Contrary to popular belief, raw cannabis plants DO NOT contain the cannabinoids we know and love, like CBD and THC. Instead, they have what is referred to as cannabinoid acids, which require just the right amount of heat and light to convert and maximize cannabinoid concentrations in finished products.
A recent study conducted by Callaghan Innovation, a government agency that supports technology businesses in New Zealand, discovered the ideal conditions to maximize concentrations of target cannabinoids. The process is referred to as decarboxylation, and includes factors like temperature, time, light exposure, oxygen levels, and amount/quality of plant material.
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What is Decarboxylation?
Decarboxylation, or “decarbing” for short, is the process of using heat to turn cannabinoids from their acidic form into their ‘activated’ form. This chemical reaction occurs naturally over time, but can be accelerated with high temperatures, light and oxygen. By heating raw cannabinoids, a chemical reaction takes place that removes the carboxyl acid group and releases CO2.
The importance of decarbing cannot be understated, especially when making products to be used medically and therapeutically. This is because raw cannabis does not actually contain psychoactive THC, or CBD the way we utilize it. Marijuana only produces THCA (the ‘a’ stands for acid), which doesn’t have any psychoactive effects – and is why eating raw cannabis won’t get you high, but smoking it will. Similarly, raw hemp flower contains CBDA rather than CBD. And while CBDa has been shown to offer some health benefits, it’s CBD which the majority of research has been conducted on.
Most cannabis oils and byproducts will contain activated cannabinoids, meaning the buds have already gone through decarboxylation. Flower, however, contains the acid form. Therefore, in order to convert the acids in raw flower into cannabinoids, you will need to decarb your buds. It is important to note that CBD-rich cannabis flower generally needs more time to decarboxylate than THC. Possibly twice as long for a complete decarboxylation.
Ideal Decarbing Conditions
Again, it’s mainly high temps and oxygen that are used in the decarboxylation process, but this also led to the decomposition of cannabinoids over an extended period of time. That’s why it’s so important to maintain the ideal decarb conditions, to make sure you’re not drying out your buds and destroying all the THC and CBD.
The most favorable conditions for converting CBDA to CBD used lower temperatures (90 degrees Celsius/194 degrees Fahrenheit) and longer time (12 hours). In contrast, although THCA has the ability to be converted to THC at low temperatures, the ideal temperature was 160 degrees Celsius (320 degrees Fahrenheit). At this temperature, maximum concentration of THC was achieved in under seven minutes.
The amount of plant material being decarboxylated also played a major role in the rate of cannabinoid conversion. The more plant material was in the container, the slower the reaction time was. The loss of THC and CBD at higher temperatures was minimized by heating material without oxygen present, just as many manufacturers accomplish by using supercritical CO2 extraction.
How to do it yourself
The oven method
Using an oven to decarb your hemp flower is going to be the simplest for most people. All you need is an oven, baking tray, parchment paper, and hemp flower.
1. Preheat your oven to 230-260 degrees Fahrenheit. Ovens fluctuate in temperature so if you have an oven thermometer, it’s with double checking the temperature in the middle of your oven.
2. Break your hemp flower up into very small pieces with your fingers or chop it all up with a grinder or scissors.
3. Evenly spread your chopped flower out onto a parchment sheet on a baking tray.
4. Put the tray on the middle shelf in your oven.
5. Leave for 2 hours.
6. Remove from oven and allow to cool. The hemp flower should have completely dried out and turned brown in color. It should smell toasty crumble easily between your fingers. It’s now decarbed.
The mason jar method
Decarbing hemp flower in a mason jar is a useful method in that it minimizes the smell of cooked cannabis you get with the oven method. This is what you’ll need: a mason jar (and lid), baking tray, oven gloves, hemp flower.
1. Preheat your oven to between 230 and 260 degrees fahrenheit.
2. Grind up your hemp flower and place it into the mason jar. Lightly screw the lid on – if it’s too light you’ll crack the jar.
3. Put the baking tray on a baking tray and place on a middle shelf in the oven.
4. Place the baking tray in the oven and bake for 60 minutes. Every 15 minutes, carefully remove the mason jar from the oven with the oven gloves and give it a shake to disperse the cannabis evenly.
5. After 2-3 hours, take the jar out of the oven with oven gloves on. Let it cool before making use of if.
The sous vide method
You may need some specialist equipment for this method, but it is a pretty fool-proof way of decarbing hemp flower while preserving terpenes and producing no smell. Here’s what you’ll need: a thermal immersion circulator, a large pot or tub, zip-lock freezer bag, hemp flower.
1. Fill your pot or rub with water and pop the immersion circulator inside. Set the immersion circulator to 220 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Chop or grind up your hemp flower the cannabis finely and put it inside your zip-lock bag.
3. Seal the plant matter as flat and as tight as possible. This will minimize air pockets and maximize surface area, allowing for a more even decarb.
4. Put the sealed bag with the hemp into the water bath for 2 hours.
5. Remove the bag and let it cool off and dry before pouring the ground hemp into a bowl for use.
If all that sounds like too much hassle, there is a much easier method. The Ardent Nova is a useful but of kit that can reliably decarb hemp flower at the press of a button. It was designed for the decarboxylation of flower very rich in cannabinoids – initially THC but after some testing by the company, they found out you can also debarb CBD with it.
To do this, you just put you hemp onto the metal sleeve which then slides into the machine. Put the lid on a press the on button. Do this once to decarb THC and twice to debarb CBD. Simples. At over $150, this gadget isn’t cheap but it can definitely be worth its price.
To learn more about cannabinoids and decarboxylation at home, click here.
In short, decarboxylation is one of the most important things you can do to maximize cannabinoid content in your finished cannabis products, aside from growing high quality flower in the first place. If you’re doing everything yourself, there are numerous DIY methods for decarbing flower.
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