Published on November 7, 2021 by Kristina Willis
If you have ever tried fresh cannabis, you have experienced the surprise of a high that never comes. One of the most common misconceptions is that marijuana is ready to be consumed as soon as you buy it. Unless smoking is your planned intake method, there is an extra step you should typically take beforehand.
Unbeknownst to many users, cannabis in its raw form requires decarboxylation to convert cannabinoid acid precursors like THCA and CBDA into activated compounds. Without it, it is impossible to obtain any sort of high. If you are looking to make your own edibles or tinctures, decarboxylation is essential for maximizing your product’s psychoactive potential.
Though most resources will advise you to always decarboxylate your weed, new research regarding the benefits of cannabinoid acid precursors suggests that decarbing is not always desirable. While frequently necessary, optimal decarboxylation is a little more nuanced than “just do it.”
Keep reading to learn more about how decarboxylation works and when you need it.
Cannabis decarboxylation, otherwise known as “decarbing,” is the process by which cannabis is heated, thereby activating its chemical compounds. Decarboxylation happens naturally over time, particularly when cannabis is improperly stored. However, simply leaving your product out is not an adequate means of decarbing and will only stand to jeopardize its freshness.
In the lab, microwave extraction is the best method due to advantageous temperature control; however, there are numerous ways decarboxylation can be achieved. At home, oven roasting is the most popular and convenient technique, though sous vide is sometimes preferred because of how precise the temperature is.
1. Microwave extraction2. Maceration3. Ethanol extraction4. Butane extraction5. Quick-wash alcohol extraction
Heating cannabis causes the molecular structure of cannabinoids to change, removing a carboxyl group (COOH). As a result, inactive cannabinoids are converted into their active counterparts. For instance, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) become tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) respectively.
A common misconception is that THC is the most abundant cannabinoid found in cannabis. In reality, THCA is most prevalent until it is decarboxylated into THC. Most of the time, activated cannabinoids are considered more valuable because they can more easily cross the blood-brain barrier to enact physiological effects.
Trichomes are glandular outgrowths on the cannabis plant responsible for producing cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. Though they are mainly found in flowers, they are also contained in cannabis leaves and stems to a lesser degree. They appear as a shiny resin to the naked eye, but when magnified, trichomes are revealed as mushroom-shaped, hair-like compounds.
The optimal temperature for decarboxylation varies depending on the cannabinoid. For example, around 230°F to 250°F is ideal for converting THCA since it is low enough to preserve other beneficial chemical compounds. At excessive heat, terpenes are lost during the extraction process. Naturally, lower temperatures take a longer time to decarb. The key to properly decarbed cannabis is relatively low heat over a more extended period of time.
Prior to decarboxylation, the amount of THC or CBD in your cannabis is limited since it presents as the acid precursors THCA and CBDA. This is also true for other, lesser-known cannabinoids like cannabigerol (CBG) derived from cannabigerolic acid (CBGA). Decarboxylation is absolutely necessary if your goal is to take full advantage of activated cannabinoids.
Some forms of cannabis, like solvent-based concentrates, have already gone through an extraction process and do not need decarboxylation. Therefore, Decarbing is most relevant for raw marijuana or hemp that has yet to be transformed into an end product.
If you are using cannabis for medicinal reasons and know that your condition primarily responds to THC or CBD, you should always decarb your cannabis before consumption. Decarboxylation is the only way to ensure the maximum amount of active cannabinoids. On the other hand, you may want to keep the cannabinoids in their inactive state if you are looking to avoid intoxicating effects.
Moreover, recent studies have revealed that certain acidic cannabinoids likely provide therapeutic benefits of their own, particularly in conjunction with the entourage effect. For example, THCA displays neuroprotective benefits that might aid in treating neurodegenerative and neuroinflammatory diseases. So, depending on your primary objectives and the chemical make-up of the cannabis you have on hand, you may want to skip decarbing altogether.
If smoking is your preferred method, you do not have to worry about decarboxylation. Cannabis is conveniently heated during the smoking process, and cannabinoids are simultaneously activated as you enjoy it.
Many people believe that the baking process automatically decarbs; however, the internal temperatures reached are not usually high enough. Therefore, if you want to maximize the potency of edibles, you should always decarb before baking. And yes, that does mean that your cannabis will be taking two trips in the oven.
For the most part, the raw cannabis you buy at a dispensary or from a dealer has not undergone decarboxylation. Though properly prepared consumables such as edibles or oils should already be decarbed, the best way to tell is by purchasing accurately labeled products with the percentage of ingredients.
Since store-bought cannabis is rarely (if ever) decarboxylated, home techniques are popular amongst users. As mentioned earlier, most people use oven-controlled methods. However, because oven dials are inaccurate and temperatures can vary by as much as 90°F, you will likely have to experiment to settle on optimized settings. You can also purchase a specialized machine for temperature-perfect decarboxylation.
Whether you choose to decarb your cannabis or not, it is always important to know the chemical make-up of the product you are using so you know what to expect in terms of psychoactive or therapeutical effects. Keep in mind that cannabis cannot contain many active cannabinoids like THC or CBD until experiencing decarboxylation. Though standardized guidelines would be favorable, especially for medicinal cannabis, today’s methods are mainly based on trial and error and personal preference.