Apr 03 2017 . 12 min read

Laws of Extraction

Laws of Extraction

The potency of concentrates makes them popular but they do come with a few explosive downsides

The potency of concentrates makes them popular but they do come with a few explosive downsides

By Richard S. Gubbe

Budder, badder, honeycomb, flower, kief and oil sound like ingredients in a culinary creation from Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party. All that’s needed for this concoction is a can of bisque to get started.

The above are actually the many varieties of concentrates that make up more than one-third of the buying power at a Nevada dispensary, which is now more than the flower and edible categories. That figure is likely to rise as the industry gets safer, more environmentally friendly and more creative in separating oil from plant to create a very concentrated form of the plant’s active ingredients.

While there are many pluses, there are potential perils as well, with risks shared by both manufacturers and consumers. A line is being drawn with the thinking that solvents, no matter how little remain in the final product, have left their mark during the process. The addition of a toxin or the altering of the original profile of the flower has consequences for the plant profile with benefits to the patient. There are advantages to all extraction methods, such as using altered profiles in a pharmaceutical way to affect change for certain illnesses.


A Concentrated History

The most basic way to extract began when the first human hand rolled a cannabis bud around and around to separate the plant from the oil. This “system” gave birth to hashish and that method is still used today. In the Netherlands, for instance, black hand-rolled Nepalese hash from India and Nepal is supplied to more than 250 coffee shops. Hash oil from heated cannabis was prominent in the states in the early ‘70s and was heated in a glass pipe. 

When open butane systems came along, the cost and risks were high to obtain the precious oils of CBD, THC and terpenes combined in one mixture. The open loop system of pushing butane through a tube of flower and taking out the oil while the butane was released into the atmosphere was stone-age thinking reserved for people who don’t mind an explosion or two.

The closed-loop system followed and was safer. But butane, although contained and recycled in the closed loop, is dangerous to inhale. Most of the butane is recaptured while the oil separates to become what is commonly called shatter. Shatter can be manipulated to form budder, batter, honeycomb or wax and packaged to sell. The oil can then be filtered further to eliminate all foreign chemical agents for distillate concentrates, edibles, body oils and CBD-only or CBD dominated products used in vape pens and creams.

The extraction of butane after the initial separation of oil is separated into THC, CBD, and terpenes. The elements can be mixed or used separately. Cartridges can then be filled for vaporizing pens, but chemicals for texture along with flavoring and food additives are sometimes added, causing health concerns.

Now the industry has come full circle, providing solvent-less products although higher in price.


Young and Restless Chefs

Extraction expertise is the realm of the young. While patients cover all ages, those in the manufacturing side are predominantly under 25. Kyle Feria, chief of extraction at EPC labs, and Alec Blaeser, head of the extraction room for Shango, are two examples of those forging careers from street knowledge into positions of stature in Nevada. Both lab wizards have worked in labs in other states and spend their days tinkering with gadgets, temperature, and pressure to separate plant from product. 

EPC is an earth-friendly MME producing only organic products, while Shango is a full-service facility from flower to cookies. They differ on the use of butane. Shango has a high customer demand for concentrates and also makes like Willy Wonka with an array of edibles, all created at one site. While butane extraction leads specific profiles, there is the constant threat of explosion.

“The whole job is dangerous most of the day,” Blaeser says of working in an extraction facility. “It takes a lot of focus and dedication.”

Think of an extraction facility as a group of Keebler
elves working hard and creating new products as they go, while simultaneously conforming to stringent state- mandated regulation.

The reasoning is easy to understand: vapor and liquid ingestion is better than the evils that accompany smoking anything. Hard to explain to someone who is ill that they have to smoke something to feel better when they can eat it, vaporize, or apply it to their skin.

Before flower makes a trip to the lab to be tested it is cured and flash frozen. The most ideal way is to freeze the product while it grows, but most often the freezing comes after the stalk is cut down. Some wait until the bud is separated to freeze it, but that isn’t an optimum procedure for quality assurance. This will disturb the trichomes prior to extraction.

The leaf from the plant is more valued these days. Rather than using it in prerolls, the leaf is full of trichomes and kief that can be harvested to make hash, bubble hash and more. The entire plant is used in some capacity.


Please Pass the Solvent

Once the buds are separated, they are put into a long cylinder and loaded into the extraction system. A supply of butane is then cooled into a vapor and sent through the cylinder. The oils extracted from the plant material are collected into a separate chamber. The hardened oil can be packaged and sold as shatter, which is a popular consistency to use for vaporizing in small amounts or “dabs.”

“Everything starts out as shatter and then you can turn it into anything you want,” Blaeser says. “You’re taking out most of the butane to get as close to zero as possible.”

According to state testing agents, excessive amounts of butane are typically found in extractions. Extractions can contain up to 500 parts per million (called RSA on a state label) with an average of 25 to 250 found on most shatter.

“I’m worried about what that does to you in the long-term,” says Feria. “There is not enough research or history on the health aspect.”

The industry is concerned too. Matthew Gardiner, VP at Shango, notes, “You are going to see a lot more solvent-less products in the future.”

Rosin is the best example of an easier method of extraction but with a lower return on oil. A hair straightener was one crude way to extract oil, now the method is more advanced but not that large of a yield when using butane. Rosin is a relatively new extraction technique utilizing mechanical separation involving precise heat, pressure and timing to create terpene-rich oils similar to extracts created using hydrocarbons.

“I prefer badder because there are a lot more terpenes in badder and less of them evaporate,” Blaeser says, noting that “it’s like scooping ice cream.”

