Cannabis tinctures are one of the most versatile and effective ways to get cannabis into the human body. Until they were banned in the United States in 1936, it was also one of the most well-established methods. But what exactly are cannabis tinctures?
Cannabis tinctures are alcohol-extracted, cannabis extracts meant to be taken sublingually. Traditional cannabis tinctures retain their alcohol component, essentially just making them alcohol infusions.
How Are Tinctures Produced?
Most of the tinctures available in today’s market go through a production process that’s decidedly high-tech. There are several different ways to extract cannabis but the nature of tinctures dictates a specific type of solvent: alcohol, usually ethanol.
Ethanol’s distinct polarity means it can pull many different terpenes out of cannabis material. The CO2 extraction method used to produce oil-based CBD solutions, on the other hand, can leave out some terpenes almost entirely. According to Flemming & Singh Cannabis consultants, “CO2 lets you dial in quickly and pull out lots of those specific compounds […] at the expense of not having full access to other things like CBD, CBN or THCA.”
Ethanol is different. Soaking cannabis material in ethanol produces a cannabis concentrate filled with terpenes, flavonoids, and more. This method gets closer to the original form of cannabis than perhaps any other common extraction method is able to.
Yet even ethanol extraction has some drawbacks. It’s both time and energy intensive, and there’s a long refinement process where excess ethanol has to be boiled off or purged out. This refinement may cause some of the most delicate cannabis compounds to evaporate off.
The Benefits of Cannabis Tinctures
The benefits of medical cannabis tinctures are numerous. First, they make precise dosing simple. This is especially true of commercially available cannabis tinctures, which should come with lab verification and dosing advice. Most cannabis tinctures come prepared—and labeled—at a specific mg/ml concentration.
With a tincture product, one can slowly titrate up (or down) in dose according to individualized needs. Titration can also be useful so as to not oversaturate cannabinoid receptors and/or cause too strong of a high. Making small dosing adjustments with a cannabis tincture allows sensitive CB1 receptors to adapt over time, and is much easier than dosing with cannabis gummies or other delivery methods.
Microdosing is also easy with a cannabis tincture. Simply take a few drops, and you’ll ensure that your body stays gently primed with phytocannabinoids.
Cannabis tinctures are highly convenient: they can be taken practically anytime, anywhere (within legal confines, of course). If you are scheduled to microdose cannabis every few hours, you can do so discreetly—even if in a public space. That’s not the case with other delivery methods, like smoking or vaping.
Another aspect of this convenience: medical cannabis tinctures have a very long shelf life. This is especially true if the tincture comes within a dark glass bottle meant to protect its contents from sunlight-induced oxidation.
Another positive aspect of taking medical cannabis via tincture is this type of extract is truly full spectrum. High-proof alcohols are capable of pulling both fat- and water-solubles out of cannabis material.
Cannabis compounds that might normally be left out of your ingestible product (including chlorophyll, glycosides, and glycoside flavonoids) are likely to be more present within alcohol-based tinctures. (The Systematic Identification of Flavonoids, Tom Mabry, 1970)
Of course, these compounds have their own set of benefits. According to a 2016 review study, “The flavones and flavonols found in Cannabis exert a wide range of biological effects, including properties shared by terpenes and cannabinoids.” Potential anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects can be expected, though they may be too subtle to be observed.
Specialized cannabinoid blends might make medical cannabis tinctures even more effective. For example, tinctures with different ratios of CBD to THC are available at many medical cannabis dispensaries. It’s likely that certain ratios work best for certain people and illnesses.
A 2018 observational study done at Tel Aviv University found that a 20:1 CBD:THC ratio reduced seizure frequency in 56% of pediatric patients who participated. On the other hand, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis seem to respond better to higher-THC ratios.
How to Take Cannabis Tinctures?
Tinctures are meant to be taken sublingually, i.e. held under the tongue. Paradoxically, the longer a tincture is held under the tongue, the higher its absorption rate. Why? Because the sublingual region of the mouth is full of blood vessels and glands that easily absorb cannabinoids. All this means that the bioavailability of a properly taken tincture can reach 40%, which is excellent as far as medical cannabis is concerned.
There’s also some evidence that true alcohol-based tinctures absorb better than oil-based ones. The bioavailability of ethanol itself is around 80% and the substance has already been shown to improve the absorption of other plant compounds besides cannabinoids, like quercetin. Look for more studies on the effects of ethanol on cannabinoid metabolism in the (hopefully near) future.
The (Potential) Downsides of Cannabis Tinctures
Despite their efficacy, cannabis tinctures do have some practical drawbacks. They have a slow onset time—especially if a patient doesn’t know to hold the tincture under their tongue before fully ingesting. Forgo this sublingual absorption, and the tincture’s cannabinoids will be subject to a much slower liver breakdown via what’s called the first-pass effect. For this reason, patients with acute anxiety or pain may feel their best with quicker delivery methods, like the vape pen.
Children may need some coaxing to take tinctures also, because of the sometimes-harsh, earthy taste a tincture can have.
It’s also important to note that although cannabis oil and cannabis tincture are often used interchangeably these days, they’re not the same thing.
Cannabis oils refer to any ingestible cannabis-infused solution, regardless of how it was produced. True cannabis tinctures are made through alcohol or ethanol extraction and often retain some alcohol in the end-product. As always, it’s good to be specific.
Cannabis Tincture Alternatives
For those who dislike tinctures solely because of their taste, there’s a simple solution. A tincture can be placed into gelatin caps and ingested that way, assuming it was made with high-proof alcohol. Premade cannabis-infused gel caps are available at many medical cannabis dispensaries.
Other patients may desire to avoid the alcohol intake inherent to tincture use. For these patients, a solvent-free cannabis oil can be used instead. CBD oil also fits within the alcohol-free paradigm, though it may not be strong enough for those with severe health challenges. Thankfully, THC-rich oils are readily available as well.
Cannabis Tinctures: A Rich Past, A Bright Future
It seems like the historical popularity of cannabis tinctures has come full circle. As of 2019, cannabis tinctures are more prevalent—and more advanced—than ever. The specificity made possible by tinctures (both their titration and cannabinoid content are adjustable) opens a door to future cannabis-based personalized medicine, too.