As recreational and medical marijuana legalization laws continue to pass state by state, more and more people are curious about cannabis. As different people are willing to try cannabis for recreation or medicine, the image from That ’70s Show of a group of people in smoke filled basement passing around a joint no longer dominates as the picture of cannabis consumers.
Many people don’t like smoking but are interested in the medicinal or psychotropic effects of cannabis. There are lots of great options for those people, including edibles and tinctures, but until the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) finalizes the state guidelines for the sale of recreational cannabis products in Massachusetts, those products can only be sold to medical marijuana patients. Until recreational stores open, making marijuana products for personal use at home is a great way to have access to the benefits of cannabis without having to smoke (and once stores open making your own products might save you a lot of money).
The first step to consuming cannabis at home is decarboxylation. Decarboxylation is a fancy word for a process that most cannabis users are already familiar with. It’s the process of using energy to transform the active parts of the raw cannabis plant into a form that is usable by your body. The active ingredients in raw cannabis (even after it’s been cured) are primarily tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and other cannabinoids in an acid form. Decarboxylation separates the cannabinoids (the compounds like THC that have medicinal and psychoactive effects) in cannabis from the carboxylic acid that they are bonded to using added energy, like heat. The added heat breaks the cannabinoid (in this case THC) away from the acid group, resulting in activated THC and a byproduct of carbon dioxide.
While it sounds complicated, even something simple like lighting a joint or a bowl filled with dried marijuana is decarboxylation. Scott Churchill, director of compliance and methodology at MCR Labs in Framingham, explained that you can see the science at work if you infuse butter or oil with raw cannabis on the stove. The butter will eventually start to bubble as the carbon dioxide is released, and when the bubbles stop forming you know that most of the THCA has been converted to THC. That’s why in most cases, cannabis is heated up before it is consumed, because consuming raw cannabis does not have the same results.
“They are not going to have the acute benefits of the THC and CBD and you are certainly not going to get the hedonistic properties. You’re not going to get high,” said Churchill of consuming raw cannabis.
Decarboxylation is easy to do at home, but not easy to do perfectly. If you’re smoking, you can see that a percentage of the cannabis is simply burned away and not converted into THC. Churchill said that based on tests conducted at MCR Labs, vaporizers are a pretty efficient way to “decarb” cannabis. But what about edibles? Will raw cannabis decarb enough simply through the cooking process?
“It comes down to the consistency of the dose,” Churchill said. “The temperature of the mix (like brownie batter) never really reaches the decarboxylation temperature for long enough. It’s a very inconsistent and inefficient conversion.”
With that in mind, your other option is to decarb your cannabis before cooking with it. There are many tutorials online about decarbing cannabis using a standard kitchen oven or slow cooker. You can decarb plant material, oils, or keif by cooking it in an oven or boiling it in a hot water bath. There is a lot of useful information online about what other people have found works the best.
If that sounds like a lot of work, you’re not wrong. But, the point of decarbing before cooking is to try and get a reliable and consistent edible product. If you know all of the cannabis has been decarbed beforehand, you have a better chance of every brownie (for example) having the same potency. The problem is that home decarb methods are very imprecise. If you over decarb your cannabis, you might burn it and lose some product. If you under decarb it you will have THCA that goes unconverted and is thus wasted in the final edible product. One entrepreneur in Boston, Shanel Lindsay, designed a solution to her home decarboxylation problems that is now sold all over the world: the NOVA Decarboxylator.
Lindsay is the president and founder of Ardent, a Boston-based biotech and medical cannabis device company, and helped to design the decarboxylator after spending 17 years decarbing her own medicinal cannabis at home to treat ovarian cysts.
“I loved the medicine I was able to make from it but there were a lot of problems,” Lindsay said. “It smelled up the house.”
In addition to the smell, Lindsay realized that the product she made in the oven wasn’t consistent. According to Lindsay, when she was able to send her home decarbed product to a laboratory to be tested, she found out that she was only getting about 60 to 75 percent of the THCA converted to THC, even after 17 years of practice.
“(I thought) how is anyone who isn’t a scientist going to do this?” Lindsay said.
NOVA is a small thermos sized machine that has sensors to decarb your cannabis automatically without the threat of burning it or not decarbing it to completion. While decarbing on your own in an oven is possible, Lindsay found that decarbing in the NOVA results in a 97 percent conversion rate when it is tested in a lab.
Even though do-it-yourself decarbing methods work for many people, products like NOVA represent a move in the industry to allow people to produce more accurate and reliable doses at home. A 97 percent conversion to THC means that you can more consistently predict how much THC is contained in each brownie you are making, which is then safer and easier to consume for medicinal and recreational purposes. As the industry in Massachusetts grows, products like decarboxylators will help more people to access the benefits of cannabis at home, without smoking.
“Cannabis should be the crown jewel of the wellness routine,” Lindsay said.
Figuring out what method of decarbing works best for you might help it become just that.