While the cannabis extraction process can be challenging to understand, it is extremely critical to do so towards educating yourself about what you are using, how it works, and what it work on. It all leads to a better, more wholesome experience towards meeting your health goals. It is challenging, but not impossible. It took me a bit to get a good grasp of the terminology, even as a nurse with a background in science, to understand what it means and how the varieties can affect our bodies. I hope to shed some light—and lessen the learning curve for you—below.
The first step that producers or home growers must take is generating a high enough concentration of the powerful active cannabinoids from the plant, such as THC or CBD. If you have a plant or plain flower at home, then the raw plant has high amounts of THCa (Tetrahydrocarbon Acid) and CBDa (Cannabidiol Acid), and very small amounts of THC and CBD. THCa and CBDa are precursor (and relatively inactive) compounds and turn into the active forms through a process called “decarboxylation.” By the addition of heat, THCa and CBDa release a carboxyl group (COOH for the organic chemistry nerds) and convert into the active THC and CBD molecules. This process happens in “real-time” for smokers when they light up their THC cannabis or hemp. However, in batches for oils or edibles, it occurs by applying a specific amount of heat over time. Typically, the flower is heated to a temperature of 220-230 degrees Fahrenheit, but careful not to go too high! At temperatures over 300 degrees the molecule starts to break down, terpenes may evaporate and be lost—which is undesirable. Unless, of course, you are intentionally trying to degrade the THC into CBN, another cannabinoid with its own positive properties (see – I said it was complicated!).
After decarboxylation, the active compounds that you want to isolate are extracted, usually into a fat based carrier because hemp and cannabis are hydrophobic (moves away from water) and lipophilic (moves towards fat). There are varieties of extraction methods available depending on what you are trying to isolate.
Ethanol: This method utilizes high proof grain alcohol (think Everclear). The alcohol soaks up the desired compounds so they can then be separated from the rest of the plant and collected as the ethanol evaporates. This is a great extraction technique in that it is safe and ensures high quality. It can also be done at home. However, one reason that some folks do not care for it is that this extraction method pulls chlorophyll out and the product can look green and have an herbal or grass-like taste. Although that is good news if you are into health and clean eating, as chlorophyll is actually good for us!
CO2 Extraction: This method uses pressurized CO2 gas to extract desirable individual cannabinoids. Many food products use this method in order to tailor their products specifically to what consumers want. This is a clean, effective, and high quality method of extraction. However, it requires complicated and expensive equipment that may not be available, or feasible, for small operations or home growers.
Hydrocarbon extractions (Example: Butane): There is a lot of debate around hydrocarbon in the cannabis industry as many products are made this way. It is quick, affordable, and efficient. If done right removing all of the butane from the final product, then this is a fine method. However, if Butane remains in the final product, it can potentially be harmful. This is because when heated it becomes benzene, which is a carcinogen. Only purchase products that utilize hydrocarbon extraction if you can review lab reports and COA’s (Certificate of Analysis).
Once extracted, cannabinoids can be prepared into a variety of final products with different effects on the body.
Full Spectrum: I recommend full spectrum because it has the widest range of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other beneficial compounds such as minerals, electrolytes, vitamins, and protein. Full spectrum products contain 0.3% or more of THC.
Broad Spectrum: Similar to Full Spectrum but with an attempt to remove as much THC as possible. This type of CBD still has some other cannabinoids and terpenes in it.
Nano Spectrum: This is a new type of formulation created in a lab. Nanotechnology has existed in the pharmaceutical industry for about 10 years. The rationale towards why some companies advertise and pay for nanotechnology is that this method can increase the bioavailability of CBD. Remember, CBD is fat-soluble and orally we only absorb about 6% to 9% of what we swallow (do not worry; CBD companies take metabolism into account to make their products accordingly). Nano-technology would allow for more of the CBD to make its way into the body. Caveat: this formulation has not been studied extensively and there is at least one case study citing a poor outcome due to liposomal CBD causing a severe drug interaction that resulted in a terrible and life threatening reaction.
Isolate: This formulation offers only CBD without any of the other cannabinoids or terpenes. This is expensive to make, and sometimes the end product does not work that well. That makes sense scientifically because of the entourage effect, where our endocannabinoid receptors work better when there are multiple cannabinoids, such as THC, present in addition to the CBD.
Most of these methods of extraction do end up with products that have 0.3% THC, and sometimes more, in them. That percentage is what is legally allowed in CBD products. That specific percentage of THC has no clinical significance that we know of (other than it is too low to “get you high”) and the 2018 agriculture bill that set this limit essentially chose an arbitrary low number at random. Note: If you have a job where you will be drug tested, then this may not be the product for you as even these small amounts of THC could cause the drug screen to test positive.
A few additional things to keep in mind. Always look out for lab testing! Full Spectrum will have the cannabinoids, terpenes (these are good things) and a list of pesticides and heavy metals (bad things) that are present in the products. People who are susceptible to fungal infections should definitely only use CBD products that are certified and lab tested to ensure purity. This is because mold, mildew, and other fungi can be present inside plant tissue and not visible to the naked eye. Molds, such as aspergillus, may be found inside untested and poorly grown/extracted CBD oil. While often harmless to humans, they can pose a significant risk to those who are immunocompromised.
All Equilibria products are Full Spectrum and lab tested. Lab test results of their Full Spectrum products are available to customers and constantly updated, so consumers know exactly what they are putting into their bodies. The more you know, the better your cannabis journey will be!
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