We all know that cannabis is federally illegal.  The DEA’s justification for this has been that there simply isn’t enough research proving the medical efficacy and safety of cannabis.  Given the plethora of evidence indicating otherwise, it’s hard to understand what the DEA means, but I’ve got a theory.

When it comes to drugs, the DEA works hand in hand with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the FDA.  The FDA is heavily funded and, therefore, highly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry.  So while there is currently a prescription drug abuse epidemic destroying entire cities, and while adverse reactions from pharmaceuticals has become the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, cannabis remains illegal while these synthesized drugs are being passed out by doctors like candy.  This is probably because cannabis competes financially and therapeutically with synthetic drugs enough to get big pharmaceutical companies invested in the anti-legalization movement.

Whole Plant Health Research

And this explains why the National Institute on Drug Abuse has stated that synthetic medical marijuana—as in pure CBD—is “more promising than the use of the whole marijuana plant or its crude extracts” and that whole plant medicineingesting whole plant marijuana risks “THC-induced cognitive impairment.” But this statement and the DEA’s conclusions are ignoring the scientifically proven evidence of the power of the whole cannabis plant, likely in order to keep the money in the hands of Big Pharma.

A revolutionary 2015 Israeli study has demonstrated that whole plant consumption is superior to single molecule CBD consumption.  The study found that once it was administered at a certain amount, the therapeutic efficacy of single molecule CBD significantly declined.  There was a very small dose range at which the single molecule CBD was effective.

In order to complete this study, the researchers administered a CBD rich extract to one group of mice and pure CBD to another group.  I’ve already explained what happened to the group of mice who received the pure CBD.  The mice that were given the CBD extract experienced far better results.

The Benefits of Whole Plant Testing

The whole plant CBD extract was able to increasingly inhibit the symptoms of pain and inflammation as the dose increased.  When the mice were given too much of the extract, the therapeutic impact did not decline; instead, it stagnated, suggesting that the plant had reached its medicinal peak.  Additionally, the researchers discovered that it took much less of the whole plant extract to provide the same results that it took a greater amount of the pure CBD to achieve.

The research from this study is corroborated by findings from two additional studies.  A 2011 study found that whole plant CBD extract was more effective at treating bladder contractility than pure CBD.   A 2014 study found that whole plant CBD extract was able to reduce the proliferation of cancer cells.

These studies go against the government’s and the pharmaceutical industry’s claim that the crude versions cannabis are not as effective as synthetic or purified forms.

The Entourage Effect

The phenomenon known as the entourage effect explains why this may be. The cannabis plant contains hundreds of chemical compounds that work together to amplify the therapeutic effect many cannabis consumers seek.  The more well-known class of those compounds are cannabinoids.  THC and CBD are the most researched of the many cannabinoids naturally occurring in cannabis, but there are many others including cannabigerol, cannabichromenes, cannabinol, cannabinodiol, cannabicyclol, cannabielsoin, and cannabitriol.

Many clinical trials studying the plant use synthetic versions of cannabis, often single-molecule or “pure” CBD, but the results from those studies do not accurately reflect the therapeutic potential of cannabis.  Pure CBD is missing the synergy that makes the entourage effect so powerful.

For example, in one British study, patients were given pure THC one day and then a mixture of THC and CBD on another day.  One of the patients, documented in the BBC program called “Should I Smoke Dope,” felt horrible when given the pure THC, but could not hide her pleasure when given the mixture of CBD and THC.  Her reaction makes a lot of sense.  CBD is nonpsychoactive, and it can actually inhibit the psychotropic effects of THC, reducing the feelings of anxiety and paranoia that can come from too much THC consumption.

CBD and Friends

CBD is well known for its therapeutic effects, but THC has important medical value as well.  THC can help to alleviate pain, PTSD, nausea and vomiting, decreased appetite, asthma, glaucoma, and even insomnia.  However, it is in conjunction with its cannabinoid brethren that THC is so effective.  By itself, THC can be kind of scary.  And by itself, CBD can be kind of boring.

Cannabinoids aren’t the only compounds at work in the cannabis plant.  Gaining notoriety in the cannabis world are terpenes, or the compounds responsible for the plant’s unique taste and scent.  Terpenes are volatile compounds, which means that they evaporate easily and consequently give off wonderful smells.   whole plant medicineTerpenes are not exclusive to cannabis; they are found in all kinds of agriculture, and they’ve been studied independently for a while too.

Some of the most common terpenes found in the cannabis plant include beta-caryophyllene, alpha pinene, limonene, myrcene, and linalool.  Each of these wonderful substances come with a host of medicinal properties.  Beta-caryophyllene is known for its anti-inflammatory effects.  Alpha-pinene is known to relieve breathing conditions, including athsma.  Limonene’s great smell and anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties make it a frequent ingredient in cleaning products.  Myrcene is an anti-depressant, an anti-carcinogen, and an anti-inflammatory, and is well known for its ability to enhance the potency of your high.  Linalool may have the incredible power of killing cancer cells.

A 2011 study by Ethan B. Russo found that terpenoids are powerful and “display unique therapeutic effects that may contribute meaningfully to the entourage effects of cannabis-based medicinal extracts.”  The synergy between the cannabinoids and terpenoids has the potential to produce treatment of depression, anxiety, addiction, pain, inflammation, epilepsy, fungal infections, bacterial infections, and even cancer.

In short, terpenes are awesome.  Cannabinoids are awesome.  But when you consume “pure” CBD, you miss out on the array of therapeutic benefits created by the entourage effect. So keep it natural and consume whole plant if you want to harness the real medicinal power of the cannabis plant.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.