Decarboxylating Cannabis

By Zoe Sigman On February 27, 2020

Cannabinoids are specialized compounds produced by cannabis. The two most well-known plant cannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol).

But THC and CBD are hardly present in cannabis when the plant is rooted and growing.

When the plant produces cannabinoids, they initially appear in their “acid” forms. Acid cannabinoids are sometimes referred to as “raw” cannabinoids. In the case of THC and CBD, these raw cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), respectively.

What is Decarboxylation?

What makes THC different from THCA — and CBD different from CBDA — hinges on a process known as “decarboxylation,” aka “decarbing,” whereby raw cannabis is heated so that the chemical structure of the acid cannabinoids changes to a neutral (non-acid) form. THC and CBD are the neutral forms of THCA and CBDA.

image

Diagram of the chemical structures of THCA and THC. THCA has an extra carboxyl group that is apparent.

The major difference, chemically, between acid cannabinoids and their neutral counterparts is an extra -COOH bond, known as a “carboxyl” group, which consists of a carbon-oxygen-oxygen-hydrogen molecular cluster. In order to transform cannabinoids acids into their neutral forms, they need to go through a process that removes the carboxyl group. This process is referred to as decarboxylation.

As it turns out, the bond holding the carboxyl group in place is pretty weak and easily broken by a combination of heat and time. Decarboxylation is what happens when the carboxyl group is shed due to high temperature or combustion.

Why Would (or Wouldn’t) You Want to Decarboxylate?

Decarbing cannabis converts acid cannabinoids, like THCA and CBDA, into their respective neutral forms, THC and CBD. Acid and neutral forms of cannabinoids share some curative qualities, but they also have distinct therapeutic attributes.

Decarboxylating THCA, which is not intoxicating, changes it into THC (aka The High Causer). If you want to experience the psychological and physiological uplift that cannabis flower is famous for, smoking or vaping cannabis readily decarboxylates the THCA into THC.

Edibles are another excellent option for experiencing the high associated with THC. Typically, edibes are made by infusing a form of decarboxylated cannabis (which can be an extract, oil, or alcohol) into a consumable food. If getting high isn’t your thing, it shouldn’t matter if you’re consuming product with CBDA or CBD. Decarbing changes CBDA into CBD, neither of which impart an intoxicating effect.

Thus far, the vast majority of research — and public interest — has focused on the neutral forms of CBD and THC. But there’s also a burgeoning interest in potential therapeutic applications of acid cannabinoids. Here’s a glance at what medical scientists have learned thus far.

Therapeutic Potential of Acid Cannabinoids:123

  • THCA: Anti-nausea, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, anti-convulsant, fat-storage reducing, metabolic regulator, stress reducing.
  • CBDA: Anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, painkilling, anti-nausea, anti-convulsant.

Therapeutic Potential of Neutral Cannabinoids:45

  • THC: Anti-nausea, weight gain in anorexia and AIDS, anti-inflammatory, painkilling, neuroprotective, muscle relaxing, and more.
  • CBD: Anti-epileptic, anti-anxiety, anti-depressive, anti-inflammatory, antipsychotic, antispasmodic, reduces insulin resistance, and more.

If you’re interested in sampling CBDA and/or THCA, try boiling some raw cannabis flower in water. Researchers have shown that the highest rate of acid cannabinoid extraction in water comes from boiling the raw flower for about fifteen minutes.6

Dr. Dustin Sulak recommends a simple method for accessing the benefits of THCA and CBDA: Steep a small amount of fresh cannabis bud in your morning tea.

