What is a Cannabis Tincture?

By Gooey Rabinski - Oct 5, 2015

Spurred by the millions of cannabis consumers in newly legal states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, cannabis concentrates of all consistencies, potencies, and price points have emerged and are quickly gaining popularity.

The major difference between today’s legal concentrates selection enjoyed by a small slice of the country and the rest of the nation’s black market bingo is the fact that some now don’t have to risk their lungs and health smoking pesticide-ridden gak obtained from a stranger in a creepy motel parking lot — and worry that it was produced by an ignorant, sloppy amateur or a heroin and prostitution-fueled Mexican cartel.

Emerging within this small, but rapidly growing market for specialized cannabis products is tinctures. Tinctures are an ages-old method of delivering the medicinal benefits of marijuana to patients of all ages. While cannabis that is high in psychoactive THC and, thus, relatively potent can certainly be used to create a tincture, historically this extraction and consumption method has been limited to purely medical applications and was often considered a “hemp extract” or “hemp oil.”

what-is-a-cannabis-tincture-8

Another way of describing a tincture is an alcohol infused with cannabis resin. According to The Weed Blog, an online publication out of Oregon, many seasoned marijuana smokers aren’t even aware of the humble tincture, let alone have ever partaken of such an extraction. Said the blog in one of its posts:

“Tinctures are perhaps the least popular and beloved way of consuming marijuana. They don’t have the ritual that comes with smoking, nor the fun of edibles.”

Cannabis Tincture, What Art Thou?

While not the type of concentrate that captures headlines and results in petabytes of pot porn floating amongst the internets, tinctures are, without a doubt, the oldest mass-market way of extracting and consuming the cannabinoids and terpenes found in the medicine-bearing trichomes of the cannabis plant. During the majority of the 19th century, physicians from throughout North America, the United Kingdom, and Europe dispensed, recommended, and prescribed cannabis tinctures for a wide variety of common ailments.

In fact, during the period of 1837 to 1937, which some writers have referred to as the golden age of medical cannabis — and the century preceding its federal-level prohibition in the United States — a mild cannabis tincture, typically manufactured by a large pharmaceutical company, was the home solution administered to adults and children suffering from everything from skinned knees and headaches to sore muscles and menstrual cramps.

In 1890, British physician J.R. Reynolds published his 30 years of experience with cannabis, recommending it for multiple conditions. In his position as the court physician to Queen Victoria, he infamously administered a tincture-infused cannabis tea for her menstrual cramps. During this period, it was rare that a tincture of “cannabis sativa” was not present in the medicine cabinets of everyone from wealthy downtown debutantes to prairie ranchers to middle class suburbanites.

what-is-a-cannabis-tincture-7

According to the book Understanding Medical Marijuana, “…one museum has identified more than 600 medical products involving marijuana as a chief ingredient prior to its prohibition in 1937.” Most of these would have been packaged and distributed through retail pharmacies, drug stores, and physicians as tinctures.

How It Happens

Technically, tinctures are created by soaking the leaf trim or, preferably, whole bud flower of cannabis in a nearly or fully pure alcohol extraction solution. For homebrew concoctions, this typically involves soaking everything within a glass jar, in the dark. The most popular example of such an extraction solution is a wood grain alcohol like Everclear. Unfortunately, wood grain alcohol is illegal in many states. As a result, some desperate tincture lovers have been known to resort to using Bacardi 151 rum to soak their cannabis (while this is basically effective, it is not recommended; defiant college students will keep doing it, regardless).

This was aptly stated by the High Times Kitchen, which said in an instructional video:

“Remember, this only works with grain alcohol. Don’t be getting, like, your Pabst Blue Ribbon and putting it in with your weed. It’ll just become a mess.”

It should be noted that those blessed with kief and hash (typically cannabis gardeners) can use these concentrates instead of flowers or trim for enhanced potency and reduced soak time when preparing tinctures. This is relatively rare, however. Those who invest the time and effort to create kief and hash to satisfy the cravings of cannabis connoisseurs or who spend the money to purchase these old-school concentrates will typically want to enjoy the pleasure of smoking, vaping, or dabbing such relative rarities — not using them to create a tincture that is most commonly made with sugar leaf trim and considered more medicinal than recreational.

what-is-a-cannabis-tincture-3

First, it must be ensured that any herb used to create a tincture is properly and thoroughly dried. After the dried herb is ground, it is placed in a canning jar at a ratio of between one and six grams of cannabis to one fluid ounce of alcohol (35 mL). The potency of the final tincture will depend heavily upon the quality of the herb used to create it, not just the ratio employed.

After the alcohol-to-herb mix is to one’s taste, it should be made air tight and placed in a cool, dark space (like a drawer or basement shelf) to soak for between ten days and one month. Longer soaking periods result in more thorough extraction, enhancing potency and flavor (more important when using trim, especially from weak plants). After the desired period has ended, the alcohol is strained from the plant material using something like cheesecloth. For consumption, tinctures should be stored in one to five ounce dark brown medicine bottles featuring eye dropper caps. This will protect them from being degraded by light and allow quick, convenient access by a patient.

In the case of companies employing large-scale, commercial manufacturing facilities, a Mason jar sitting in a basement obviously doesn’t cut it. Such production employs high-end equipment involving fully sterile environments and closed loop extraction using harm reduction solvents like carbon dioxide or going fully solvent-free by using a combination of extremely high pressure and heat.

