Cannabis Concentrates: A Deep Dive Into The World of Extraction

Cannabis has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. Original applications of the cannabis plant as a medicine date back over 4000 years ago in China.  Beginning in the early 900’s A.D., concentrated cannabis in the form of hashish and kif became prominent in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

In the changing landscape of cannabis today, extracts have taken the market by storm, now accounting for a large portion of total products in circulation.  Now, more than ever, having a working understanding of cannabis extracts is just as important as knowledge of any other cannabis product or process.

This is extremely essential due to the fact that cartridges, tinctures, dabbable wax, and most edibles are made strictly with concentrated forms of cannabis. The reason for this surge in popularity is the fact that cannabis can be concentrated down from its plant form to magnify or isolate specific cannabinoids or terpenes, resulting in a more consistent and higher potency product than traditional flower.

Extraction can deliver a variety of different results based on starting material (fresh frozen flower, large nug flower, kief, trim, etc.), the manner in which a product is extracted, and how the end product is manipulated. There are new extraction processes and new techniques are regularly innovated, but for now, I will lay out the basics for the types of cannabis concentrates (and their extraction methods) currently in circulation for consumers at dispensaries. 


Cannabis concentrates are generally placed into two categories that are defined by their extraction methods and whether or not they use a solvent to reach the end product. 

Solventless products rely on heat, pressure, time, and movement.
Solvent extracts rely on some of the same things, but also use a catalyst or binding agent to isolate cannabinoids and terpenes into the end product. 

These two main methods of extraction can result in many different end consistencies (and colors) as well. Common names for the consistencies of extracts include shatter, badder, crumble, oil, sap, and more. The consistency of the product also does not always determine product quality. For the sake of simplicity, I have divided both sections into solventless extracts and solvent reliant extracts.

Solventless Extracts:

Kief/Dry Sift

Kief is the collection of aggregated trichome heads that collect when cannabis flower is agitated into separating with the trichomes due to motion.  People around the world have been sifting or harvesting kief in other ways since the pre-middle ages. Kief is not necessarily an “extract” but it is a cannabis concentrate.  The color of the kief or dry sifted material has a lot to do with what plant matter is left behind in the product due to the method of “extraction” and how fine the micron size is of the sifting screen.  The finer you go regarding the micron size of the screen, the fewer external particulates will bleed through, leaving you with a clear and pure end product.

Hash

Hash is one of the oldest forms of cannabis concentrates and is the main reason that concentrates are so popular today.  Made from kief or dry sift, hash spread from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, which then amplified its popularity. There are a few different methods for making hash but commonly found today are the dry ice method, ice water method, and dry sift method (identical to kief).  There are positives and negatives for each method that includes overall yield, terpene and trichome head preservation status, and plant particulate content remaining in the end product.

Rosin

Rosin is not a new discovery but is becoming increasingly popular as of late due to its ease of processing, lack of solvents, and long-term effect on overall respiratory health.  All you need to process your own rosin is a high-pressure plated press, minimal heat, and quality starting material. Rosin can be sourced from a variety of different starting materials such as flower, trim (high-THC or fresh material), and hash (highest yield). It can also end up in different consistencies such as shatter and badder, just like solvent-reliant extracts.  The decarboxylated end material left after the press is also a viable source for tinctures and edibles as well.

Solvent Extracts:

Catalyst Reliant Solvent Extracts:

Butane, Pentane, Propane, Hexane, Heptane and other solvents (BHO/PHO/PHO/HHO/HHO/etc…) have been some of the most common methods of extraction in recent years to provide stable concentrates. Terpene preservation is common with these solvents. There is the danger of residual solvents remaining in the end product as well as fire/explosion risk if not properly executed in a safe environment.

Isolate & HTFSE

Cannabinoid isolates are another type of concentrate that is becoming very popular. Currently, the most common forms are CBD (cannabidiol) and THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) isolates in the consumer market.  Industrial hemp is becoming a common starting product for CBD isolate that can be sold without needing a medical marijuana certification. High terpene full spectrum extract or HTFSE is an extract that uses a balance between full-spectrum terpenes and isolated cannabinoids for a flavorful and powerful end product. A large percentage of HTFSE is made with fresh-frozen material.

Tinctures

Tinctures are an orally applied form of extracted cannabis that absorbs quickly, predominantly through the sublingual glands and other amply bioavailable areas of the mouth.  Tinctures are generally based on high proof alcohols or glycerin and can come in many different flavors, often with added terpenes for medicinal benefit.

Rick Simpson Oil (RSO)

An alcohol (can also use Naphtha) based concentrate made by a man named Rick Simpson in 2003 to treat his skin cancer. It can be applied orally or topically, as it is active in both methods of administration.  This is a crude form of extraction and it will often result in a dark brown or blackish tar-like substance. Any plant matter can be used as a base material, but certain high-CBD strains are commonly selected for this method due to its general applications for consumers.  It is also a full-spectrum extract. 

Distillate

Cannabis distillate is not an entirely new concept either, though it has evolved monumentally in the past 5 years.  Distillation includes many steps to get to a clean end product including CO2 or hydrocarbon extraction, fractionation, winterization with a solvent such as ethanol, decarboxylation, and short-path distillation. Often, the distillate is refined down to a raw form in which the natural terpenes have been removed from the product. This means many distillates have reintroduced terpenes. Many edibles on the market for patients and recreational consumers are made with “champagne distillate” which delivers the effects of some cannabinoids but is devoid of the therapeutic terpenes.


The world of concentrates isn’t a simple one. Those beginning their cannabis journey and seasoned consumers alike are being given the keys to a wide new world of hundreds of products that are completely alien to them by being able to visit dispensaries. However, that absolutely does not mean that information on concentrates should be ignored or glanced over by new consumers or people that may be overwhelmed. Concentrates account for so many of the products in medical and recreational dispensaries today that basic knowledge is almost required at this point to make educated decisions when making a purchase.  Also, it is always best to know what you are putting in your body and how it is made, especially when dealing with medicine. We will continue to see new innovations in cannabis extraction. Methods of ingestion are being created and released at a staggering speed, making this knowledge even more important. The extreme volatility of the cannabis space will most likely continue for years to come and understanding concentrates will help tremendously with one’s understanding of cannabis as a whole.

RYAN SANDERS

Ryan is currently an Education Editor at Baked Bros.  He is a graduate of Arizona State University with a B.A. in Educational Studies and an emphasis on Environmental Education. Ryan has experience in the cannabis industry as a Patient Consultant and Brand Ambassador.


References

Analytical Cannabis. (2018). The Best Cannabis Extraction Methods for Marijuana Concentrates. Retrieved from https://www.analyticalcannabis.com/articles/the-best-cannabis-extraction-methods-for-marijuana-concentrates-300434

Precision Extraction. (2018, May 24). Making the Sauce: High Terpene Cannabis Extraction. Retrieved from https://precisionextraction.com/2018/05/high-terpene-extraction-sauce/

Rahn, B. (2018, May 22). Explore the Diverse World of Cannabis Oil and Concentrates. Retrieved from https://www.leafly.com/news/cannabis-101/the-great-wide-world-of-cannabis-concentrates 

Cinnamon Bidwell, L., York-Williams, S., Mueller, R., Bryan, A. and Hutchison, K. (2018). Exploring cannabis concentrates on the legal market: User profiles, product strength, and health-related outcomes. Addictive Behaviors Reports, 8, pp.102-106.

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