How to Decarboxylate Cannabis

The rate at which cannabinoids decarboxylate is a function of heat and time. The hotter it is, the faster decarboxylation happens. But if there’s too much heat, the cannabinoids might degrade into their oxidized byproducts. And if acid cannabinoids are left at room temperature for long enough, they will slowly decarboxylate into their neutral forms.7

In recent years, there have been a number of published studies that examine exactly what temperature and time is ideal for decarboxylation.89 Researchers have looked at temperatures ranging from 80?C (176?F) to 145?C (293?F) and mapped decarboxylation rates for up to 120 minutes. They were looking for the ideal time and temperature to decarboxylate several different acid cannabinoids, primarily focusing on CBDA and THCA. Charts available in Wang, et al. (citation 8) and Citti, et al. (citation 9) illustrate the decarboxylation rates of these cannabinoids at different temperatures.

THCA and CBDA decarboxylate at slightly different rates — THCA decarbs a little bit faster than CBDA. Fortunately, it seems that waiting for any lingering CBDA to convert into CBD doesn’t have a negative impact on the THC level.

If you are not concerned about converting all the CBDA into CBD (neither compound is intoxicating or impairing), then you don’t have to heat your cannabis in an oven for a full 40 minutes, as suggested below. Twenty-five minutes instead if 40 should typically suffice to fully decarboxylate THCA into THC.

What you need:

Oven
Baking sheet
Aluminum foil or parchment paper
Cannabis flower

  1. Pre-heat oven to 230?F/110?C.
  2. Line your baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper for easy clean up.
  3. Grind or break up your cannabis flower into pea-sized pieces or smaller so that the heat distributes evenly.
  4. Spread the ground cannabis onto the baking sheet and bake for 40 minutes.
  5. Remove from oven, let cool, and use to infuse oil or alcohol.

Calculating Cannabinoid Content

Your oven isn’t perfect. There may be fluctuations in your oven’s temperature, and the rate of decarboxylation will vary somewhat. Generally, one can expect about 80% of the acid cannabinoids to convert to their neutral forms. If you are able to access lab results for the cannabis you’re decarboxylating, you can make an educated guess as to the cannabinoid content of the final product.

Here’s a formula to help you figure out the ballpark cannabinoid concentration of your freshly decarboxylated cannabis:

# grams of cannabis x cannabinoid % = # grams of cannabinoids10
# g cannabinoids x 1000 = # mg cannabinoids
# mg cannabinoids x 0.8 = approximate mg of cannabinoids in your final product

Example:

7 grams of cannabis (quarter ounce)
10% THC 13% CBD

THC Content:
7 g x 10% = 0.7 g THC
0.7 x 1000 = 700 mg THC
700 x 0.8 = 560 mg decarboxylated THC

CBD Content:
7 g x 13% = 0.91 g CBD
0.91 x 1000 = 910 mg CBD
9.10 x 0.8 = 728 mg decarboxylated CBD

Total cannabinoid content in decarboxylated cannabis: 560mg THC and 728mg CBD.


Zoe Sigman is Project CBD’s Program Director and the Science Editor at Broccoli Magazine.


Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.


Footnotes

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How to clone a cannabis plant

Did you know that you can clone a cannabis plant? It may sound like a mad scientist experiment, but there are benefits to cloning a plant vs. growing from a seed, and cloning weed is easier than you think.

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Check out these additional resources for more info on cannabis clones:

There are two ways you can go about reproducing cannabis. You can grow from seed, in which you will have to acquire seeds, germinate them, sex them out, and then continue to grow them. Seeds are created through sexual reproduction, which involves crossing a male plant with a female through pollination, after which, the female will produce seeds. Breeding male and female plants will allow you to create a hybrid of the two parent plants.

You can also reproduce cannabis through cloning, otherwise known as asexual reproduction. A clone is a cutting that is genetically identical to the plant it was taken from—known as the “mother.”

Through cloning, you can create a new harvest with exact replicas of your best plants. Because the genetics are identical, a clone will give you a plant with the same characteristics as the mother, such as flavor, cannabinoid profile, yield, grow time, etc. So if you come across a specific strain or phenotype you really like, you might want to clone it to reproduce more buds that have the same effects.

With cloning, you don’t have to get new seeds every time you want to grow another plant—you just take a cutting of the old plant—and you don’t have to germinate seeds or sex them out and get rid of the males.

