There are many ways to consume medical cannabis, but they all have one thing in common: heat. Smoking requires an open flame, vaporizers use heating coils, and edibles are first baked in the oven. The importance of heat is often overlooked, particularly since many non-smoked forms are consumed at room temperature, but you can be sure that almost any cannabis medicine you come across will have undergone a heating process.
The importance of heating is well understood and rests at the core of cannabis pharmacology. Cannabinoid acids found within the plant’s resin glands contain an extra carboxyl molecule that render them psychoactively inert. These molecules must be removed through a heating process known as decarboxylation. Through this process, THCA is converted to THC, CBDA is converted to CBD and so forth. Interestingly, a cured cannabis flower actually contains very little THC until this heating process is complete, hence the testing data patients see at dispensaries technically reflects anticipated, rather than actual, THC content.
In the case of smoked or vaporized medical cannabis, the decarboxylation process takes place in real time, as the patient heats and inhales the medicine. When preparing edibles, the process is typically carried out at lower temperatures and proper decarboxylation is achieved by applying moderate heat for a specific period of time in order to maximize potency. Similarly, a partial decarboxylation process also occurs during the curing phase, which is why freshly harvested cannabis flowers can’t be immediately consumed without sacrificing significant medicinal effect.
The role of heating in cannabis pharmacology is widely misunderstood and may, in fact, play a significant role is shaping public perceptions of medical marijuana itself. Critics of the medicinal use of cannabis frequently cite methods of administration such as smoking and baked goods as evidence that patients aren’t using a “real” medicine. A quick lesson in cannabis science could clear up these misconceptions and explain why patients and providers rely on these trusted methods for maximizing marijuana’s medical potential.