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Cannabis Decarboxylation: What it is and Why is it Important?

Hemp Leaf with a Water Droplet on it

When we picture marijuana use, chances are the mind jumps to someone smoking the plant. This is because this is the most common way to consume the plant, but have you ever wondered why the plant is not eaten directly? If chewed and swallowed, the 'high' would be lackluster at best.

What's going behind the scenes, yet in plain sight, is that the heating of cannabis plays an important role in the changing chemical makeup of the plant to provide its active effects.

In this article, we take a look at the process of decarboxylating or 'activating' cannabis. This process applies across recreational marijuana use, medical marijuana use, and in the process of creating CBD-rich products from hemp. If you're a cannabis user of any type, this is a basic concept you should know about.

Additionally, there are some new and exciting research developments that point to benefits of the non-decarboxylated chemical compounds, all of which we explore below.

What is Decarboxylation?

The phytocannabinoids found in cannabis naturally occur in the plant in an acid-form. These molecules have a carboxyl ring or group (COOH) present in their molecular structure.

For example, looking at a potency screening for raw hemp you'll likely see high levels of tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), one of the naturally occurring cannabinoids. Only through the process of decarboxylation is this non-psychoactive acid form converted to the popular psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In layman's terms, THCA won't get you high, but THC will:

THCA to THC via Decarboxylation

For those looking for non-psychoactive relief from CBD, the same concept applies. The naturally occurring Cannabidiolic Acid (CBDA) is converted to the popular benefit-packed Cannabidiol (CBD) molecule through heating. The term 'decarboxylation' may make you think a long, complex process is underway. In reality, the opposite is true.

How Does Decarboxylation Work?

This chemical reaction is the process of removing a carboxyl group from a molecule. Specific to cannabis, the reaction of carboxylic acids removes a carbon atom from a carbon chain. During this conversion process, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released.

Decarboxylation is caused by two simple factors: time and heat. Every time cannabis is smoked or vaporized, this chemical reaction is taking place. The combustion or rapid heating of cannabis instantaneously "decarbs" the phytocannabinoids, converting them into their active form as they are inhaled.

When ingesting cannabis in the form of edibles, tinctures or capsules, decarboxylating becomes very important. To change the acid cannabinoids to their active forms, the original plant material or extract is carefully heated for an extended period of time. This process 'activates' the compounds within the cannabis without damaging the material. The result is a compound which can be swallowed or taken sublingually with all the active effects of the non-acid cannabinoids in-place.

Does All Cannabis Need to be Decarboxylated?

Hemp Seedling

The answer to this question depends on the desired effects you're looking for, though in almost all cases the answer is 'yes'.

Those looking for a recreational THC-induced high will always need to decarboxylate their plant material before ingesting it as an edible. Specific to the CBD industry, nearly all products available for consumer purchase have undergone the decarboxylation process. If the product contains CBD, then it has been decarboxylated already.

While these heated molecules are favored in most cases, those looking for specific benefits may wish to seek out the natural or 'raw' forms of these cannabinoids. The acid-based forms are not well studied, yet preliminary research points to their ability to provide unique benefits when compared to their activated counterparts. For example, CBDA has been shown via studies to be a COX-2 inhibitor similar to how some NSAIDs function.

Some CBD companies offer raw products which are created by cold-pressing hemp. These products are often combined with activated hemp extracts. One example is a blended CBD + CBDA combination, often found in a 1:1 ratio.

Measuring Potency Before Decarbing

When a cannabinoid is found in its raw acid form, the mass will be slightly greater than the decarboxylated version. This is important to consider when looking at a potency screening. The mass of THCA or CBDA will be reduced by 12.3% when heated due to the loss of the carbon dioxide molecule. You can easily measure the resulting potency of the resulting THC or CBD by multiplying the acid-form by 0.877.

For example, if you intend to vaporize a high-CBD hemp strain and want to know the CBD concentration, you'd use the following equation:

Total CBD = CBD + (0.877 × CBDA)

Decarboxylation Temperature & Time

The required time and temperatures required for each individual cannabinoid in cannabis varies. The best reference point is THCA which requires exposure to a temperature of 220 degrees Fahrenheit for 30-45 minutes to begin decarboxylating. In order for a full decarboxylation to occur, more time is required.

In addition to the cannabinoids, the terpenes contained in the plant must be considered when applying heat. Ideally, the minimum amount of temperature should be used over a longer period of time in order to preserve and not burn off the terpenes. If exposed to high heat, these terpenes can burn, leaving behind undesirable smells and tastes. Temperatures in excess of 300 degrees Fahrenheit should be avoided.

How to Decarboxylate Cannabis

Home Oven Controls

If you have flower, kief, or concentrate and wish to decarboxylate at home, the process is fairly simple and easy to do. The easiest method is baking your cannabis:

  • Preheat the oven to 220-240 degrees Fahrenheit.*
  • Place some parchment paper on a baking sheet.
  • Break up the flower into small pieces, spreading the material evenly across the pan. Ensure there are not empty spaces.
  • Bake for 30-60 minutes.*
  • Once completed, your cannabis will be slightly less in volume and have turned a darker brown color - this is OK!

*Time and temperatures influence the process, you should do your own testing to find the perfect settings for your needs.

In addition to baking, there are other ways to decarb cannabis including infusing into cooking oils using a slow cooker or by submerging sealed cannabis in heated water. You may also wish to check out the NOVA by Ardent Cannabis which is an easy to use decarboxylator that takes the fuss out of the entire process and provides a superior end product thanks to the precise temperature and time control.

Again, as a CBD oil user, decarboxylation isn't something you'll need to practice, but it does shed some light on what is happening during the extraction and processing stages of creating a hemp extract.

Hopefully, this article helped shed some light on this behind-the-scenes process that is going on at a molecular level. Leave any questions or comments below!

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