The many varieties of marijuana concentrates make up more than one-third of the buying power at a Nevada dispensary, now more than the flower and edible categories. That figure is likely to rise as the industry gets safer, more environmentally friendly and more creative in separating oil from plant.

Concentrates are essentially extracts of marijuana; which contain a much higher concentration of THC than regular marijuana flowers. Thanks to this extra potency, they’re a great option for those seeking a more intense high.

A line is being drawn with the thinking that solvents, no matter how little that remain in the final product, have left their mark during the process. The addition of a toxin or the altering of the original profile of the flower has consequences for the plant profile with benefits to the patient. There are advantages to all extraction methods, such as using altered profiles in a pharmaceutical way to affect change for certain illnesses along with their use in edibles.

While there are many pluses, there are potential perils, as well, with risks shared by manufacturers and consumers.

The most basic way of extraction began when the first human hand rolled a cannabis bud around and around to separate the plant from the oil. This “system” gave birth to hashish and that method is still used today. In the Netherlands, for instance, black hand-rolled Nepalese hash from India and Nepal is supplied to more than 250 coffee shops. Hash oil from heated cannabis was prominent in the states in the early ‘70s and was heated in a glass pipe.  

When open butane systems came along, the cost and risks were high to obtain the precious oils of CBD, THC and terpenes combined in one mixture. The open loop system of pushing butane through a tube of flower and taking out the oil was stone-age thinking reserved for people who don’t mind an explosion or two. The butane was released into the environment.

The closed-loop system followed and was safer. But butane, although contained and recycled in the closed loop, is dangerous to inhale. Most of the butane is recaptured while the oil separates to become what is commonly called shatter. Shatter can be manipulated to form budder, batter, honeycomb or wax and packaged to sell. The oil can then be filtered further to eliminate all foreign chemical agents for distillate concentrates, edibles, body oils and CBD-only or CBD dominated products for vape pens and creams.

The extraction of oil can be separated into THC, CBD and terpenes. The elements can be mixed or used separately. Cartridges can then be filled for vaporizing pens, but chemicals for texture along with flavoring and food additives are added, causing health concerns.

Now the industry has come full circle, providing solvent-less products although higher in price.

Get Out the Pressure Cooker

Think of an extraction facility as a group of Keebler elves working hard and creating new products as they go, all conforming to stringent state regulation.

The reasoning was easy to understand: vapor and liquid ingestion were better than the evils that went with smoking anything. Hard to explain to someone who is ill that they have to smoke something to feel better when they can eat it, vaporize, or apply it to their skin.


Extraction Methods

  • Hydrocarbon Extraction – The most efficient and most controversial method of making concentrates. A hydrocarbon (butane is the most common) is used as solvent in a closed loop extraction system that manipulates temperature and pressure to extract the cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids. Yields are typically 90 percent of available cannabinoids and terpenes with potency in the 60 percent to 90 percent depending on the machine, the operator, the raw materials and the finished product being made
  • CO2 Extraction – Pressurized CO2 is used as a solvent to further extract the butane from the shatter, making it more potent with lower yields.
  • Cold Water Extraction – Ice Water is used to make the trichomes brittle. The trichomes separate from the plant matter and are small enough to move through several filters that range from 200 to 20 microns. The filtrate is then made in to several different finished products. Yields are typically 50 percent of available cannabinoids and potency ranges from 50 percent to 90 percent depending on the filters used and the method used to finish the product.
  • Dry Sieve – Filters are used to separate plant matter and the desired extract. Most dry sieve extracts are performed in cool environments to make the trichomes brittle. The trichomes are collected after they are filtered and a variety of products can be made or the kief can be consumed as is.
  • Rosin Press – A rosin press uses pressure and heat to extract a concentrate that appears like a hydrocarbon extracted shatter. Flower, trim and kief or water hash as raw material. Yields are in the 50 percent range and potency ranges from 60 percent to 90 percent.
  • Leaf — The leaf from the plant is more valued these days. Rather than using it in prerolls, the leaf is full of trichomes and kief that can be harvested to make hash, bubble hash and more. The entire plant is now used is some capacity.


