Even for cannabis veterans and enthusiasts, it’s still hard work to keep up with all of the changes that are happening in the cannabis industry. So if you have no idea what the difference is between CBD isolate and distillate, you’re definitely not alone. Once upon a time, the only thing to do with cannabis was rolling it up on a piece of paper or pack it in a pipe and smoke it. But we’ve come a long way since then – and our knowledge has grown exponentially since then too.
Innovative technology has made way for cannabis derivatives that are more versatile and more accessible than ever before. Both isolate and distillate are two such derivatives that can be used even by those who don’t appreciate the famous stoning effects of THC and who have no desire to smoke cannabis.
There are fundamental differences between CBD isolate and CBD distillate, although both are extremely potent forms of cannabidiol. If anything, isolate can be seen as a more reduced form of cannabidiol, as it contains virtually nothing but cannabidiol. The distillate, on the other hand, is like full-spectrum CBD oil in powder form and sometimes contains levels of THC that make it illegal according to federal policy.
The chemical ingenious of isolation and distillation
Typically, cannabis extraction took place with a solvent, whether it was alcohol, glycerin or fats. Even popular products such as wax and shatter are made using solvent extraction, where butane is the solvent and the final product is butane hash oil (BHO or wax and shatter). These techniques are still used in the manufacture of high THC products but are generally not marketed towards medical cannabis users.
CBD is usually extracted from hemp using pressurized, solventless extraction. This is known as “CO2 extraction”, although technically CO2 can be seen as the solvent. This technique is a step ahead of other forms of solvent extraction because there is virtually no risk of the solvent contaminating the final product. CO2 extraction generally produces a full-spectrum CBD oil.
Both CBD isolate and CBD distillation undergoes further extraction and manipulation to arrive at their more refined forms. Isolate undergoes a process called centrifugal partition chromatography, whereby CBD is literally isolated from all other cannabinoids, terpenoids, and flavonoids in the plant specimen. It then undergoes winterization to remove the fats and chlorophyll present in the solution.
Distillates are, as the name suggests, created using a distillation process. This is a way of refining a solution to contain only the parts that are necessary. By using vacuum pressure, steam and heat, different compounds in a single specimen of cannabis can be distilled into a separate solution. Each compound has in cannabis has a different boiling point, and by exposing the solution to different temperatures, different compounds can be distilled. The final product is a powder much like CBD isolate, except that it contains much more than CBD. It may contain THC, other cannabinoids, flavonoids, and other compounds. Unfortunately, the process of distillation often compromises the terpenes because of heat levels reached in the process.
CBD distillate still undergoes winterization, because lipids and chlorophyll serve no real purpose to the consumer in the context of medical marijuana. But fundamentally, the techniques used to create CBD distillate and isolate are different. Creating something like distillate would be impossible without the distillation process, and creating something like isolate would be impossible without chromatography.
Distillate, isolate, full-spectrum and the entourage effect
CBD isolate and distillate are often criticized in naturopathic communities because they lack a fundamental aspect of the cannabis plant: the entourage effect. Essentially, the entourage effect is a phenomenon whereby “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. The hundreds of different active compounds inside the cannabis plant work together, in tandem, to potentiate the effects of each other. Dr. Ethan Russo, cannabis researcher, says that the entourage effect is why cannabis is such a powerful and versatile medicine.
Naturally, when all of the compounds bar CBD is removed from cannabis, the entourage effect doesn’t exist anymore. This is the biggest criticism of isolate and distillate products. Although CBD distillate contains other cannabinoids and flavonoids, it lacks terpenes, which are seen as an essential element to the entourage effect.
There is a lot of debate in the world of cannabis about whether full-spectrum is more effective than isolates and distillates. Interestingly, a 2015 study (arguably the only study ever conducted with such a question in mind) tested the effect of full-spectrum CBD extract versus the effect of fully purified CBD. They were testing the anti-inflammatory responses in mice, and they found that with purified CBD there was a bell curve in remedial response. There was increased inhibition of inflammation relative to dose but only until a certain point, after which increasing the dose actually reduced the anti-inflammatory effect. However, with the full-spectrum extract, the anti-inflammatory response continued to increase every time the dose was increased, with no plateau or bell curve effect.
This relative effect between dose and response is ideal for pharmaceutical application of cannabis. Doctors and pharmaceutical companies want to know that upon administration of a higher dose, the effect is more pronounced. That’s the whole point of dosing. But that doesn’t mean isolate and distillate have no purpose in the application of medical cannabis. Rather, cannabinoids can be measured out to the T so that perfectly prescribed ratios of THC:CBD: other compounds can be manufactured as needed.
The controversy of “engineered cannabis”
This might all sound very exciting, or at the same time might spark some hesitation or reluctance. Are we “pharmaceuticalizing” cannabis? The cannabis movement is half based in freedom, half based in natural health. And these white powdery substances don’t look anything like any other natural remedy, do they?
Remember what happened when wax and shatter first became a thing? It was a common question – “have we taken it too far?”. After all, one of the most appealing things about cannabis is that it is plant material, and for those who have reservations about chemical substances, this was something that could be trusted. It grew out of the dirt, and it resembled something that grew out of the dirt. Products like CBD distillate and isolate don’t even resemble the floral material that they originate from, and this causes a lot of controversy about the new era of engineered cannabis.
This response is neither surprising nor unwarranted. Most of those who seek out medical cannabis are generally looking for an alternative to pharmaceutical medication. If they are then presented with a product like CBD distillate or isolate, it doesn’t necessarily meet expectations. At the same time, products like cannabidiol isolate and distillate are valuable to the pharmaceutical industry for the purpose of creating cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals, and botanicals will always be available to those who prefer the raw, herbal form of cannabis.
The differences between isolate and distillate are much more than the different extraction methods they undergo. They also have different applications in the context of medical marijuana and product manufacture. Different industries are interested in different kinds of cannabis extracts. All serve their own purpose, despite the controversies that surround the constant upgrade and improvement happening in the cannabis industry.