The Science Behind Cannabis Extraction

The phrase “this is not your parents’ weed” may have passed its sell-by date, but like so many truisms, it finds new applications on a seemingly endless basis. Its original use was to warn imbibers that, when we speak of the concentration of THC—cannabis’ psychoactive compound—today’s cannabis is exponentially stronger than the products commonly found even 20 years ago (not to mention in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when many Americans were first “experimenting”). And if that’s not information enough to digest in one sitting, cannabis increasingly isn’t even purchased as a plant anymore. Welcome to the world of cannabis extracts.

In their most elemental form, extracts are nothing new. Your breakfast tea? It’s an extract. Other common medicinal and homeopathic extracts include garlic oil, a highly effective treatment for high blood pressure, and ginger extract, used as an anti-nausea remedy and general aid to digestion.

Cannabis Extraction Benefits

Depending on the method of extraction—it can provide a chemically cleaner, highly concentrated and pure “essence” of a given plant. If this concentrate is then administered via an efficient method—typically a hash pipe or the more controversial “dabbing” technique—the experience can be both unique and highly refined: A concentrated, clean and strain-specific flavor profile, high potency, and minimal lung irritation.

Cannabis Extraction Methods

While some novices compare extraction to making tea or home-brewed tincture, there’s a good deal more to making high-quality extracts, and—sorry to disappoint you, DIYers—it generally requires industrial-grade equipment and know-how. Two of the most common approaches are supercritical CO2 extraction and ethanol extraction.

Supercritical C02 Extraction

In this type of cannabis extraction method, carbon dioxide gas is placed under sufficient pressure and temperature to transform into its liquid state, at which point it behaves like a solvent. By forcing this solvent through finely ground plant matter—some compare this with making extremely expensive espresso—the desired compounds and terpenes (characteristic aromatic compounds) are collected, leaving behind undesired components such as potentially harsh and bitter chlorophyll. If the extract is carefully handled and refined, the result is an extremely pure and potent product with strong flavor and aromatic characteristics of the initial strain.

Ethanol Extraction

Although this cannabis extraction method isn’t tremendously dissimilar from the supercritical CO2 method. But while it offers the advantage of a faster extraction time, it tends to retain and concentrate potentially undesirable materials such as tannins and chlorophyll. Home-brewers take note: Extracting with ethanol is manifestly safer than extracting with butane, a highly flammable gas sometimes pressed into service to this end.

Is There a Difference In the End Product?

Obviously, personal preferences come into play, but all things being equal, ethanol extractives tend to have a higher terpene concentration, but with the potential for increased tannins and associated harshness. While CO2 extraction can result in a more chemically neutral product, some feel that the use of this technique results in lower bioavailability (your body’s readiness to use and metabolize the active ingredients).

Whichever route you choose—or elect not to choose—there’s always value in understanding the products you’re imbibing. And given the rapid pace of change in the business and science of cannabis, don’t be surprised if new and potentially ground-breaking methods hit the market before you can say “this isn’t my parents’ weed”!

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