Cannabis irradiation – a friend or foe?

Apr 24, 2023

Cannabis irradiation

When someone says the word “radiation”, people usually start feeling pretty uneasy and imagine only harmful effects. It is a common knowledge that exposure to radiation in certain doses can damage DNA in cells, cause cancer and even kill humans. Yet, everybody is exposed to small doses of radiation every day. Cannabis patients are understandably concerned about the irradiation of cannabis medicines, which is routinely used to meet stringent EU-GMP safety criteria in terms of microbial contamination.

Irradiation means the exposure to radiation (e.g. X-rays) or the use of radiation (e.g. X-rays or gamma rays) for therapeutic purposes or for sterilisation (particularly of things intended for human consumption).

Why irradiate cannabis

Cannabis as a plant product is not inherently sterile. Spores and microbes are always present on every cannabis flower. For most casual users, this isn’t that much of a problem – if they smoke or inhale the vapour, a lot of the potential nasties will be eliminated by heating anyway, and even if they don’t, the immune system is probably strong enough to defend itself.

The producer of cannabis must meet very strict criteria for maximum microbiological contamination. Either they achieve this through a precise cultivation process and can supply the market with a non-irradiated product, or they resort to irradiation.

For some chronically ill or immunocompromised people, inhaling potentially harmful spores could have fatal consequences. It is believed that the irradiation process will destroy all microbes, thus decontaminating the dry matter and extending its shelf life.

The potential dangers associated with the use of contaminated cannabis are well documented in the scientific literature (2008, 2010, 2015).

For example, aspergillus spores pose one of the greatest risks to people using cannabis medicinally and can cause significant health complications (much more significant than cannabis itself). This is also a major problem for patients who are forced for one reason or another to outsource their cannabis from dealers on the street.

One study shows that gamma radiation is effective in reducing Aspergillus flavus and aflatoxins. They are poisonous carcinogens formed by some moulds, especially species of the genus Aspergillus). Another study proves a maximum degradation rate of 83.36% (at a dose of 6 gray – kGy) after gamma radiation.

How dangerous is it?

A lot of things we consume on daily basis is irradiated for the same reason as medical cannabis since the 1950s. Gamma radiation is often used to decontaminate food and it is currently the only approved sterilisation method for cannabis medicines in the Netherlands, Canada or the Czech Republic.

Without any doubt, it is not just about the safety of consuming (be it eating or inhaling) properly irradiated material that bothers many cannabis patients. These people are worried that the effects of this sterilization process may be detrimental for the content of medical cannabis flowers. It means the content and quality of cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids present in buds – and subsequently the overall therapeutic effects.

Effect of sterilisation on the effect of the drug

Cannabis users (medical or recreational) who have consumed irradiated cannabis often report a negligible smell, taste and dry (powdery) appearance of buds, implying the method has negative effects on the content of water and terpene profile of the dry matter. Terpenes are aromatic compounds, which are found in many plants, not only in cannabis (unlike cannabinoids). They have therapeutic value in themselves, but they are present in relatively small quantities in cannabis flowers compared to the main cannabinoids.

The only peer-reviewed paper that confirms radiation has some impact on cannabis flowers showed there was a reduction in levels of terpenes and cannabinoids. However, the amounts were so minuscule that it is unlikely this could have any effect on the therapeutic properties.

It was also shown that the water content decreased as a result of irradiation, while the CBD and THC content remained the same. However, another study in 2020 found that THC levels increased as a result of irradiation. It also provided evidence that gamma irradiation induced the breakdown and detoxification of the phenolic compound(2-NP to form several volatile products.

Research on the effect of irradiation on minor cannabinoids is still completely lacking.

Is it for everyone?

When taken into account how hazardous microbial contamination can be for certain cannabis patients, it is obvious that we need to have some quality controls and mechanisms in place to ensure the unquestionable safety of medicinal cannabis products intended for direct consumption. If irradiation is the best option to achieve this safety is another question. What’s more, there are patients who prefer non-irradiated cannabis because of the effects on inhalation, taste and smell.

*The above text was written by an independent contributor and does not reflect the official views of Motagon or the guidelines for the use of Motagon products.