Decarboxylating Cannabis-Turning THCA into THC
The other day I was asked by an acquaintance why the tincture they were making had very little, if any, noticeable medicinal or psychoactive effect. They swore they followed the same process found in a book on making edibles and soaked the cannabis in high proof for weeks but the tincture just didn’t work.
The answer was simple but one that many in the cannabis industry don’t understand. One very important and necessary extra step had been overlooked. Cannabis used to make tinctures as well as other edible cannabis products requires decarboxylation. From asking around I have a feeling a lot of you just blurted out “Say What?”
So here is the deal. THCA (Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid) is found in abundance in growing and harvested cannabis and is a biosynthetic precursor of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). Wow, this sounds scary like organic chemistry, doesn’t it? It is, so for both of our benefits, I’ll give you the dumbed down version.
Research suggests THCA has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects but does not produce the psychoactive effect that make you feel “high”. This “high” is from the cannabinoid THC, of which little if any is found when cannabis is growing or recently harvested.
Decarboxylation is a chemical reaction that releases carbon dioxide (CO2). This means a chemical reaction takes place in which carboxylic acids loose a carbon atom from a carbon chain. This process converts THCA to THC, the much loved compound with many medicinal and psychoactive effects. When the cannabis drys, it very very slowly begins to decarboxylate and converts THCA to THC.
The good news is we don’t have to wait years for cannabis to decarboxylate. We can speed things along with a process that is a lot simpler than you might expect. Simply heating dried cannabis to the correct temperature for enough time releases that carbon dioxide and creates THC. Why have so many of you never heard of this before? Decarboxylating takes place without extra effort when cannabis is heated during the act of smoking or vaporizing. It also takes place to some degree when cannabis is cooked into butter or when hash and kief are added to a favorite recipe and then cooked in the oven.
When making tinctures, cannabis is not heated or baked, it is simply soaked in high proof alcohol. Decarboxylation never takes place and you end up with a product with a lot of THCA and very little THC. This may be a good for some symptoms but will not produce the results most expect.
Setting Up The Experiment
After explaining decarboxylation it became clear why the tincture was ineffective. Naturally they wanted to know how to decarboxylate cannabis quickly and easily so they could get on with making their tincture. I knew how to do it, but I really needed to nerd out for a bit so I could give them the best possible answer.
It really is as easy as heating the cannabis, but for how long and at what temperature? If the cannabis is heated to much, we run the risk of vaporizing and losing some of the important cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids which have medicinal properties. At the same time we want remove the CO2 as quickly and effectively as possible.
According to a report published by John M. McPartland and Ethan B. Russo “Cannabis and Cannabis Extracts: Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts?”, the boiling points, and hence vapor point of the major cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids range from 246.2° and 435.2° Fahrenheit. I have included a substantial list taken from this report in the appendix of this article. This indicates that by staying under 246.2° Fahrenheit there should be little if any inadvertent vaporization of plant compounds that might produce medicinal benefits. I do need to qualify the above statement by saying that some terpenes actually evaporate to some degree while the plant is growing and there is not much that can be done about it.
I decided to conduct a bit of an experiment to see if my hypothesis was correct. I had some extra kief and trim that I had been keeping in storage for a rainy day. They would work perfect for the experiment and there would be no great loss if things didn’t go as planned.
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