However, before we can get to raw versus decarb, we need to discuss the compounds found in cannabis and how they function - because they have everything to do with the difference. This will require a quick chemistry lesson with a dash of history.
Covering the Basics
The cannabis plant has been used for medicinal and recreational purposes for millennia. In some of the oldest documents discussing medicine, found in the Middle East and Asia where the plant originates, cannabis is featured as a treatment for a variety of ailments. It wasn’t until very recent in our history with the plant that the understanding of how the plant had such an effect was uncovered: when Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam in the 70s discovered the cannabinoids THC and CBD.
Cannabinoids are compounds found in the cannabis plant that interact with the endocannabinoid system, a complex network of receptors that’s part of the human nervous system and that includes CB1 and CB2 receptors, which appear in different quantities in various parts of the body and react to different cannabinoids in different ways. This network of receptors is unique for each individual body, with individual locations and densities of each person’s endocannabinoid receptors, which is expressed in the distinct ways individuals respond to cannabinoids.
The endocannabinoid system regulates an array of functions in the body, including pain, memory, mood, and much more. While THC and CBD are the most famous cannabinoids, there are around 100 of them and a further 400-or-so trace compounds, many of which interact with and enhance one another in what is known as the entourage effect.
Terpenes are another important part of the equation, covering about 200 of the trace compounds found in cannabis. Terpenes are the aromatic compounds that make up the unique scents and flavors of different cannabis plants, but they don’t just cause that signature funk. Terpenes are naturally found in a variety of plants; for example Beta-Caryophyllene creates the peppery scent of black pepper and thai basil, but also operates to protect the plant by repelling insects and bacteria. In the human endocannabinoid system, Beta-Caryophyllene is also one of the only terpenes that activates the CB2 receptor, which is located throughout the immune system and in various organs, including the gastrointestinal system, spleen, tonsils, and brain.
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So Where Does Decarboxylation, or Decarb, Come Into This?
Decarboxylation is, to put it simply, a descriptor for an array of methods that activate chemicals in cannabis, usually via heating or drying. THC, the psychoactive sibling of CBD, is only accessible through the decarbing process: in the raw plant, it is present as the cannabinoid acid THCa, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that has its own health benefits. Upon heating, the chemical process of transforming the acid into a hydrocarbon, THCa to THC, enables the compound to bond with cannabinoid receptors more efficiently.
I’ll save the complicated chemistry lesson and leave you with this: decarboxylation changes the compounds found in the plant, transforming some and making others more bioavailable.
Though it makes CBD and THC more accessible, the heating process of decarboxylation can also damage or entirely eliminate the trace compounds found in the plant, thereby inhibiting any benefit along with them. Though the multitude of ways those compounds are beneficial is still to be understood, we do know that they have an array of benefits both directly and in support of the other parts of the plant doing their thing. Decarbing at lower temperatures can help preserve some of the trace compounds of cannabinoid acids and terpenes.
And What About Raw?
This is where raw CBD comes into the picture. Raw merely indicates a derivative of the cannabis or hemp plant that did not go through the curing and heating process of decarbing; cannabinoid acids, trace compounds and terpenes are all present.
In its raw state, the hemp plant contains both CBD and CBDa. CBD can be derived from the same cannabis plants as THC, but is also available in industrial hemp plants, which have low or no levels of THC.
CBDa, like THCa, is an acidic cannabinoid with a variety of unique benefits. Using methods such as CO2 extraction – a method that extracts that entourage of compounds from raw plant matter without the use of chemicals – one can derive a raw oil from the plant. If that product is then filtered but not decarbed, you’re left with intact CBDa as well as CBD, along with a wide array of cannabinoids, terpenes and trace compounds that are known to have health benefits. If you instead took that raw product and heated it, you’ll have some of those cannabinoids and their precursors, but not all and not as many.