Access to medical cannabis is facing growing demand, and with just a few select players in the market, growth practices for both plant and producer are having to adapt to global supply chains. One of these adaptations, is gamma radiation.
Hindu Kush, CBD Kush and Hybrid Flos are just a few of the medical marijuana strains now legally available in the UK, supplied by NOIDECS (the Lyphe Group) through distributors such as The Medical Cannabis Clinic.
However just last year (2021), some patients discovered that their medication was making them sick – with a major batch recall instigated over toxicology issues (mould). While large scale suppliers offer many benefits, such as greater accessibility and lower fees, this often comes at a price – a microbial failure can rob growers of hundreds of thousands in revenue, but the true costs of global growth still remain to be seen.
Scale & Sterilisation: E-Beam vs Gamma
Sterilising Cannabis refers to any process that removes, kills or deactivates lifeforms such as bacteria and viruses, and is especially important for the immunocompromised. The most popular methods in the industry are gamma radiation and electron beam (e-beam) sterilisation.
E-beam can deliver a required dose in just a few minutes, while gamma radiation is best suited to treating large batches over a 6-10 hour cycle. It’s believed that the lower processing time (dwell time) and penetration of the e-beam is less stressful to materials, thereby conserving potency, dissipating faster (affecting things like plastic packaging less) and offering more flexibility in dose to specific, small-scale batches.
One concern with irradiated goods stems from the formation of radiolytic compounds – in particular, 2- alkylcyclobutanones (2-ACBs). However this compound only builds up in material with a high fat content. So neither gamma radiation nor e-beam processes make the cannabis radioactive. However, gamma can cause chemical reactions such as oxidation, which alters the chemical makeup in some strains.
Preferring to keep batches organic, many smaller-scale providers in the community only sterilise batches specifically for immunocompromised clients. They argue that quantity inevitably impacts quality, and deliberately keep their growth goals and practices local.
The large-scale use of gamma radiation on food and herbal products has long been an issue of contention. While it is legal in dozens of countries for a variety of foodstuffs, activist groups remain sceptical of the reported safety and efficacy of the process.
Unfortunately no other sterilisation process (UV, steam or harsh chemicals) has been shown to sterilise cannabis while leaving the active components fairly in-tact. So faced with the risk of infection vs the risk of irradiation, gamma is currently the best bet.
Food For Thought
In 1920, it was a German named Otto Wust who discovered that ionising radiation could preserve food, and filed for a patent from the French government. In 1943 the United States Army asked the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to determine whether food could be safely preserved with radiation. Four years later M.I.T. scientists said yes.
The first commercial use of food irradiation is reported to have been around 1957, when a German spice manufacturer (not the synthetic cannabis kind) decided to improve the hygienic quality of his products using accelerated electrons from the Van de Graaff electron accelerator. This machine was later dismantled in 1959.
In 1958, Congress had amended the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to define irradiation as a food additive (like chemicals) instead of a food-processing technique (like canning and freezing). Because of stringent testing procedures required under the act, the new technology was expected to languish.
The FDA has evaluated the safety of irradiated food for more than 30 years (which is not really that long in the grand scheme of things) and has found the process to be safe. The World Health Organization (WHO), the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have also endorsed the safety of irradiated food – in the US this is already used on everything from beef and pork to fresh fruits and vegetables.
The FDA requires that irradiated foods bear the international symbol for irradiation. This includes the Radura symbol along with the statement ‘treated with radiation’ on the food label. Allowing foods to last for longer, stacking the shelves has reached new heights – and astronauts and cosmonauts eat irradiated foods whenever they are in space.
Radioactive Regulations: Safety, Potency & Production
Growing cannabis in sterile conditions is nearly impossible for large quantities; making contamination in commercial settings high. Licensed growers have to contend with fairly strict regulations, but as they are unable to fix the root causes, they are left with no other option but to irradiate the whole batch.
Cannabis products rely on the ratio of their compounds for their synergistic effects, so any alterations in this make-up impacts the end result. To be safely used and researched as a medicine, it requires a more consistent ratio of active ingredients.
By nature of being an emerging industry: practices, regulations and results are still relatively new and therefore court controversy. Many patients that receive prescriptions from providers such as The Medical Cannabis Clinic are also enrolled in on-going trials such as those conducted by T21 at Imperial College.
This is because everything from personalised doses, to redefining addiction and long-term effects under the current growth and distribution models are still up for debate. Those receiving such prescriptions often do so as a last resort, or are transitioning away from ‘black-market’ use.
However some of the concerns around large-scale production and the issues faced by standardised regulations demonstrate that legality is not synonymous with safety, and that the science, politics, paradigms and ethics of these practices still have a long way to go.