Cannabis is an infinitely complex plant. It contains more than 400 chemical compounds – we only know a fraction of them, while researchers have studied even fewer. These compounds give cannabis its flavor, aroma, and appearance.
They determine the experience you get from each unique strain, and when they come together, they create something known as the entourage effect.
To put it easy, the chemical compounds found in medicinal plants work together to maximize the plant’s therapeutic potential.
For instance, some argue that consuming the whole plant is better for the patient than taking an extract of a single chemical, contrary to the standard practice in modern medicine.
Don’t confuse the term with marketing techniques used to sell cannabis for its strain-related effects. The entourage effect is rooted in the centuries-old practice of whole plant medicine.
Still, we find the term “entourage effect” for the first time in a paper published in 1999 by Rafael Mechoulam, the Israeli chemist. He first discovered THC as the main psychoactive component of cannabis.
In his study, Mechoulam and fellow chemist Shimon Ben-Shabat examined the interactions between compounds in the cannabis plant. They found that certain cannabinoids, which did not affect their own, could help other cannabinoids in the plant work more effectively.
To put it simply, when speaking with Scientific American in 2017, Chris Emerson, a chemist for Level Brands, described the entourage effect as “the sum of all the parts that leads to the magic or power of cannabis.”
In cannabis terms, this means that full-spectrum products do not isolate a single component but instead use all of the them in the plant to provide a more balanced and complete result.
Photography by Georgia Love for Herb
But full-spectrum doesn’t necessarily mean that the product has intoxicating properties just because it carries THC in its formula.
Some CBD brands make their products with full-spectrum, hemp extract that does not have a psychoactive profile because they keep THC levels low enough.
Nevertheless, gummies, oils, topicals, and capsules deliver the full medicinal power of the cannabis plant.
At the most basic level, the benefits of the entourage effect can be understood in terms of the most well-known compounds: THC and CBD.
These compounds have an inverse relationship, meaning that the higher the concentration of THC in a given strain, the lower the levels of CBD will be.
Photo by Keti Chikhladze, @immigrantstoner
On the other hand, combining linalool with THC makes for a potent sedative. In contrast, alpha-pinene, another terpene, combined with THC, helps retain acetylcholine–a molecule that aids in memory retention– and could help mitigate the short-term memory loss caused by THC.
In a sense, you can think of isolated cannabinoids as medicine with a list of fine-print side effects. Producers can mitigate or enhacne these effects when pairing with other chemical compounds that naturally appear in whole-plant cannabis.
Even so, while these studies show promise for the future of the entourage effect, we need far more research before we can say anything for sure.
Especially the kind of research that involves clinical trials–in which labs test medicines on human patients–is something that researchers have been unable to do due to prohibition.
That lack of clinical trial research gives rise to critics of the entourage effect who claim it does not exist.
For example, a study conducted in 2013 by neurobiologist Margaret Haney of Columbia University tested the effects of smoked marijuana with synthetic THC and found no difference in the impact.
The study found that “under controlled conditions, marijuana and dronabinol decreased pain, with dronabinol producing longer-lasting decreases in pain sensitivity and lower ratings of abuse-related subjective effects than marijuana.”
For this reason, researchers like Haney believe that the entourage effect is a myth concocted by budtenders to sell more weed.
Still, if you ask patients about the type of medicine they prefer, they often choose whole-plant cannabis. A study conducted by Dutch medical cannabis company Bedrocan BV in 2013 found that patients prefer whole-plant cannabis to its pharmaceutical alternative.
The survey asked 953 patients across 31 countries, though the company pointed out that too few patients had tried synthetic pharmaceutical cannabis.
Photography by Georgia Love for Herb
CBD and THC-only products isolate the cannabinoid compounds you find in the plant. Producers separate them from the rest of the components that make up the whole-cannabis plant.
THC and CBD are isolated in these products mainly due to the regulatory standards about them, especially when dealing with THC.
In essence, isolated compounds are much easier to dose, measure, and track than any compound found naturally in a plant. But, the effects are limited.
Weed products approved by the FDA must be standardized, meaning that every dose must contain an exact amount of THC. This regulation can be difficult to guarantee in smokable cannabis, which usually comes with a THC content range rather than a precise measurement.
That’s why you’re better off trying products from reputable brands which have precise measurements of THC and CBD so you can control your intake and avoid bad experiences.
The FDA also doesn’t like the uncertainty of having other chemical compounds, like terpenes, in their approved products without knowing what effects they may have on the body.
After all, one chemical is easier to keep track of than 400.
You can see an excellent example of a plant treduced to a single compound in a revolutionary medicine. We mean the well-known pill: aspirin.
When researchers discovered the main medicinal component of aspirin in the late 19th century, it was among the first modern medicines isolated into its most basic medicinal ingredient.
Felix Hoffmann, a chemist at the German pharma company Bayer, first synthesized what we know as aspirin in the form of acetylsalicylic acid to treat his father’s joint pain.
But the word for aspirin comes from the Latin word Spiraea, a family of plants that naturally produce aspirin’s main ingredient, which is easy to find in willow trees, jasmine, clover, and a variety of other plants.
According to Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug, ancient Egyptians used this medicine in the form of willow bark with similar effects that did not require distilling the plant into a pill.