Everything You Need to Know About Decarboxylation and Cannabis

Most folks are aware that unlocking the magic of cannabis involves a process called decarboxylation. However, decarbing cannabis generally ferries several questions such as:

  • What is decarbing?
  • Why is decarboxylation necessary?
  • When do you decarb prior to consumption?
  • Is the decarbing process different for different cannabis products?
  • What is the best method to decarboxylate cannabis?

Decarbing THCA-rich cannabis is indeed an important step before consuming various cannabis products. And as with many things that have a shroud of mystery around them, myths begin to sprout. Here, we’ll toss the shroud aside so you completely understand why it’s necessary to decarb cannabis.

What is Decarbing?

The term “decarbing” is short for the process known as decarboxylation. And decarboxylation is when you remove a carboxyl group from a molecule. Well, what the heck does that mean?

THCA is a carboxylic acid. The carboxyl group (see image below) contains a carbon atom two oxygen atoms, and a hydrogen atom. (-COOH) This is responsible for THCA’s higher molecular weight and size, resulting in poor bonding to the CB1 receptor in our endocannabinoid system (ECS). To experience the euphoric effects of cannabis, we need to introduce a molecule that is a bit smaller and mimics our own endogenous cannabinoids. This is where THC comes into play.

THCA becomes THC by applying the appropriate amount of thermal energy to the cannabinoid. When this occurs, the carboxyl group breaks apart. The carbon atom and two oxygen atoms form carbon dioxide, which is released into the atmosphere. With its carboxyl group now gone, we are left with THC — the smaller, psychoactive molecule used in a host of modern medical solutions.

THCA Decarboxylation
THCA decarboxylation is the process where heat is applied to remove the (-COOH) carboxyl group, converting THCA into THC.

We’ve established that decarbing is a chemical reaction that converts THCA into THC by removing the carboxyl group, making the molecule smaller. But is all that time, effort, and chemistry necessary?

Why is Decarboxylation Necessary?

In short, decarboxylation is necessary to achieve that therapeutic “high” associated with hitting a joint or consuming an edible. Without decarbing your weed, you won’t convert the non-psychoactive THCA into the psychoactive THC cannabinoid we know and love. And because lab equipment can be a significant (but necessary) investment for cannabis manufactures, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty answer as to why it’s important to decarb your cannabis.

The phytocannabinoids synthesized inside the cannabis plant’s trichomes (such as THCA and CBDA) are decarbed into THC and CBD. They are then able to interact with the body’s endocannabinoid receptors. This interaction between the various cannabinoids and our internal endocannabinoid system (ECS) allows us to regulate and reduce inflammation, pain, anxiety, and a host of other biological systems.

Although we are still expanding our knowledge on how cannabinoids act as neurotransmitters throughout the body, we now know these cannabinoid receptors play an important role in behaviors such as learning, sleep, motor control, memory, and much more.

What Are Cannabinoid Receptors?

Cannabinoid receptors are also called “biological transducers” because they interpret their environment and then output a response. We interact with transducers every day. A headphone plug accepts electronic signals and then interprets them into acoustic sounds. Cameras have photo-transducers. Basically, we have mechanically replicated various “receptors” that are found built into organic life on earth.

Receptors (biological transducers) can be found throughout the entire human body. And we survive and thrive based on how our receptors receive, interpret, and respond to messages traveling through our nervous system due to multiple forms of stimuli. Cannabinoid receptors play a huge role in how our body sends chemical messages to maintain balance within the complex systems responsible for keeping us alive.

CB1 Receptor
The cannabinoid receptor, CB1, is a G-protien receptor that interacts with the bodies endocannabinoids. The phytocannabinoid THC acts as a neurotransmitter and it’s psycoactive and therapudic affects are experienced when it interacts with our CB1 receptors.

Below are a couple common receptors that are used continuously all day, every day:

  • Chemical Receptors – This includes natural chemicals such as anandamide, as well as external chemicals such as THC and pharmaceuticals like morphine. Likewise, CBD is much like Ibuprofen (NSAIDs). These receptors are also called, “molecule receptors” and are responsible for regulating a host of essential functions.
  • Thermo Receptors – These detect temperatures different than what our bodies would consider “neutral.” There are specific receptors to detect warmth and cold.
  • Mechano Receptors – The mechano receptors detect mechanical changes or movement, such as when you move a muscle or twist a joint.
  • Photo Receptors – These allow us to see. In reference to our eyes, you may have heard of the terms “rods” and “cones.” These are in fact, photoreceptors.