Pass On The Solvent

Once the buds are separated, they are put into a long cylinder and then loaded into the extraction system. A supply of butane is then cooled into a vapor and sent through the cylinder. The oils extract from the plant material and are collected into a separate chamber. The hardened oil can be packaged and sold as shatter, which is a popular consistency to use for vaporizing in small amounts or “dabs.”

According to state testing agents, excessive amounts of butane are typically found in extractions. Extractions can contain up to 500 parts per million (called RSA on a state label) with an average of 25 to 250 can be found of most shatter.

The distillation process removes all solvents, but is more time consuming and adds to the overall cost of the product.

“You are going to see a lot more solvent-less products in the future,” says Matthew Gardiner, VP at Shango.

Rosin is the best example as an easier method of extraction but with a lower return on oil. A hair straightener was one crude way to extract oi, now the method is more advanced but not large of a yield when using butane. Rosin is a relatively new extraction technique utilizing mechanical separation involving precise heat, pressure and timing to create terpene-rich oils similar to extracts created using hydrocarbons.

Other finished products after extraction include:

  • Wax — whipped on a hot plate to allow the solvent to off gas. Shows the lowest residual solvent levels. Made with hydrocarbon, cold water and CO2 extraction methods
  • Shatter — made in high tech ovens by heating the extract in a vacuum. Residual solvent levels in shatter range from 50 to 5000ppm. In Nevada, the legal limit is 500ppm in any concentrate.
  • Crumble is whipped on hot plate to allow the solvent to off gas. Many consider wax and crumble to be the same product.

Then came another breakthrough. The latest advancement in extraction — purified THC-A. The end product is a crystal that looks like sugar and is a white crystalline powder product of THC acid. The flavor-free THC-A needs to be smoked to unleash its full potential.

The processes involved are meticulous and time consuming. THC crystal is a technical challenge to make, but the end result is powerful. No smell and no taste. Only pure THC with a smooth smoke, clean vapor.

The more steps taken in extraction, generally, the more the product costs, but for most, $30 of cannabis disappears faster than smoking a half-gram of concentrate.

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A Little Dab Will Do Ya

The Rig: Just like the Brylcreem commercial boasted, just a little dab. In order to heat the oil enough to turn it to vapor, the most common method is from a “rig.” The rig can be an elaborate or compact glass apparatus that resembles what old-timers call a bong. But to heat the nail (quartz, ceramic or titanium) that a dab is inserted on, a blow torch, small as it is, is necessary.

The rig will stop most Baby Boomers from doing this procedure on their own, although there’s evidence even grandma dabs. See “dads who dab” videos.

For the experienced dabber, the rig is not a big deal, although technological advancements will lead to a better way in the not-to-distant future.

“The Volcano”: Ground fresh flower heats up in a glass bowl above the element in the vaporizer. There are many kinds of vaporizers, but the Volcano is the most efficient and most versatile. A coupler is placed over the heat element and air is sucked through a tube. The flower is heated from 260 up to 300 degrees, hot enough to separate the oil to breathe in without lighting the flower on fire. This may be overall the safest system in play. No torches and no smoke, only vapor and electricity.

Vape pens: This portable, ingenious system uses a new type of battery that can heat oil into vapor. They are discrete, not smelly, and last long. There are disposable units that start around $22 for quarter gram of extract.

For the beginner, budtenders often recommend a pen because it is a lot less complicated.

A full gram is priced between $40 and $75. Vape pens can contain any mix of THC, CBD and terpenes. Clear oil is CBD only, with a food additive often added to give the vapor and white color to resemble smoke. EPC produces a pen without solvents. A solvent is usually added for less expensive pens to achieve proper viscosity.

Vape pens can contain propylene glycol, also called propane-1,2-diol, a synthetic organic compound, It is a colorless liquid with a faintly sweet taste that “winterizes” or thins the oil. Chemically it is classed as a diol and is miscible with a broad range of solvents, including wateracetone and chloroform. It is used in the production of polymers as well as use in food processing and as a process fluid in low temperature heat exchange applications such as vape pens.

Dab pens: They have a compartment for flower or concentrate and a more powerful battery.

Syringes: A, thinner, syrup-like substance is easier to handle and more easily diluted.

Need help choosing the right marijuana product?  Want to know more about our range of concentrates?  Head into one of our marijuana dispensaries and our friendly staff can recommend a product or view our range of cannabis flowers, topicals, edibles, concentrates, vape cartridges and more!