You may be surprised to learn that a living cannabis plant contains almost no cannabinoids. But it’s absolutely true – the cannabis plant actually produces a set of chemical “precursors” to cannabinoids, which are classified as “cannabinoid acids”. These cannabinoid acids gradually break down to become cannabinoids over time, and with exposure to warmth and light. This process – which is known as decarboxylation – takes a long time to complete, and even after your cannabis is harvested, dried and cured, the level of cannabinoid acids may exceed the level of cannabinoids. It may take months for the process of decarboxylation to fully complete in a sample of cannabis in “normal” storage conditions!
For medical patients with certain conditions, consuming cannabinoid acids in their raw form – most notably, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) – may provide various medicinal benefits. But for most recreational users (and many medicinal patients too) it’s more important to get the full range and concentration of the cannabinoids themselves, and not the acids. THC and THCA are identical in molecular structure, except for a carboxyl group present in THCA but not THC. This small difference is actually a big deal; the presence of the carboxyl group prevents THCA from binding to cannabinoid receptors in the body’s brain and nervous system.The presence of THCA in the plant explains why eating raw cannabis does not produce the therapeutic effect or “high” that a patient would expect from ingesting cannabis. In order for inactive THCA to become bioavailable THC that can properly bind with the body’s cannabinoid receptors, the carboxyl group must be removed from the THCA, hence the term “decarboxylation.” Decarboxylation is a precision process that is a function of time, temperature and atmosphere. A deceptively simple concept, executing proper decarboxylation is difficult even for professionals, and the process has created an incredible and often insurmountable road block for patients seeking to make their own medicine. Indeed, performed incorrectly, patients hydroklize (burn off) cannabinoids, degrade THC to CBN, and/or fail to fully convert, all of which result in inferior medicine with wide variability in dosing and effectiveness. Only with precision decarboxylation can patients know and control their dose.
During the drying process, the heat from the sun caused a small amount of THCA and CBDA to chemically transform into THC and CBD. It was a natural process that prepared the cannabis for the next stage: consumption. That said, drying doesn’t release the full potential of the cannabinoids. For that we need another step: decarboxylation. But how do you go about decarboxylating (or decarbing) your cannabis? The same way the ancients did it—through the application of heat.
- You’ve ground the buds into small pieces in preparation for consumption, and you’ve rolled the grounds into a joint. You’re ready to smoke. But remember, the dried bud in your joint is basically raw and won’t get you very high (if at all). So how does the weed go from the state it’s in now to the psychoactive powerhouse that it is when it hits your lungs? One word: fire. When you apply a flame to your joint, or to the cannabis in your bong, immediate decarboxylation occurs. THCA is converted to THC and carbon dioxide (CO2) is given off as a by-product. At the same time, the solid marijuana is vaporized (burned) and the whole kit-and-kaboodle, THC and all, is inhaled. From your lungs, the THC, and other cannabinoids, travels to your brain where it causes the wonderful psychoactive effects that we’ve come to know and love.
- If you decide to eat your weed instead of smoking it, you’re going to have to wait a little bit longer. Remember that burning the cannabis is basically immediate decarboxylation that transforms the inactive cannabinoids (THCA and CBDA) into their active counterparts (THC and CBD). But, at this point, you can’t light your buds on fire or there wouldn’t be anything left with which to cook. You’ve got to decarboxylate your cannabis in another way. The easiest, most convenient way to do that is in an oven. But at what temperature should I set the oven? And how long should I let the buds bake? Two excellent questions that bring us to another important variable: terpenes.
- Terpenes are those oils that give the cannabis plant its unique smell. There are a wide variety of terpenes and terpene combinations that create the various odors and tastes—sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, and all their variants—that distinguish one cannabis strain from another. In addition, terpenes work in tandem with the cannabinoids to increase the medical effects and effectiveness. Going back to the decarboxylation process for a moment, we could just crank up the oven to 450℉ and bake for 5 minutes. However, that would destroy all the terpenes that give your favorite strain its character. Terpenes begin to break down above 310℉ so we want to stay away from those high temperatures.
And because we can’t use high temperatures, the cooking time is going to increase so that decarboxylation has the opportunity to work its magic. So let’s get to the step-by-step recipe for getting the most out of your cooking weed.
How To Decarboxylate Your Cannabis
- Preheat oven to 230℉.
- If you haven’t already, break up the dried buds into small pieces with your hands.
- Spread the small pieces and flakes on a baking sheet (one with a rim works best).
- Bake the cannabis at 230℉ for 35 minutes.
- Stir the cannabis every 10 minutes to ensure even toasting.
- After 35 minutes, check the cannabis. It should be light- to medium-brown in color and should be very dry. If it’s not, put it back in the oven for a further 5-10 minutes. Keep an eye on everything so it doesn’t burn.
- When finished baking, remove the cannabis from the baking sheet and let cool. Careful, it’s going to be very crumbly at this point.
- You can use more or less than an ounce of cannabis when decarbing, as long as it fits on your baking sheet without spilling or piling up.
- If your cannabis contains more CBD than THC, bake at 275°F for 45 minutes instead.
- When properly decarbed, cannabis should be light to medium brown in color.
- If you don’t have a baking sheet handy, you can wrap the cannabis in aluminum foil and place it in the oven directly.
- Make sure your cannabis is ground into small pieces and spread out evenly or else some pieces may decarb more than others.
- You can tell when the cannabis is almost finished decarbing once your oven starts to emit a scent.
- If you live in an apartment, you can turn on the exhaust fan and put a towel underneath the door to minimize the smell.Cannabis can also be activated through solvent extraction and ice-water extraction. These methods produce a concentrate that can be hardened and used for dabbing or kept in an oily state and used for cooking. The important point of all this is that the cannabinoids in the marijuana need to be chemically altered (or activated) so that the body can process them easier. It’s this activation that gives your weed the psychoactive and medical benefits you crave. You can thank decarboxylation for that.
[Updated, originally published 7.7. 2017]
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