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Cold Plasma vs. Irradiation: Safeguarding Cannabis Quality

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

Why irradiation isn’t the best choice for dealing with potential contaminants in cannabis for producers focused on maximizing whole-plant therapeutic benefits.

As the cannabis industry continues to develop, ensuring the safety of cannabis products while preserving their quality and therapeutic benefits remains a top priority. Mould, mildew, insects and other microbiological hazards are common issues in the cannabis cultivation process, necessitating effective decontamination methods. Although smoking will eradicate bacteria, the presence of aspergillus and associated aflatoxins could prove fatal upon inhalation by patients with compromised immune systems, especially if the plant material is not completely combusted or toxic particles make their way into the pulmonary pathway.

Two prominent techniques for sterilizing cannabis are irradiation and cold plasma treatment. Below, we briefly compare these approaches, with a specific focus on preserving terpenes – the aromatic compounds responsible for the unique flavours of cannabis varietals and for enhancing its therapeutic effects.

Irradiating Cannabis: Pros and Cons

Irradiation, a well-established method for microbial decontamination, employs ionizing radiation (usually gamma rays) to disrupt the DNA of micro-organisms, rendering them inactive. While effective at eliminating microbiological hazards and doing it faster than other decontamination techniques, irradiation of foodstuffs is carefully regulated by most developed countries to ensure it’s not being used inappropriately, e.g., to artificially extend the shelf life of some products.

It has also faced resistance from cannabis consumers, particularly patients, and some members of the industry due to its potential impact on the cannabis plant's terpenes and other compounds. It’s an even bigger no-no for biosciences companies like JMCC as we place such high value not only on preserving as much of the plant’s natural therapeutic qualities as possible but also on producing the most natural products possible: irradiated product cannot be Certified Organic.

Cold Plasma: Balancing Safety and Quality

Cold plasma treatment, also known as non-thermal plasma, is an emerging technology in the cannabis industry. It uses ionized gases at low temperatures to generate reactive species, i.e., ions, radicals, electrons, photons and excited molecules, that target and destroy micro-organisms. The process removes impurities, organic contaminants, and various microbes, such as bacteria, viruses, yeast and fungi spores at near-room temperature, and without the use of chemicals or ionizing radiation.

There are several advantages to cold plasma treatment, including:

  • Terpene preservation: One of the stand-out benefits of cold plasma treatment is its ability to preserve terpenes and other volatile compounds in cannabis. This is crucial for maintaining the plant's full therapeutic qualities.

  • Chemical-free: Cold plasma treatment is entirely chemical-free, aligning with the preferences of consumers seeking natural and organic cannabis products. By-products of plasma processes are minute quantities of water and oxygen– all environmentally safe. So cold plasma is also considered compatible with Certified Organic programs.

  • Reduced energy consumption: Cold plasma requires less energy compared to traditional thermal sterilization methods, so it is a more cost-effective process.

  • Versatility: Operators can customize the treatment parametres to target specific micro-organisms, making it a more flexible option.

  • Fast processing: Cold plasma treatment is known for its rapid application, facilitating high-throughput production.

A Strong Case for Cold Plasma

In the quest to eliminate microbiological hazards while preserving the integrity of cannabis products, cold plasma treatment emerges as the more promising option. While irradiation is highly efficient in reducing microbial contaminants, its significant downside is the reduction of monoterpenes, which are essential to determining the unique characteristics of each cannabis varietal.

Cold plasma not only eliminates microbiological hazards as effectively but also safeguards the plant's terpenes and other compounds. For businesses aiming to produce cannabis products that deliver a premium, consistent experience for patients, cold plasma represents the future of microbial decontamination.

And, as patients and other users continue to seek cannabis products that maintain the plant's unique natural qualities, businesses that prioritize whole-plant preservation through cold plasma treatment will be at the forefront of this evolving industry.

Businesses like JMCC.

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