Not having to do these steps will save you time as well as space, both of which will help you save money.

Cannabis plant roots

Cloning cannabis is relatively easy and requires just a few key items:

  • Scissors (for cutting branches off the mother plant)
  • Razor (for trimming up cuttings)
  • Rooting setup (tray/dome/root cubes, or an auto-cloner)
  • Rooting hormone

Choose a rooting medium and setup

Common rooting mediums include rockwool, rooting cubes, or another non-soil equivalent like peat or foam. Rockwool is melted rock that has been spun into a fine thread, and it has terrific airflow and moisture retention. You can find any of these cubes at most grow stores or online.

If you’re using cubes, you’ll need to invest in a tray, a tray-cell insert, and a dome. The clones will go in the cubes, the cubes in the tray-cells, and that sits in a tray which will hold water. To keep in humidity make sure to use a dome over your tray, and you may even want to use a heat mat. For more info on this setup, check out our guide to cannabis cloning equipment.

Another method is to use an auto-cloner. These cut down on the amount of labor needed to feed and care for clones. Using aeroponics, these machines spray the bottoms of your cuttings with nutrient water at set intervals to promote root growth. They are more expensive than the traditional tray/dome/root cube setup, but they are becoming more and more popular.

Experiment to see which setup works best for you. Whichever method you choose, make sure your new clones get plenty of light—preferably 18 hours—and humidity.

How to take a cutting

Cannabis plant clones

When selecting a mother plant to clone, look for plants that are healthy, sturdy, and at least two months into the vegetative cycle. You shouldn’t take a clone off a plant once it starts flowering.

Here’s how to take a cutting:

  • Don’t fertilize mother plants for a few days leading up to taking cuttings. This will allow nitrogen to work its way out of the leaves. When you take cuttings, an excess of nitrogen in the leaves and stems will trick your clones into attempting to grow vegetation instead of diverting energy to rooting.
  • Work in a sterile environment. Use gloves and disinfect razors and scissors.
  • Look for branches that are sturdy and healthy. You want at least two nodes on the final cutting, so pick a branch that is healthy and long enough. A sturdy clone will lead to a sturdy plant.
  • Cut the clone off of the mother, cutting above the node on the mother plant. It’s OK to use scissors here; it may be hard to get a razor in the middle of the mother plant.
  • Then, using a razor, cut below the bottom node on the fresh cutting at a 45° angle to the branch. This will increase the surface area of the rooting surface, promoting faster growth.
  • Place your fresh cutting immediately into a rooting hormone. Then, put it directly into a root cube. If using an auto-cloner, you’ll put rooting hormone in the cloner after you take all your cuttings.
  • Once done taking a cutting, remove unnecessary leaves toward the bottom and clip off the tips of the remaining fan leaves on the cutting. This supports photosynthesis, helping your clones uptake nutrients and water.

Planting cannabis

Check your clones daily to make sure they have enough water by checking the bottom of the tray or auto-cloner. To increase humidity, you can spray water on the leaves with a spray bottle. If any clones die, discard them so they don’t cause mold in the rest of the clones and also to give the remaining clones more space.

Most clones will be ready to transplant into soil in 10-14 days, but some may take longer. You’ll know they’re ready when the white roots are an inch or two in length.

When getting ready to transplant, be sure to keep the environment sterile. Transplant shock can occur so be sure to use gloves when handling clones.

To transplant:

  • Put soil in your pots first.
  • Water the soil before you put in the clone, so soil doesn’t move around once the clone is in its new home.
  • Once the water has drained, with two fingers, dig out a hole 1-2 inches deep, or just enough to bury all the roots.
  • Put the clone in and gently cover with soil.

Cloning can do wonders for your cannabis garden by saving you time and money, and ensuring a genetically consistent crop. You don’t need much to get started, and if done correctly, you can have a perpetual harvest of your favorite strains year-round.

This post was originally published on June 28, 2016. It was most recently updated on February 27, 2020.

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