The Case of the Missing THC

The Case of the Missing THC

Many CBD products contain no tetrahydrocannabinol. Where is all the THC going after it's extracted from hemp?
Many CBD products contain no tetrahydrocannabinol. Where is all the THC going after it's extracted from hemp?

CBD products are now seemingly everywhere — health-food emporia, gas stations, pharmacies, head shops, beauty salons, you name it. And pursuant to the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD is now legal, sort of, if the CBD is derived from “hemp” as opposed to what has traditionally been called “marijuana.” Hemp, as legally defined, is cannabis with no more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component of the plant responsible for the long-stigmatized “high.”

But even the hempiest hemp — “rope, not dope,” as we used to say — typically has some THC in it, albeit a very small amount. What happens to the THC after it’s extracted from hemp? Producing CBD-only products means there is THC left over, ostensibly as a waste product to be disposed of.

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After the oil is extracted from hemp biomass, it is further refined into an ingredient for a CBD product. Many manufacturers eschew THC, preferring to market products without any of the dopey stuff. So, they remove the tetrahydrocannabinol from the full spectrum oil in order to create a “broad spectrum” distillate that contains mostly CBD along with other components of the hemp plant, but no THC. Or they create a pure CBD isolate by separating the CBD from everything else in the hemp oil extract, including the THC.

Either way, there is going to be some THC left over, ostensibly as a waste product to be disposed of.

One Massachusetts manufacturer tried to send left-over THC back to the source that supplied the hemp biomass, only to learn that it’s illegal to ship THC across state lines.

THC — The Hazardous Cannabinoid

Project CBD queried Panacea Life Sciences, a Colorado firm specializing in CBD oil products, regarding what the protocol is for the leftover THC. “We can’t do anything with it because it’s illegal,” says Panacea’s controller Nathan Berman. “We contract a company that picks up the waste material and destroys it.”

A little more detail is provided by Folium Biosciences, a major Colorado CBD extractor mired in legal controversy. Liz Wilkinson, director of marketing at the Colorado Springs firm, says: “We contract a third-party hazmat company to come every Friday to take the THC and mix it with an agent that makes it unrecognizable and essentially useless. And then they take it offsite and dispose of it.”

“Hazmat,” of course, is short for “hazardous materials.” But the identity of the contracted company? Wilkinson will only say: “They are a certified hazmat company. I can’t share the name of the company because we have a non-disclosure agreement with them.”

Panacea suggests that the chemical agent in question is pentane, a flammable hydrocarbon akin to butane and hexane.

Ironically, THC is actually legal in Colorado via the regulated adult-use market. But most states that have legalized cannabis, including the Centennial State, are supposed to maintain a strict firewall between hemp-derived CBD and “recreational” cannabis. That is, no diversion of the THC “waste” into the regulated marijuana market is allowed.

The Oregon exception

One partial exception is Oregon, where THC “waste product” with concentration limits up to 5% may be sold under the regulated market overseen by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC). This was permitted by the Beaver State’s Health Bill 4089 of 2018.

Now, five percent THC still isn’t that much, though some people who are particularly sensitive to THC might get high from it. But THC can be combined with CBD for those who seek an enhanced therapeutic “entourage effect” that’s conferred by a “full spectrum” experience. And these mixed ratio CBD/THC products are available in licensed dispensaries throughout Oregon.

“A lot of people would like to see that 5% increased. But the regulated marijuana system overseen by the OLCC has limits on canopy, which do not apply to hemp,” explains Courtney Moran, an attorney specializing in hemp and cannabis with the Portland firm EARTH Law.

So even in Oregon, the legal firewall still exists — albeit with a limited exception.

However, an inevitable question presents itself. Is any of this THC “waste product” being illegally diverted, either to the regulated market or the illicit market?

Shadow processing

One industry insider who senses that something is amiss is Jerry Whiting, a Seattle-based “négociant-éleveur” (merchant-breeder, a term borrowed from the wine industry) with LeBlanc CNE, which offers CBD products and is also developing a seed bank for high-CBD strains.

“Two things can lead to diversion,” says Whiting. “First, if you’re actually growing marijuana under a hemp license, the inspectors say you have to burn it. But they don’t stick around to see if you do, so it gets diverted to the black market. Then there’s production of raw CBD isolate or distillate. Some extractors look at the waste material as a business opportunity. If there’s a front door there’s a back door, and if you’re a good enough chemist to extract CBD you can extract THC.

Meaning the THC can be isolated from the rest of the waste material and sold profitably — if not legally.

“There are instances where things are not flushed down the toilet,” Whiting asserts. “They are going into illicit-market vape carts. And sometimes they’re adding vitamin E to stretch the THC, to sell 20 or 30 more cartridges.”

Vitamin E acetate is one of the adulterants identified as a possible culprit in the wave of pulmonary illness associated with vaping, now responsible for more than 60 deaths nationwide. This is simply the oil form of the vitamin, and perfectly legal — indeed, salubrious — when ingested or used topically, but dangerous, according to the Centers for Disease Control, when heated and inhaled.

Whiting sees diversion to irresponsible actors as an inevitable outcome of a flawed regulatory regime. “There’s someone who’s gonna buy whatever you grow or whatever you come out of a lab with, and its untraceable money so it isn’t taxed. There’s a whole shadow processing ecosystem.”

An obvious solution

When Project CBD asked various players in the CBD industry what’s being done with all the leftover THC, we got lots of evasive responses and heard a few intriguing rumors.

A Tennessee operator intimated that some of the “hot” THC is being converted to cannabinol (CBN), a less psychoactive cannabinoid that supposedly has sedative effects. Although old cannabis loses some of its potency when THC degrades into CBN, some manufacturers are keen to add CBN to products that are touted as sleep aides.

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s the continued illegality of “recreational” cannabis in all but 11 states and Washington, DC, that incentivizes these kinds of shenanigans. Until there is legalization at the federal level and a regulated interstate market, the temptation to divert THC will likely persist.


Bill Weinberg is an award-winning journalist who focuses on human rights, ecology and drug policy. A former news editor at High Times magazine, he produces the websites CounterVortex.org and Global Ganja Report.


Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.


Revision date: 
Feb 19, 2020

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