Decarboxylation is an essential first step when cooking with cannabis.
The process involves applying low heat for an extended period of time to convert cannabis’ non-intoxiating THCA into THC, the cannabinoid known for its psychoactive effects. Without decarboxylation, the effects of DIY edibles may be weak or lackluster, at best.
What is Decarboxylation?
Think of decarboxylation (also known as “decarbing”) as activating raw cannabis into an enhanced potent form. In more scientific terms, decarboxylation is the process of physically altering the chemical structure of various cannabinoid compounds found in raw cannabis plants – including both marijuana and hemp.
When a cannabis plant is growing or freshly harvested, the cannabinoids found within the flower trichomes contain an extra carboxyl ring or group (COOH) attached to their molecular chain. The process of decarboxylating cannabis removes that carboxyl group from the cannabinoid molecule. This process is what effectively transforms THCA into active THC, described more below.
Some slow and natural decarboxylation occurs as fresh cannabis dries and cures after harvest. However, heat is the most quick and effective catalyst to trigger the cannabis decarb reaction. For example, decarboxylation is virtually instantaneous when cannabis is smoked or vaporized.
A GENERAL OVERVIEW OF CANNABIS DECARBOXYLATION
If you have never decarbed cannabis before, the process can be understandably confusing.
Don’t worry; I’m here to help you understand this process (and I promise, it’s not as hard as it sounds!)
Decarboxylation is the first step to take before transforming cannabis flower into cannabis coconut oil, cannabis butter, cannabis olive oil, or a cannabis tincture and more.
You will often hear this process referred to as ‘decarb’ or ‘decarbing’ cannabis flower, and it truly is an important step to take if you plan on making homemade cannabis edibles.
So what exactly is decarboxylation, and why do we need to do it, anyway?
If you were to eat a whole dried or raw cannabis flower bud, it is unlikely that you will feel the intoxicating effects of THC.
That is because raw cannabis does not naturally contain high amounts of CBD or THC, it actually contains what is known as cannabinoid acids.
Cannabinoid acids, known as CBDA and THCA, and more, have potential health benefits – but they are not intoxicating in nature (meaning you won’t get high).
To convert these nonintoxicating cannabinoid acids into the activated cannabinoids we want to consume, the process of decarboxylation must occur.
By definition, decarboxylation is is a chemical reaction that removes a carboxyl group and releases carbon dioxide.
Decarboxylation occurs when cannabis is exposed to heat, light, cofactors, or solvents, all of which can be manipulated within your own kitchen.
Cannabis decarboxylation is necessary to experience the activated effects of CBD or THC when making cannabis edibles, cannabis topicals, oil infusions, and more.
Temperature and Decarboxylation
As we explored in this article about vaporizing cannabis, various cannabinoid compounds and terpenes respond to distinct temperature ranges. Some are activated, altered, or even destroyed at different temperatures. This is one of the many reasons we love using a dynamic heat range vaporizer rather than combusting (smoking) cannabis. You get to reap the benefits of far more intricate elements of the bud.
In the same manner, it is best to decarboxylate cannabis low and slow. Experts say that approximately 230-250°F is the “sweet spot” temperature to decarb cannabis. In that range, THCA converts to THC while also preserving many other beneficial cannabinoids and terpenes. The chemical reactions (and THC activation or degradation) will vary with time, as noted in the chart below.
Why Decarb Cannabis
In the cannabis community, the raw or non-decarboxylated cannabinoid compounds are referred to as the “acid” forms – such THCA or CBDA. Cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid and the acidic precursor to potent CBD. Likewise, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is not psychoactive until it is converted into the more well-known compound THC. For instance, when you ingest raw cannabis there is very little psychoactive effect or “high” experienced. Then, when cannabis is decarboxylated it becomes psychoactive.
Obviously, this is important for folks who are hoping to feel the psychoactive effects of their cannabis edibles, oils, tinctures, or otherwise. Yet the benefit is so much more than just feeling the “high”. Both THC and CBD exude scientifically-proven powerful healing properties in their decarboxylated forms. This includes providing relief from anxiety, pain, inflammation, and more. THC and CBD readily absorb in our bodies and interact freely with our bodies endocannabinoid system to work their magic.
On the other hand, the raw acid forms of THC and CBD (THCA and CBDA) also have some promising but lesser-studied medicinal applications of their own. Therefore, folks who are interested in a full-spectrum, ultra-healing experience may choose to use a combination of raw and decarbed cannabis in their homemade oils and salves.
Chemistry of decarboxylation
Cannabinoids in raw cannabis have an extra carboxyl ring in their molecular structure.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the two most prevalent: THC and CBD.
This extra carboxyl group gets removed in the process of decarboxylation due to the effect heat has on their chemical structure.
Once enough heat has been applied, the molecule will release a carboxyl group. That carboxyl group then gets replaced with a hydrogen molecule.
This process is pretty much the same for CBD. Both CBD and THC acids are carboxylic acids which tend to decompose directly when heated.
Only complex carboxylic acids decompose under the influence of heat alone.
- Baking tray (preferably Pyrex)
- Aluminium foil or parchment paper
- Set your oven temperature to 225 degrees Fahrenheit and place the oven rack in the middle position. Ovens are hotter at the top and cooler at the bottom, placing it in the middle will ensure that you are decarboxylating at the ideal temperature.
- Cut a piece of aluminium foil to the size of your baking sheet and lightly crumple it, then lay it across the baking sheet. This will minimize the direct contact of the cannabis to the baking sheet, which conducts heat better than aluminium foil and will get hotter than the air in the oven.
- Lightly break up the cannabis until it is about the size of a grain of rice, too fine of a grind increases the risk of burning. Spread the cannabis across the aluminium foil, then lightly lay another piece of aluminium foil on top. Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 45 minutes.
- After 45 minutes, remove the baking sheet from the oven and let it cool for 30 minutes at room temperature. The cannabis should look lightly toasted and golden brown.
- When it is cool enough to handle, carefully put your decarboxylated cannabis into a storage container to use for future cooking.