Of the types listed above, cannabinoid receptors fall into the chemical receptor group. Our bodies manufacture their own chemicals to regulate everything from our breathing, our appetite, our mood, and much more. Utilizing cannabinoids and terpenes, we can now play more of a front-seat role in using the ECS to improve our quality of life.

Why is THC Psychoactive, While THCA is Not?

Although THCA may have many therapeutic effects of its own, the THCA molecule is too large and does not bind (or binds very loosely) to the g-protein receptors found within cells that help our bodies achieve homeostasis (or balance) within our biological systems. THC, however, binds to our cannabinoid receptors quite nicely.

Tetrahydrocannabinol is very similar in molecular structure to Anandamide, one of the natural cannabinoids found in mammals, or endogenous cannabinoids. THC is a cannabinoid receptor agonist. That is, it activates the receptors much like anandamide does. Introducing cannabinoids into our body allow us to hijack our endocannabinoid messaging system and make adjustments to improve our quality of life (e.g., pain reduction, increased appetite, improved sleep.)

Anandamide and THC
Mammals (including humans) naturally produce the endocannabinoid Anandamide for use as a nuerotransmitter to send messages throughout the nerveous system. THC shares similar molecular characteristics, allowing it to seemlessly interact with the same receptors as Anandamide.

Note: CBD is a cannabinoid antagonist — preventing cannabinoids such as THC from interacting with the cannabinoid receptor CB1. A combination of CBD with THC can help mitigate the psychoactive effects of weed when only the physiological benefits are desired.

You Can’t Stop the Signal

Just as a TV antenna receives a television signal and it gets translated into a picture, our cannabinoid receptors pick up and receive chemical signals and then forward the message using additional chemical and electrical outputs. And with a nudge from the chemical technology found in cannabis, we can take full advantage of the benefits gained by purposefully wielding our body’s chemical messaging system.

The very fact our body contains an advanced chemical messaging system designed to utilize cannabinoids makes one wonder why we haven’t been vigorously pursuing how to apply the medicinal and psychological benefits found in the trichomes of cannabis plants.

When Should I Decarb My Cannabis?

If you ask 10 cannabis processors when they decarb their cannabis product, you could get 10 different answers. We’ll list a few stops along the manufacturing process where it is common to decarboxylate cannabis:

Cannabis ProductHow Is It Being Used?When Do I Decarboxylate?
FlowerJoint, bowl, herb vaporizerDecarboxylation will occur at the time the joint or bowl is ignited. In an herb vaporizer, decarboxylation will occur as the oven approaches THC’s boiling point, just before vaporization and inhalation.
Flower (ground)Preparation for infusing oil or butterDecarb prior to infusing with another ingredient. This improves flavor by allowing for some terpene burnoff and reducing how long the plant material needs to soak in the butter.
Flower (ground)Preparation for crude extractionDecarboxylating ground flower before the extraction of crude speeds extraction time and increases yields. Some terpenes will evaporate when flower is being decarbed. Pre-extraction decarbing takes place directly before crude extraction.
Crude OilThe making of distillates, isolates, and hash oilsThe post-extraction decarboxylation of crude should take place after winterization and before distillation. Molecular distillation requires THCA be converted to THC because the two cannabinoids have different boiling points. In other words, to distill THC or CBD, the two must be present during distillation.
The chart above describes where in the cannabis manufacturing process that commercial decarboxylation generally occurs.

Of course, there are many variations to the processes and methods surrounding when to activate your THC product and ingredients. Understanding the benefits and drawbacks to each method will help ensure you choose the best time to decarboxylate your cannabis.

How to Decarboxylate Cannabis on a Commercial Scale

There are many methods cannabis labs and businesses decarb their flower and crude. However, they all accomplish the same goal — the removal of THCA’s carboxyl group which converts it to THC. The two most common methods by which THCA becomes THC include:

  • The passage of time
  • Applying thermal energy

Decarbing THCA With Time

THCA helps fend off insects and protects the cannabis buds from excessive, damaging UV rays. However, over time, the THCA will naturally convert to THC on its own. As cannabis cultivators and processors need to ensure consistent dosing, waiting for decarboxylation to occur over time is not an option.

THCA degrades to THC, which further oxidizes into the cannabinoid CBN. CBDA degrades to CBD and so on. Keep in mind, we are still discovering the potential benefits that can be gleaned from lesser cannabinoids. It’s worth considering before tossing that stale weed that wasn’t stored properly.

