What Is Decarboxylation?

Here’s a scenario we have all seen in film before: Somebody consumes an entire bag of raw cannabis in order to avoid getting caught with it. Eyes pop wide open and gasps ensue. “You just ate that whole bag!” somebody shouts.

However, the aftermath of this scene usually involves a very different representation of what actually happens when you consume raw cannabis. Spoiler alert: The effects will be lackluster at best. Why is this the case?

The answer to this mystery lies in a process called decarboxylation, one that is necessary for us to enjoy the psychoactive effects of the cannabinoids we consume.

What Is Decarboxylation?

Why is Decarboxylation Important?

Decarboxylation is one of the most important processes when making edibles, tinctures, and other consumable goods, because there is no heat added during consumption of these products. Decarbing activates the plant’s most essential cannabinoids: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). For smokeables, decarboxylation prior to consumption is not necessary, as it happens when the flame or electric heating element hits the plant.

Freshly harvested and un-decarboxylated cannabis flower contains an excess of cannabinoid acids that have little to no psychoactive benefit until processors decarboxylate them. Decarboxylating cannabis essentially flips a switch that converts cannabinoid acids into THC and CBD.

The decarboxylation reaction is important because the heating process converts tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), the non-psychoactive cannabinoid acid, into the highly intoxicating THC compound that produces euphoria. Decarbing cannabis also converts cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) into CBD which is tamer when compared to the effects of THC.

Without the important conversion using heat, THCA and CBDA are not able to pass the blood-brain barrier to activate cannabinoid receptors. In particular, THCA is not able to target the CB1 receptor that causes psychoactive effects.

THC and CBD function as partial agonists or agonists of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Consuming decarboxylated cannabis can have effects on multiple body functions determined by the ECS such as sleep, appetite, pain, inflammation, immune response, and mood. Decarbed THC and CBD can then be infused when cooking a small or large volume of cannabis infused products.

Medical patients treating their symptoms with oral or topical medical marijuana must ensure their cannabis is decarboxylated. Commercial manufacturers take care of the extraction and decarboxylation process to ensure the infused product is ready to consume after purchase.

Decarbing is also essential for its ability to introduce active cannabis compounds into a wide array of products to suit individual delivery preferences. Without decarboxylation, consumers wouldn’t have the choice of a variety of edible, sublingual, and topical solutions such as gummies, brownies, tinctures, syringes, suppositories, capsules, 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.  

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.  

DECARBOXYLATION MYTHS

Fresh and Cured Bud Need Different Decarboxylation Methods

This myth takes a few different forms. Most people think “fresh and cured bud decarb at different rates” or “fresh bud won’t decarb – you have to remove the moisture.” While some others think that, “curing the bud decarbs it anyways, so why do I need to do anything after that?”

Fresh bud can easily be decarbed in the right conditions. It’s a good way to preserve more terpenes in the final product (think about the smell of fresh vs. dried flowers and other plant material).

In a controlled setting, decarbing fresh bud takes the same amount of time as decarbing cured bud. Most importantly, properly cured bud does not go through the full activation when it is going through the drying and curing process that is required for the active decarboxylation process.

In the examples above, notice that proper curing never leads to a significant decarb of dried and cured cannabis flower.

The fact is, no more more than 1% THC is observed, while the average range is 0-6% of total available THC was fully decarboxylated.

Only when cannabis has been improperly stored (in a mason jar, for example) and exposed to bright light or high temperatures does it become slightly more decarbed. It is also possible that the plant goes through a degradation process if exposed to extreme sunlight. The decarb is nowhere near complete, even in extreme circumstances of exposure.

You Can’t Get More than 70% Decarb Before You Start to Destroy THC

This myth comes from one of the most widely promoted and most inaccurate decarb fables that stem from this often referenced, yet largely inapplicable graph.

For many years the inhabitants of the internet have treated this graph as gospel. A quick review readily shows why it’s not a reliable source.

First, it’s the decarb of a hexane extract in an open container on a hot plate. With this material in these circumstances, indeed, you can’t get a full Decarb without destroying THC (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid). However, we have come a long way from the early ’90s. We have more knowledge about the process of decarboxylation, the chemical reactions that occur during the process, and how to create the perfect environment for more efficient decarb.

It’s Easy to Decarboxylate Using What’s in Your Kitchen

It’s hard out there for patients who want to start decarbing cannabis, but are immediately bombarded with an array of different opinions on the best way to decarb. Most patients end up getting it wrong (resulting in wasted cannabis) and never stop struggling to find detailed instructions on how to get it right.

Any of these sound familiar?

  • Crockpot for 3 hours… or, wait, is it crockpot for 12 hours?
  • Tied down pressure cookers
  • Monitoring ovens with laser thermometers
  • Endless baking trays and parchment paper

Really, how can a patient NOT be overwhelmed? In the end, not one of these methods allows patients to safely and reliably get the most from their cannabis, and it’s important to understand why.

What Is Decarboxylation?

HOW TO DECARBOXYLATE CANNABIS IN THE OVEN

  • Preheat oven to 250°F. Also, keep in mind that this is will make your house smell strongly of weed for a few hours. You’ve been warned.
  • Line a baking sheet or glass baking dish with parchment paper. This makes it easy to collect and package everything after baking.
  • Choose your cannabis of choice. We specifically save our more fluffy, loose, less-manicured homegrown buds for this. I also like to use the strains we grow that are high in both THC and CBD (as opposed to high-THC, low-CBD strains) to create well-balanced and healing oils or salves. You can obviously do this with a CBD-only strain of cannabis as well. If you’re using homegrown cannabis, it is best to use material that has already been properly dried and cured first. If you need tips about harvesting, drying, and curing homegrown cannabis – see this article.
  • Rip the buds into small pieces. See the photos below for scale. Some people grind their cannabis for decarboxylation, but I don’t find it necessary.
  • Now, decarboxylate the cannabis on 250°F for 25-30 minutes. You could also use a lower temperature for slightly longer time to preserve more terpenes (e.g. 230°F for 45 minutes). Refer to the chart above.
  • Some people cover their baking pan of cannabis with foil or second baking sheet upside down on top, in order trap any cannabinoids or terpenes that may volatilize in the process.
  • When the time is up, remove the tray from the oven and allow the cannabis material to fully cool. It should have changed from green to light brown.
  • Transfer the decarboxylated cannabis into a glass air-tight container with a tight-fitting lid, such as a mason jar.
  • Finally, store the jar of decarbed cannabis in a cool dark place, like you would with other cannabis.
  • Plan to use your decarbed cannabis to make oil, salve or edibles within 3-6 months. I recommend a year maximum, unless you wan’t a sleep aid! It won’t “go bad”, but over time the THC naturally degrades to CBN – a cannabinoid that makes weed very sleepy. 

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