Cannabis Decarboxylation: What Happens and Why

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Decarboxylation takes some understanding. It is a complex organic chemical process. However, it plays a big role in cannabis use and consumption. It might help to understand how it works and what it means to cannabis users.

Carboxylation initiates photosynthesis in plants. It adds CO2 (carbon dioxide) to organic compounds. Decarboxylation turns that process around. It releases CO2 by removing a carboxyl group from an organic compound.

As an example, decarboxylation removes a carboxyl group and replaces it with a hydrogen atom. In this illustration of Carboxylic Acid, R = Radium, C = Carbon, O = Oxygen, and H = Hydrogen.

 RCO2H → RH + CO2

If you are still with me, the illustrated process indicates a move from Carboxylic Acid to a derivative.

Where is the THC in cannabis?

Chemically speaking, cannabis does not contain active THC. It does contain THCA (Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid). THCA is potentially THC, but it takes heat to energize that potential. Another illustration shows the chemical movement:

The THCA (Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) gives up CO2 creating THC (Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol). When heat burns the THCA, it converts from a non-psychoactive element to a psychoactive element. That is, THCA is passive, and THC is active. You get high on THC because it has been decarboxylated.

If you smoke a joint pipe, the flame charges the decarboxylation. When you use a bong or dab rig, the heat makes it happen. However, when you bake or prepare other recipes, you must decarboxylate the cannabis in the oven. 

Things you need to know about decarboxylation –

  • THCA and other compounds come from the sacks of trichomes on healthy cannabis plants.

  • When you buy cannabis on the black market, you have no idea what it contains chemically.

  • When you buy cannabis in a dispensary, it should be labeled with the THCA content because it is not TCA until you heat it. So, you want to look at the THCA potency as an index of the potential TCA potency.

  • Some decarboxylation will occur during the curing process, so labels may identify THCA and THC.

  • THCA is not useless. It contains medical properties. It protects neural cells and reduces inflammation.

  • Decarboxylation occurs in an oven at 220◦F for 45 minutes. Processing cannabis longer at a lower temperature will protect the terpenes. However, flaming a joint, heating a vaper, or torching a dab rig will decarboxylate the cannabis or extract immediately. 

Decarboxylation also activates the other cannabinoids found in cannabis. It is the necessary step in making them viable.

How you can decarboxylate cannabis

You can decarboxylate the cannabis you buy or grow. The process is easy but requires some time and attention.

You will need some tools to treat your cannabis flower:

  • A baking sheet

  • Some parchment paper

  • A cannabis grinder

  • A convection oven

The process starts by pre-heating the oven to 230-240◦F. That is considered a low temperature for most baking uses. However, it is just right for the cannabis process, decarboxylating without burning the cannabis. Increasing the heat will not speed the process; it will only accelerate its degradation. High heat will burn the plant and destroy its terpenes. 

  • Line a standard baking sheet with parchment paper. The parchment will keep the cannabis oils from sticking to the pan and protect the cannabis from burning.

  • Break the cannabis flower apart and spread it thin across the parchment paper.

  • Slip the baking sheet into the oven for about 45 minutes and stir the bits of flower around the sheet every 10 minutes.

  • Remove the baking sheet once the cannabis has darked in color.

  • Allow the cannabis flower to cool.

  • Use the grinder to process the cannabis flower coarsely.

  • Store the decarboxylated cannabis in protective containers and in a cool dark location. 

Again, you do not have to put cannabis through this process if you intend to use flower in a joint, blunt, or pipe. You do not decarboxylate cannabis if you intend to process it into concentrate or extract. However, if you plan to make butter, oils, lotions, or edibles, you must go through the decarboxylation. 

Consider 5 innovative options:

The cannabis market offers many decarboxylation devices. You can afford one if you expect to use it frequently. A deboxylator is a new appliance that automates the decarboxylation process. The best have proprietary mechanics, but they all work the same basically.

  1. Ardent NOVA: Ardent produces a small (7.5” X 4”) decarboxylator. It processes up to an ounce of cannabis flower with no mess or cleanup.

  2. Magical: MagicalButter’s MB2e bundle activates cannabis in its DecarBox and infuses butters, oils, and tinctures in its immersion blender. The Bundle comes with a Magical Glove, a Micron 190 filter, and cookbook.

  3. Lévo II: There is an app for operating the LEVO II. It looks like a small coffee maker, but it packs a lot of technology. At 7” L X 8” W X 13” H, it stores easily or sits on your counter, ready to dry, activate, or infuse at your convenience.

  4. STX: The STX International Activation 420 is a fully automatic, compact, thermostatically controlled decarboxylator. It can also process two different strains at the same time.

  5. Herboven: The Herboven Decarboxylator comes with an infuser feature. This device offers three temperature options and sells for less than $100.

One last thought –

Cannabis is related to any number of herbaceous plants. It has strong connections to other fragrant plants, including hemp, rosemary, basil, lavender, and thyme. These plants possess natural oils, and you can put each of them through decarboxylation. So, the time, know how, and an investment in some technology can make decarboxylation easier for you.