By taking the process one step further with CO2 extraction, called distillate, it contains no butane but is separated into terpenes, CBD, and THC.


Apothecary Style

“It takes a lot of practice but you can create your own ratio,” says Blaeser, who started as a medical patient and, at age 24, has years of manufacturing experience from Colorado. He is working on HCSFE (high cannabinoid full spectrum extract) and HTFSE (high terpene full spectrum extract) methods for mixing products to order. Blaeser created a CBD-dominant mixture called Charlotte’s Cherries, using coconut oil as an additive.

With all their licenses, Shango has the flexibility to fill a customer order for a specific illness. “We would love to fill something and have the evidence it worked,” Gardiner says.

Feria, despite his age, is more old-fashioned. “You’re playing God at this point,” Feria explains of mixing elements. “Besides destroying the structure, you are losing the full spectrum and capability of what that plant can do. We don’t destroy that structure.”

EPC makes rosin chips using food-grade pressing screens. They also produce whole plant cannabis capsules made with organic virgin coconut oil as well as temple ball hash as high as 80 percent THC without solvents, and ice water sieve to collect ripe trichome heads. EPC also utilizes heat press and low-temp vapor distillation.

“For people medicating with hash, you get more of your life back -- you don’t have to medicate as often,” Feria relayed to elevate. To further avoid butane, “I light a hemp wick with a lighter and hover it above the ball until it bubbles.”

Feria often goes to the harvest of plants to assure the process is performed in the same day. “We eliminate the need for solvents and expensive machinery and are able to provide the community with the highest quality clean concentrates,” says EPC boss Rick Stierwalt. “The way he (Feria) does it is more enriched than going through cutting and stripping machines. It’s like a hand-crafted Bentley versus a Ford.”

When Steinwalt submitted his temple ball hash for the first time to the state for approval, “The state said, ‘Wow, this in on point and at a whole new level,’” Stierwalt recalls. “Cannabis products need only meet state standards and earth-friendly derivations have been welcomed thus far.”

For EPC, they use nothing but organic right down to the packaging. “The mandate is to make good medicine and we think solvent-less is the best way to make medicine,” Stierwalt says. “We don’t want to enter any process into the medicine.”

Or be a polluter. “We believe so much in the environment that we package temple balls with hemp and you can light it with hemp and not let butane touch your product. Our philosophy is being respectful of the earth and the people on the earth,” explains Stierwalt. “We use recycled bags, recycled water, and packaging that will stamp into the ground and sprout flowers.”

Feria says it’s easy to bypass solvents when medicating. “You can put some crumble on top of a bowl or put a fuse of pressed rosin in the core of a joint. Those are simple ways to get the full effect of a concentrate using familiar tools,” he offers. “A hash pipe can take a few different forms but is essentially a pipe with a very fine screen.”

The more steps taken in extraction, generally, the more the product costs, but for most, $30 of cannabis disappears faster than smoking a half-gram of concentrate.


A Little Dab’ll Do Ya

The rig: Just as the Brylcreem commercial boasted, just a little dab... In order to heat the oil enough to turn it to vapor, the most common method is from a “rig.” The rig can be an elaborate or compact glass apparatus that resembles what old-timers call a bong. But to heat the "nail" or "bucket" (quartz, ceramic or titanium) that a dab is inserted on, a blow torch, small as it is,
is necessary. The rig will stop most Baby Boomers from doing
this procedure on their own, although there’s evidence even grandma dabs (search “dads with dabs” videos). For the experienced dabber, the rig is not a big deal, although technological advancements will lead to a better way in the
not-to-distant future.

The Volcano”: Ground fresh flower heats up in a glass bowl above the element in the vaporizer. There are many kinds of vaporizers, but the Volcano is the most efficient and versatile. A coupler is placed over the heat element and air is sucked through a tube. The flower is heated anywhere from 260 up to 300 degrees, hot enough to separate the  oil to breathe in without lighting the flower on fire. This may be overall the safest system in play. No torches and no smoke, only vapor and electricity.

Dab pens: They have a compartment for flower or concentrate and a more powerful battery.

Syringes: A thinner, syrup-like substance is easier to handle and more easily diluted.

Vape pens: “For the beginner, I recommend a pen – it’s a lot less complicated and more accessible,” suggests Blaeser. This portable, ingenious system uses a new type of battery that can heat oil into vapor. They are discrete, not smelly, and last long. There are disposable units that start around $22 for a quarter gram of extract. A full gram is priced between $50 to $75.

Vape pens can contain any mix of THC, CBD, and terpenes. Clear oil is CBD only, with a food additive often added to give the vapor a white color to resemble smoke. A solvent is usually added for less expensive pens to achieve proper viscosity. Vape pens can contain propylene glycol, also called propane-1,2-diol, a synthetic organic compound that is a colorless liquid with a faintly sweet taste that “winterizes” or thins the oil. Chemically it is classed as a diol and is miscible with a broad range of solvents, including water, acetone and chloroform. It is used in the production of polymers as well as used in food processing and as a process fluid in low temperature heat exchange applications such as vape pens. “Our vape pens are uncut and we don’t add anything to it. Others add a solvent for viscosity of the oil in order for a cheap cartridge to burn it. We use a high-end without glycerin,” explains Feria of EPC’s solvent-less pens. “I don’t believe in flavoring.”

Can’t I just take a pill? Soon. The race is on to perfect the extraction process while also improving on the delivery for consumption. All that’s needed is a formula. See the March issue of elevate for the story (page 30) on forthcoming pharmaceuticals.

Until then, yabba, dabba doo or don’t – it is your choice.