important to understand that I have been doing analysis and research in the area of plant extracts for over 21 years, plants extracts of all kinds, produced from a multitude of distillation and extraction methods. For me, cannabis is just another plant, among the many hundreds of whose extracts that I have studied over the years, so hopefully the cannabis people will see the value of my background. I don’t want to claim to be any kind of cannabis expert, but I do believe I have a unique perspective to offer that really very few in the cannabis world have access to. Even though most of my work has been on non-cannabis extracts, I study pretty much anything interesting in the plant extracts world, lately I have been doing quite a lot of research in this field and actually my first foray into the cannabis realm was in 1997 when I distilled and analyzed the essential oil of a high THC cannabis variety (aka Marijuana) back in 1997. I did not publish this work out of fear of having to explain how I obtained the raw material for the research, not a something to consider lightly being at Indiana University in the 1990s. For those of you who subscribe to the EOU chemical reference database you can see the GC report of this 1997 distillation there ( I did the distillation just out of pure curiosity to see what we would find, at that time there were no reports on the analysis of cannabis essential oil with up to date techniques, the only real reference available on the essential oil composition was that of a 1965 paper which is also reported in the EOU database.

With the historical lack of real scientific information related to cannabis and its extracts and the sudden boom of this industry now, there is a real confusion, especially among consumers in the terminology used and this work is simply my attempt to clear some of it up. From my perspective, I absolutely hate the terms marijuana and hemp. Of course, as a scientist I prefer to use scientific terms that are less ambiguous, to me it’s all cannabis but we need the proper descriptors to make sure people can understand what we are talking about. Many people still do not understand that marijuana and hemp are the same plant with the same genus and species, namely either Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica. For the purpose of this article I am going to focus only on Cannabis sativa because that is the species that most of the extracts in the US seem to be coming from.

Very often you will see pages on the internet with headings like “Hemp vs. Cannabis, what’s the difference?” Typically headlines like this are a good indicator that the person publishing the site does not fundamentally understand the plant science because, well, hemp IS cannabis, the word cannabis is simply the genus of the plant. What they obviously mean to say is “Hemp vs. Marijuana”, at least those traditional descriptors have real, historic differences. So what exactly is the difference between hemp and marijuana? Well, you will get different answers depending on who you ask which is why I hate the terms. More recently hemp is defined as genetic strains that are higher in Cannabidiol (CBD) and marijuana is defined as the strains that are higher in tetrahydrocannabidiol (THC). CBD and THC are the main cannabinoids (among several) found in cannabis. Still others, and more historically, will differentiate between the two products based on the part of the plant and how it’s used, reserving the term “hemp” to the industrial/commercial use of the cannabis stalk and seed for textiles, foods, papers, body care products, detergents, plastics and building materials while using the term “marijuana” for the recreational and medicinal use of products derived from the flower and leaves. And yet a third viewpoint seems to consider plants with low cannabinoid content = hemp and plants with high cannabinoid content = cannabis. Obviously, these viewpoints can lead to contradictions because under one definition material with very high CBD would be called hemp and under the other paradigm the exact same material would be called cannabis. This leads to even more confusion among the consumer, and even among people with a long history with cannabis, which is why I am desperately pushing for some consistency and convention among the cannabis community when it comes to terminology. I would love to see the entire community chose a definition and stick with it. Or perhaps the solution is to avoid using the trivial names hemp and marijuana altogether. Let’s face it, it’s all cannabis. My preference is to stop using the trivial names and adopt the chemotype nomenclature from the essential oil industry. For example, there are many chemotypes of basil essential oil most all of them coming from the same genus and species Ocimum basilicum. Basil oil that is high in linalool is called Basil ct. linalool. Basil oil that is high in methyl chavicol is referred to as Basil ct. methyl chavicol. To me it would be much clearer if, when referring to these extracts, we could simply talk about Cannabis ct. CBD or Cannabis ct. THC. This emphasizes that we are talking about the same plant just different strains that produce a different major cannabinoid when extracted and would lead to much less confusion.

This brings us to the difference between CBD and THC. While both are very important cannabinoids they have very different observable effects in the human body. It is unclear at this point which is more medically valuable but what is clear is that THC has the added complication (or benefit depending on your perspective) of getting you high. Since CBD does not have the psychoactive effects that THC does, it is thought by many to be the more medicinally useful cannabinoid, at least from a practical usage sense, because the amount needed to be really potent for treating serious medical conditions such as seizures or chronic pain can be many hundreds of milligrams per day. This dosage level is no problem for CBD, but merely 100 milligrams of pure THC would turn most people into zombie for at least 12 hours, if they didn’t vomit it out from nausea before then. This is not to say that THC is not very medically useful, there is still much work to be done, but at the end of the day one still has to function. It’s quite likely that some perfect combination of both of these cannabinoids would be of optimal medicinal value. So, it’s impossible to say at this point, which, if either, is more important.

