A couple of weeks ago, I visited a cannabis farm in Kentucky to find out exactly how CBD oil is made.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that frolicking through and then fondling thickets of lush, heaven-scented, sticky icky was not an ethereal experience. It was. But there was next to no THC (the compound in cannabis that makes you feel high) in these plants, which are formally recognized as hemp.
A little clarity: The plant cannabis sativa can be classified as either hemp or what we traditionally refer to as cannabis or weed. If that particular plant contains less than 0.3 percent THC, it is technically "hemp." If it contains more than 0.3 percent THC, it’s “marijuana,” says Brenda Gannon, scientist and director at Steep Hill Arkansas, a testing facility specializing in the analysis of cannabis and hemp products.
So my instinct to strip several bushes of their bud, shove them in my backpack, and head home to New York would be, in the one of the farmers’ words, “the stupidest reason on earth to get carted away by the TSA.”
THC is purposely bred out of these plants so they can produce CBD oil—the ubiquitous wellness mojo that seems to be everywhere and in everything. Everyone from Amazon to the tiny mom-and-pop grocery stores on my block in New York are selling it. The little tincture bottles of every shape and size claim to treat several conditions including but not limited to anxiety, joint pain, and inflammation.
While all that sounds magical, experts are hesitant to hop on board without sufficient research backing the claims—which we're lacking at the moment. “CBD seems to be most promising with respect to the treatment of seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy in pediatric patients,” Gannon says.
Nonetheless, a lot of people swear by CBD for their various non-epilepsy-related ailments, and yet don’t exactly know what it is, where it comes from, and how it’s different from chewing the oil out of a nug you bought from your local weedman. That’s how I ended up in a field of hemp dreams with Lee Hysinger, the co-owner of the farm (and Evercure, his own brand brand of CBD oil), and Michael Bumgarner, founder of Cannuka, a line of skincare products that contain CBD and manuka honey. Bumgarner sources the CBD oil for his products—which include lotions, soaps, and balms—from Hysinger’s farm.
So, for people wrapped up in the most recent wellness obsession (as well as those who have no idea how CBD even ends up in a bottle or a bar of soap), here's how CBD oil comes to be, according to Hysinger and his team at the farm:
The process starts with a clone—a small cutting from a previously planted cannabis plan that they source from a greenhouse. Using a clone versus seeds can make it easier to get a whole crop of the exact type of plant you want (in this case: high CBD and very low THC). After the clones are delivered, they sit and are able to acclimate to the weather for a week and then they’re planted.
Once they're planted by hand, they get watered through the irrigation system during the season, which runs from May to October. There’s plastic down to keep the weeds at bay. Throughout that season, we water as needed depending on the soil moisture level, and keep an eye on soil pH.
They harvest in October, as soon as they get clearance from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (a sample of each crop is tested by the state). As you can imagine, you have to jump through quite a few hoops to be able to grow hemp in the south, even though CBD is no longer considered "highly addictive" by the DEA (e.g.: farmers in Kentucky are only allowed to use seeds or clones provided by a research institution and they can only have trace amounts of THC). When the plants are mature and have gotten enough rain, they get them out of the ground.
Once we harvest, the plants are put up in a barn where they’re cured—just left to air-dry. We keep it dry and ventilated in there so mold or mildew doesn’t get introduced. The plants sit for about three to four weeks and cure hanging upside down. We use trellis netting that the greenhouse industry uses to allow vines to climb. It looks like drapes—not your mother’s drapes, but a nice curtain of bud.
Once the plants are cured, they take them off and strip the flower. That flower is transported to the processing facility in Paris, KY (the rest of the plant is either destroyed or sold to companies to use as roots). At that point, the processor will grind it down to the consistency of coffee grounds. And then, they use a cold methanol extraction, where the flower is steeped in the methanol, going through a process that removes any terpenes (the organic compounds in the plant that are known to give it its distinct scents) they don’t want. And then it goes through the winterization process, where it’s subjected to cold—that pulls off the fatty acids, lipids, and things like that (fats can potentially alter the chemical make-up of the the oil).
Next, there’s a distillation process where the mixture is turned in a warm bath and then all that’s left is a very raw oil. They run it through another distillation process to get that clear color and remove some of the contaminants, while leaving the terpenes that they want in there.
At that point, the oil is tested for quality and strength by a lab (unaffiliated with the company) and bottled with a carrier oil to make it palatable, or added to soap, lotion, muscle balm, freakin’ eyebrow gel—every product you can imagine.
Now, even if you’re kind of unsure about whether it’s worth trying, at least you know what the hell it is. You’re welcome.
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