THC vs. THC-A

The steps outlined above produce zero high or euphoria from one’s tincture, regardless of the strength or strain of the cannabis used to create it. Why? A short chemistry lesson: THC actually doesn’t reside within the precious nugs that sit in one’s stash box or a battered baggie in their hoodie. Unknown to many cannabis consumers, THC is stored within the plant as THC-A, the acidic precursor to THC. Only when sufficient heat is applied, as during baking, smoking, or vaporizing, is the THC-A decarboxylated and converted to THC.

It is estimated that 80-90 percent of the THC in raw cannabis is stored in the form of THC-A (minor decarboxylation also occurs during the drying phase of harvesting). When burned or vaped, about 95 percent of the THC-A in raw cannabis is converted to THC. The conditions for which THC-A provides relief include insomnia, muscle spasms and seizures, and nausea/vomiting, making it very effective for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. It also relieves pain, acts as an appetite stimulant (perfect for wasting syndromes), and — possibly of most value — is believed to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells.

CBD-A-cannabidiol-acid-cannabinoid-profile

From a chemical perspective, decarboxylation simply means that the THC-A molecule, when it encounters sufficient heat, drops a carbon dioxide molecule, giving it a slight change in molecular structure. Although small, this transmogrification is significant enough to now allow the molecule to fit into the CB1 receptors that populate the brain and nervous system within one’s endocannabinoid system — and produce the euphoric psychoactive effect that has most been associated with cannabis indica within the popular media since the mid-20th century.

Those wishing to create a trippy tincture should consult one of the hundreds of online recipes for using a conventional kitchen oven to bake one’s ground cannabis to decarboxylate the THC-A and populate their energizing elixir with psychoactive THC. Like any topic, different sources will advise a variety of techniques and recipes. High Times magazine even suggests use of a special $175 herbal butter extraction device called a MagicalButter that, when heated to 160 degrees F (71 C) on the “tincture” setting, reduces the time required to make a tincture to only four hours when employing 10 grams of top-shelf buds (which don’t even have to be ground) and 2-5 cups of grain alcohol (a special straining bag is available from the same company).

Because THC-A has been shown to provide significant medical efficacy, many patients will desire to produce tinctures that are heavy in this cannabinoid and low in euphoric THC, especially if they have a busy job or young children (although THC is better for depression and PTSD). Those wishing to consume THC-A for medicinal benefit may also choose to engage in juicing, a process by which juice is derived from the raw fan leaves of mature cannabis plants to produce a non-psychoactive drink, such as a tea or smoothie, that is rich in cannabinoidal acidic precursors, like THC-A and CBD-A, as well as a number of therapeutic terpenes.

CBD and Brand Tinctures

Within the past few years, cannabis strains high in the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD and low in (or completely lacking) psychoactive THC have gained the attention of cultivators, processors, and retail brands to produce a new and fledgling industry focused on CBD-only and CBD/THC oils and tinctures. Stories abound in the popular press about desperate parents who move from prohibitionist regions to legal states like Colorado and California to gain safe access to reliable and laboratory tested products to treat their very sick children. Such products are sometimes available from major brands like CW Botanicals (CBD-only Charlotte’s Web) and Dixie (Dew Drops), although many dispensaries and retail outlets, especially in states where recreational cannabis is legal, produce their own products in-house.

Such major and trusted brands of tinctures offer not only potency and reliability, but also purity. For example, Dixie employs a laboratory-grade closed-loop CO2 extraction process to create a wide range of tinctures from hybrid strains of cannabis with plenty of THC (typically 50 to 90 mg per bottle).

what-is-a-cannabis-tincture-9b

Often labeled “cannabis refuges,” nomadic parents have been ravaged by the fear that their child might lack access to an organic medicine that improves quality of life by dramatically decreasing the occurrence of memory-scrambling seizures from something like Dravet syndrome — especially when conventional pharmaceutical drugs and therapies have repeatedly proven ineffective.

Rapid Onset and Stealth

For parents such as these — as well as patients with dozens of other diseases and ailments — one tremendous advantage of tinctures over edibles is more rapid onset. While edibles require between 45 minutes and two hours to even begin taking effect, tinctures go to work after as little as 15 minutes. For patients trying to treat severe pain or avoid the nausea of chemotherapy, waiting one to two hours for their medicine to begin taking effect is simply not practical. For young children, smoking and vaping typically isn’t a viable option.

Another advantage that tinctures share with canna-foods and their concentrate cousins is stealth. Tinctures are discrete and mimic conventional pharmaceutical medicines. No one medicating with the sublingual application of a cannabis tincture in an office setting or a restaurant will generate strange glances or suspicions. Because only 23 of 50 U.S. states have legal medical cannabis programs in place, this stealth factor is of no small consequence to millions of beleaguered patients throughout America who live in prohibitionist states and everyone who simply can’t light up while sitting at their office desk or during a cross-country flight.

Multiple Paths

Whether one makes their own tincture using either homegrown buds or trim purchased from a local gardener or purchases a finished product from a licensed, regulated dispensary or retail shop, the advantages of tinctures are many, including considerably more rapid onset than edibles. While tinctures don’t take effect as fast as smoking or vaporizing (which both hit in about 2.5 minutes and can be administered via vape pens), they are a stealthy and practical way for both patients and recreational consumers to discretely and safely consume cannabis medicine and THC at work or in public.

Many who are averse to smoking, especially those who suffer from respiratory ailments, will appreciate the qualities offered by well-made, potent, contaminant-free tinctures. A one-ounce bottle can easily be stowed into a pocket, purse, or center console, delivering medicinal relief to children and adults when and where they most need it.

Photo credit: Cannabis Botanix, Weedist.com