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The Pros and Cons of Smoking Irradiated Cannabis

irradiated cannabis
Written by Alexandra Hicks

Irradiated cannabis? It sounds weird right? The idea of consuming anything that’s been “irradiated” seems like it would be unpleasant, and frankly, unsafe… but that’s not necessarily true. In the case of weed that’s been treated with irradiation, there is nothing dangerous at all about smoking it. On the contrary, in many ways, it’s actually safer than smoking untreated pot.

That’s not to say this works for everyone, because there are certainly some reasons why some consumers prefer to shy away from “nuclear” buds. But either way, it’s a growing market so it is best to learn about the process now, before you find yourself in a dispensary trying to figure things out on the spot. So, what exactly is irradiated cannabis, and what are the pros and cons of using it? 

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What is Irradiated Cannabis? 

Let me start by mentioning that irradiating produce is not a new concept at all. Like pasteurizing milk or sanitizing eggs, food irradiation is used to kill insects and pathogens in the food which then improves its safety and extends its shelf life. Irradiation is an EPA-approved method of decontaminating various types of food, and it’s used on most of what you find at major supermarkets. 

The same applies to cannabis. Ideally, a successful weed grow should be free of contaminant and not need to undergo irradiation at all, but we know that is not always the case. So, with the above information in mind, we know that irradiated cannabis flowers have been sterilized to kill any mold or possibly harmful bacteria.  

A lot of people hear the “radiation” part and immediately lose interest. but there is a big difference between irradiation treatment and being exposed to harmful radiation. In the latter scenario, radiation refers to the number of photons that are being emitted by an independent energy source. Generally speaking, there is no specific definition for radiation, but it’s more of an umbrella term that can be used to describe various, single-source phenomena that are related to the release of energy. That said, when talking about “exposure to radiation”, it’s often accidental and at dangerously high levels. With irradiation, on the other hand, the exposure to energy is intentional, calculated, and safe.  

Over the last few years, irradiation has become commonplace in the cannabis industry, comparable to food. Market reports claim that an estimated 80-90 percent of cannabis available at retail locations throughout Canada has been irradiated, and roughly the same numbers (slightly less) apply here in the United States.  

Pros: A Cleaner Product 

One of the most promising uses for irradiation is to eliminate mold, bacteria, and viroids in flower – which for consumers, can be a minor inconvenience at best, or a major health concern at worst. Weed is not commonly advertised as being “nuclear” or “irradiated” because most people are turned off by it. But for many users, especially those with weakened immune systems, lung problems, and other underlying health conditions, irradiated cannabis products are all they can use.  

Several countries with government run medical cannabis programs require all flower products to adhere to very rigid safety requirements, particularly when it comes to decontamination. So far, treating products with gamma irradiation is the only approved method that allows growers and producers to meet these standards.  

George Terry, the executive vice president of sales at Rad Source Technologies, one of the top suppliers of irradiating devices for the U.S. cannabis industry and the maker of the irradiation devices at EOS Farms, says he has clients in 23 states already. According to Terry, “For an immunocompromised patient like a cancer survivor, irradiating cannabis could be the difference between a safe smoke and a life-threatening fungal infection.” 

Cons: A Different Product 

One of the most common complaints among consumers who don’t enjoy irradiated cannabis, is that the product is simply “different” than buds that have not been treated. This grievance was largely dismissed among professionals, but recent studies have indicated that it’s not simply “in our heads”. In previous studies of how the plant’s chemical components changed post-irradiation, the focus was primarily on cannabinoid content – mainly THC and CBD. Upon further investigation, it was determined that up to a 38% drop in terpene levels could also occur. This was documented in cannabis, as well as a 2016 study on terpene loss in irradiated cilantro.  

In a study conducted by internationally acclaimed cannabis researcher Dr. Arno Hazekamp, he explains that some patients who have been treated with irradiated medical cannabis noticed “a change of taste or effect”, while others were “concerned over the potential changes in chemical composition as well as the quality of the product.” As per his data, it was discovered that irradiation reduced “the content of terpenes such as myrcene and linalool” but also found no indications of “changes in cannabinoid profile”. 

Dr. Hazehamp further stated that “such opinions may be hard to substantiate because the same cannabis is usually not available to consumers in both its irradiated and non-irradiated form to allow direct comparison, meaning there is no baseline product to quantify the magnitude of change, and not to mention the fact that cannabis effects are somewhat subjective to the consumer.”  

The points he made there are completely true, but his own data does, in fact, substantiate the consumers’ claims about changes in taste and chemical composition, because there is a notable reduction in terpene levels. He noted myrcene and linalool specifically, both of which are among the predominant terps in some of the most popular cannabis strains like OG kush, blue dream, granddaddy purps, Jack Herer, sour diesel, and so many more. An almost 40 percent drop in those two terpenes would absolutely equate to a change in flavor profiles, as well as possibly a loss in some stoney effects and even reduced medicinal benefits. 

Another concern with irradiation treatment in general, is the formation of radiolytic compounds, mainly 2-alkylcyclobutanones (2-ACBs). Research on how exactly 2-ACBs interact with the human metabolism are extremely limited, but some small-scale studies have found that they can have a “promoter effect” in the formation of colon tumors in rats. These chemicals appear in trace amounts in many high-fat foods that are subject to irradiation, such as meat, eggs, dairy, and some seeds. Additionally, a rise in 2-ACBs was found to be directly correlated with increased doses of irradiation.

These findings are certainly problematic (in my opinion), but both the FDA and EFSA claim there is “no cause for immediate concern”. I personally find it a bit unsavory, but again that’s just me. And the real question here is, are 2-ACBs an issue in irradiated cannabis too? Because cannabis flowers do not contain fat like animal-based products, it’s unlikely that these radiolytic compounds are formed in weed at all. It does all make a solid point for eating more vegetables though.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it. The pros and cons, ins and outs, of using irradiated cannabis products. We can say, without a doubt, that yes, it does change the flavor and chemical composition of flower. And while that may be undesirable to many users, it’s a necessary evil for people who suffer from certain health conditions but still want to reap the benefits of cannabis use.

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About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Managing editor at Cannadelics and U.S based journalist, helping spread the word about the many benefits of using cannabis and psychedelics.