Decarbing THCA with Heat

Because the cannabinoid acids THCA and CBDA are not stable in the presence of heat, cured flower used in prerolls (joints), bongs, and herb vaporizers decarb at the time of consumption. Flower that is ground for use in the infusion of THC into ingredients such as butter or oil is decarbed in an oven. And decarb reactors are engineered to carefully decarboxylate large quantities of crude oil.

In the manufacturing of infused ingredients and concentrates, it will be necessary to scale activated, cannabinoid output. This often means investing in commercial lab equipment that can handle larger amounts of product while improving decarb consistency. Laboratory ovens and decarb reactors allow cannabis manufacturers to produce large quantities of vape oils, concentrates, and infused ingredients.

Smoking or Flower Vaporizers

If you partake in medical or recreational cannabis, odds are you’ve lit a joint or passed a bowl of ground cannabis. The flower you purchased from a licensed dispensary will have the total amount of both THCA and THC listed. This is because when you smoke cannabis, the flower is decarbed using fire. (e.g., a lighter or a match)

The process of burning your cannabis is called pyrolytic destruction. The term “pyrolysis” comes from Greek elements, loosely defined as separating by fire. Unfortunately, you are literally destroying your cannabinoids when you use fire to consume them.

There’s one glaring downside to consuming marijuana by means of smoking (aside from consumption by fire being illegal in many states.) When you burn cannabis flower, over 50% of your THC goes up in smoke. Literally. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that when you smoke a joint, the user consumes about 20-30% of the joint’s total THC. About 50% goes into the air as smoke, and 23-30% of the THC is destroyed by the fire itself.

Pyrolytic Destruction
When you smoke cannabis using fire, such as with a joint, you lose around 75% of your THC through smoke and pyrolytic destruction.

Note: Vaporizing cannabis flower resulted in the patient having access to nearly twice as much THC than those that used fire.

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Using a Commercial Laboratory Oven (Pre-Extraction)

Decarboxylating cannabis has long been accomplished in a residential or commercial oven. Grind up some bud, spread an even layer on a cookie sheet, bake at low temperatures, and presto! Your carboxyl groups are gone, and your THCA has become THC.

What many people don’t know, is that oven temperatures can vary plus or minus 30 degrees. I suppose that’s close enough for a batch of cookies, but we’re nudging a chemical reaction that takes place at specific temperatures. And a 30-degree variance could cause severe terpene burn-off or leave more THCA in your flower than you anticipated.

In a growing world where potency testing, consistent dosing, and aroma are all the rage, you need precise temperature control from your decarboxylation equipment.

Cascade Lab-Grade Vaccum Oven
The CVO-5 lab-grade vacuum oven is at the heart of this double-stack package from Cascade. The kit includes a cold trap for capturing terpenes during decarbing, or solvents during crystallization.

The commercial oven measures temperatures from inside the actual housing, enabling the CPS-150 vacuum oven to maintain the precise temperatures necessary for decarboxylation or crystallization.

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Using a Crude Oil Decarb Reactor (Post-Extraction)

When decarboxylating larger batches of crude, you can ensure minimal contamination and consistent results by using a decarb reactor. They are great for commercial cannabis manufacturers that are processing large amounts of oils, distillates, or isolates. Precise temperature control, slow stirring, and uniform decarbing allows for quality products and consistent, accurate dosing.

Cascade Decarb Reactor
The Cascade 50L decarb reactor package comes with everything you need to decarboxylate commercial batches of crude extract. The unit has been rigorously tested and already meets pharmaceutical regulations.

The Cascade Sciences decarb reactor brings serious chemistry to commercial decarboxylation. This lab-grade decarboxylation system is engineered with borosilicate glass and ensures your crude is decarboxylated thoroughly from batch to batch. There are also several quality-of-life features designed with the lab technician in mind.

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What is the Best Method to Decarboxylate Cannabis?

How you decide to decarb your cannabis will come down to the product you are commercially manufacturing. As we discussed, decarbing prior to extraction can help improve the speed and efficiency of your extraction process, which is great when you are manufacturing THC or CBD isolates. And decarbing after extraction can help preserve terpenes if you are ultimately making oils and butter or broad-spectrum distillates.

Regardless of which decarb-path you take, we have the lab-grade equipment and supplies you need to start or expand your cannabis processing business. And don’t forget, there are a lot of additional supplies that come in handy. Extraction and distillation solvents, disposable gloves, sheet pans — and if you don’t see what you need, reach out to our team of experts. We’ll help you source everything needed to start or upgrade your cannabis manufacturing operation.

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