Whole plant medicine:  The gold standard for cannabis herbal healing

Attending an Herbal Cannabis Symposium in 2017, I heard a long-time cannabis researcher and herbalist make this statement from the podium:

“If you wanted to purposely rob herbs of their healing qualities, you would take an individual, isolated chemical compound out of the plant, beat it to death in a lab, and put the pulverized remains into a capsule or pill, and market it as medicine.”

This statement struck me as pretty harsh. After all, what about the many new cannabidiol (CBD) products, for example, in which single CBD molecule is extracted from the plant and delivered in a form that different types of patients can tolerate, such a glucose-based tincture for small children with epilepsy? Aren’t those medicines effective as well?

Why does it have to be whole plant medicine VS isolates? Why not both? Let’s start with the basics. What is whole plant cannabis? Traditional cannabis medicine makers will use every part of the plant “except the wood.” They extract and make infused medicines from the flower, fine bud leaf, fan leaf, leaf stem (or petiole) at the base of the flower, but not the sticks and branches.

And what is whole plant medicine?

Whole plant medicine is medicine created from the living, dynamically interactive compounds in any plant. ALL the parts of the plant are kept alive, and included in the finished medicine – not isolated from each other and not “processed to death”.

Let’s go a little bit deeper. Whole plant extractions of cannabis chemical compounds work synergistically. This living process is called “the entourage effect.” We experience different effects because of the varying ratios, as well as the individual dosing regimens, of these different cannabis cultivars. On top of that, we experience variation in potency because of the individual processes by which each person metabolizes these chemical compounds.*

How can we achieve the healing entourage effect from a single, isolated molecule? Does isolate-based cannabis medicine have healing value? There are pharmaceuticals made from whole plant cannabis. But not many. Most use isolated single molecules from the plant or synthetically lab-created chemical compounds. And while there is therapeutic value in single molecule isolates, it is not nearly as effective as whole plant-derived medicines.

The most comprehensive study establishing this fact was published in the journal Pharmacology & Pharmacy (Feb. 2015). Hebrew University researchers surveyed the scientific literature, including lab tests and animal model studies, and concluded that the therapeutic impact of CBD derived from pure, single molecule CBD diminished greatly except when it was dosed within a very limited mid-range. There was no beneficial effect at either lower or higher doses. However, with whole plant extracted CBD, a greater degree of efficiency was achieved at low and high doses in treating inflammation and other conditions.

Of course, the best herbal medicine in the world is the one that works for you! But words of caution are in order. We are in the middle of a “Green Rush” in which there is a fairly high risk that cheaply made, compromised cannabis products will be flooding the shelves, with fancy packaging and marketing messages that will lure consumers into buying products that are less than effective but make a ton of money for their producers.

So, it pays to be careful in choosing and using your cannabis medicine. Ask to see the lab results for any product you are considering purchasing. Read the labels. And reach for the whole plant cannabis based products whenever you can!

*Cannabis Pharmacy: The Practical Guide to Medical Marijuana by Michael Backes. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. NY. 2017.

Stay tuned for our an upcoming blog post which compares whole plant cannabis with hemp-based cannabis.

Jude Thilman brings 15 years’ experience in the cannabis industry and 35 years working in public media education to her role as a cannabis medicine educator.  She owns Dragonfly™ Dispensary and Wellness Center, a holistic healing center in northern California.  

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