There seems to be a lot of contention between the old-school growers of “marijuana” (what I call Cannabis ct. THC) who have turned their once illegal activities into huge cash cow businesses in states like Colorado and the relative newcomers on the market who are focusing on extracts of Cannabis ct. CBD. This contention leads to the spreading of misinformation on both sides because of lack of education as well as good old fashioned propaganda based on economic interests of both camps. For example, you will often hear ridiculous claims like “CBD from hemp is not as high quality as CBD from cannabis.” This statement is false on two counts. First CBD from hemp is CBD from cannabis because cannabis is simply the genus of all these plants. Secondly, CBD is a molecule with a specific three-dimensional structure, it knows not from whence it came. It’s only requirement to be CBD is the unique three-dimensional arrangement of its atoms. So, it does not matter what genetic strain produced the CBD, IF IT’S PURE CBD then it’s going to act EXACTLY the same way in the body, regardless of where it was isolated from. I believe this myth was originally perpetuated for economic reasons and then latched on to by those who have set up camp backing the traditional “marijuana growers” to disparage what they view as mere “hemp growers” who are seen as a threat to their business. Likewise, the newer producers of Cannabis ct. CBD will many times vilify THC as the “bad cannabinoid” and tout CBD as the “good cannabinoid” and promote CBD as being more medically important. Kind of reminds me of the war between two very large essential oil companies in the multi-level marketing arena.

Other outrageous claims you will see are things like “CBD extracts from hemp are not as good as CBD extracts from cannabis because hemp does not have the needed terpenes for the entourage effect.” Again, hemp IS cannabis, but to address the claims about the entourage effect we much first define what that means. The entourage effect in the cannabis world usually refers to the enhanced effectiveness of the cannabinoids offered by the inclusion of the native terpenes of the plant. Some will also state it to more generally refer to the greater effectiveness of using the whole plant extract as opposed to just a single isolated cannabinoid. In the essential oil and aromatherapy world we would simply call this the synergistic effect, as in the synergy of all the molecules in the essential oil have a greater effect than just the sum of its individual components. What the cannabis world has largely not figured out yet is that what they refer to as the terpene profile of cannabis is simply the essential oil of cannabis. The essential oil is just the volatile organic fraction of the plant obtained by steam or hydrodistillation. Having been involved in the research of cannabis essential oil I can assure you that the essential oils of both high THC and high CBD plants contain all the same components for the most part. Of course, the ratios of the main terpenes found in the various strains of cannabis can vary, but they have the same terpenes in common and there is no evidence, yet, that would suggest that the cannabinoid ratio of the plant effects the essential oil composition. The essential oil is a secondary metabolite and basically determines the odor of the cannabis plant of interest. There are literally hundreds of genetic strains of cannabis and if you spent any time smelling the different strains you know that the odor can be all over the place. But regardless of the odor, the essential oil is typically mainly comprised of three main terpenes, namely myrcene, alpha-humulene and beta-caryophyllene. Myrcene is a monoterpene while alpha-humulene and beta-caryophyllene are sesquiterpenes. The variance in odor, regardless of coming from “hemp” or “marijuana” is due to the varying ratios of these components along with the variance in all the other minor terpene and terpenoid components, which can range into the hundreds if you dig deep enough into your analysis. It would be quite likely that you could come across two genetic strains that could have very similar essential oil profiles, smell pretty much the same, and yet one would be higher in CBD and the other higher in THC. If not naturally occurring then this certainly could be accomplished through selective breeding.

Lastly, many companies are taking about the so called “cannabis terpene isolates” and adding them to cannabis extracts to get the desired entourage effect. Sometimes these are terpene fractions from actual CO2 extraction of cannabis. These terpene fractions are often VERY expensive but buyer beware, more often than not what is being sold on the market are often cheap terpene products that come from other botanicals, or even made synthetically, and its fairly easy for a lab like ours to determine the origin of terpenes by GC/MS analysis as our specialty is in terpene analysis of literally hundreds of botanicals and we have had to learn how to detect adulteration in all of them. The best thing to use for the entourage effect would simply be the true cannabis essential oil that is obtained by steam distillation of a variety of cannabis strains, but typically done on a production scale from low cannabinoid biomass as the steam distillation process is somewhat destructive to the plant material and would drastically reduce the extraction yield of the highly-valued cannabinoid containing parts which are saved for other extraction processes like CO2 or butane extractions.

In conclusion, when it comes to cannabis extracts, it’s critical that every buyer beware. The cannabis industry is relatively new and its booming. Because of this, it’s experiencing some of the same problems of large scale adulteration and outright fraud that the essential oil and mainstream extracts industry industries experienced decades ago. Don’t get me wrong, this still happens to a large degree in the essential oil and related industries as well, but not to the degree that it’s going on in the cannabis industry, where it’s basically the wild west all over again, especially on the terpene front. Because the cannabis industry is so new and, at this point, so isolated from the more mainstream industries as a result of the legal barriers, there is a tremendous lack of scientific expertise and knowledge within the cannabis world and right now it’s basically a free for all, with many, if not most people, getting ripped off. Those of us coming from the analytical end of the flavor, fragrance and essential oil industries have been dealing with detection of adulteration our entire careers and so we are perfectly setup to make the crossover into the cannabis world, but because of the legality issues that many companies don’t want to deal with, the crossover is not really that common and the cannabis world and mainstream botanical extracts world still remain largely separated. EOU is sort of an exception in terms of knowledge base of both industries because of our close proximity to medically legal cannabis production in Louisville, KY and our long history in researching and analyzing botanical extracts. With our consulting relationships with companies in both industries we have a bit of an advantage, drawing on our data, resources and experiences from doing business in an industry that is hundreds of years old, analyzing, researching and detecting adulteration in plant extracts on a daily basis for the last 21 years. We hope to play a role in unifying knowledge from both the cannabis industry as well as the mainstream extracts and essential oil industries as they really are more related most people realize.

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