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Cannabis Extracts for the Informed Consumer: Solvent or Solventless

By Nick J. Bucci
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Editor’s Note: Nick Bucci is a freelance cannabis writer. You can view his work here 


As cannabis markets continue to gain traction, inconsistent and largely unpredictable markets have left recreational consumers in an informational fog. Try as the industry may, or may not to inform consumers, the lack of knowledge was evident when an established Colorado hash company opened a second operation in California. Expecting high demand for their solventless concentrates, the demand for their solvent-based counterparts came as a surprise. Initially hoping to eliminate solvent extracts from their product line-up, the company was forced to devote about half their overall production to solvent extracts, until information spreads and attitudes start to change. Over the past year several companies have joined the solventless side of history, but consumer understanding remains largely stagnant. For those immediately overwhelmed by terminology, cannabis extracts, concentrates or hash are all interchangeable terms describing concentrated cannabis. Under these umbrella terms, two distinct categories emerge depending upon whether chemical solvents were or were not used to extract the hash. Hence: solvent or solventless. A brief overview of cannabis concentrates will help consumers to understand the evolution away from solvent extractions and toward a superior solventless future.

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Science and economics merge when considering all the possible uses of concentrated compounds to final product formulations

Before regulated cannabis markets, cannabis extracts had long been in use. These old-world methods of cannabis extraction use very basic solventless techniques to create more potent, concentrated forms of cannabis. Dry sifting is easily the oldest form of cannabis extraction and a prime example of one solventless technique. Something as simple as shaking dried cannabis over metal screens and collecting the residue underneath creates a solventless product called keif. Dark brown bubble-hash, made popular decades ago, is another ancient technique using only ice and water to perform extractions without chemical solvents. After decades of stagnant and limited old-world methods, changes in legislation allowed cannabis sciences to flourish. These old-world hash methods were quickly forgotten, replaced by the astonishing progress of modern solvent extractions.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), just one of hundreds of cannabinoids found in cannabis.

The emergence of solvent extracts revolutionized cannabis around 2011, creating new categories of cannabis products that exploded onto the scene. Not only did solvent extracts produce the most potent and cleanest forms of hash ever seen at this point, it also created new possibilities for hash-oil vape cartridges and cannabis extract infused edibles. These solvent extracts use butane, propane, or other hydrocarbon solvents to extract, or “blast” cannabinoids from the plant. By running solvents through cannabis and then purging or removing leftover, residual solvents, a super-potent, premium hash product is achieved. Regulated markets require testing to ensure only a safe level, if any, of the solvent used in the extraction process remains in the final product. This technology ushered in the first wave of concentrates to medical and recreational markets under the descriptive titles of wax, shatter and crumble. While these effective and affordable products can still be found today, far superior products have largely replaced wax and shatter. Distillation techniques can further purify and isolate THC-a, while removing harmful residual solvents. For a time, Solvent-free was used to describe this ultra-purified distillate, but the needless term has fallen out of use. Solvent-free is still a solvent extraction using chemical solvents, don’t be fooled. Distillation and CO2 extractions have fallen into general disfavor as they destroy the flavorful terpenes and valuable cannabinoids, that when present create an “entourage effect.” This “entourage effect” happens when the medicinal and recreational properties are most effective, pronounced, and impactful due to a full range of terpenes and cannabinoids being present in the final product. With companies manually reintroducing terpenes to their final extracts, it’s an attempt to restore what was lost during solvent extraction processes. Many brands claim to use cannabis derived or food-grade terpenes to infuse or reintroduce terpenes into their purified hash oils. While this adds flavor and taste, especially to distillate cartridges, it’s far from an ideal solution. Armed with this new information, the informed consumer looks for a full profile of terpenes and cannabinoids in their hash.

THC-A crumble, terpene-rich vape oil, THC sap (from left to right).

With terpene preservation a new priority, all aspects of hash making were reevaluated. By using fresh-frozen cannabis flower, solvent extractions quickly reached new heights. Using the same techniques as prior solvent extractions, the cannabis plant is frozen immediately upon harvesting, rather than trimming and drying the crop as usual. Freezing the plant preserves valuable terpenes helping to create a new category for hydrocarbon extracts under the general label of live resins. This live resin, containing vastly greater profiles of terpenes and cannabinoids than earlier waxes, shatters or crumbles is sold as live-resin sauce, sugar, badder, frosting, diamonds and more. Many versions of live resin re-use previous terms that describe consistencies. These live resin solvent extracts outperform the wax, crumble and shatters of old, and are priced accordingly. Some of the best solvent extracts available today use butane to extract hash oil, which forms THC-a crystals and diamonds seen in live resin sauces. Having learned the value of terpenes and cannabinoids, early efforts to purify THC were clearly misled. The industry defining use of fresh-frozen cannabis flowers greatly improved the quality of all extracts having realized the psychoactive effects are largely dependent on the various profiles of cannabinoids and terpenes. Pure THC-a crystals and isolates are easily achieved with solvent extractions but, produce inferior effects both medicinally and recreationally. Discovering the “entourage effect” as described earlier, these elements of cannabis allowed old-world solventless techniques to be re-inspired and reinvigorated with the benefit of healthy genetics and a hearty understanding of past mistakes.

Having gone full circle, solventless techniques are again at the forefront of the cannabis industry, having attained near perfection for our current understanding of cannabis anatomy.

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The increasingly finer mesh works to separate and extract microscopic trichomes

Using the lessons and tendencies of prior extractions, the solventless method, in all its final forms, begin with the same initial process to make ice-water hash oil. Often referred to as solventless hash oil (SHO), fresh-frozen flowers are submerged in ice and water, soaked and agitated before the water is filtered through mesh screens. As these mesh screens are measured by microns, the increasingly finer mesh works to separate and extract microscopic trichomes that break free from the cannabis plant. The 120- and 90-micron mesh screens usually collect pristine trichome heads. After scraping the remaining material from the screens, its sieved onto trays where the hash can dry using modern techniques of sublimation. The results are beyond phenomenal and are sure to shock even life-long cannabis consumers. This technique isolates only the most potent and psychoactive parts of the plant, to produce white to clear solventless ice water hash. When done with precision 6-star ice water hash is formed. The hash can be sold and consumed as is or undergo additional solventless techniques to produce hash-rosin. Not to be confused with live-resins, rosin uses pressure and slight heat to squeeze ice-water hash, into hash-rosin. Some companies have elected to whip their rosins into a solventless badder or allow their hash rosins to undergo a cold cure process that creates textures and varieties like hash rosin sauce. Regardless of the final solventless product, they all begin as ice water extractions. These simple, natural methods of extraction are quickly being adopted by companies known for live resin. As solventless extracts are safer, cleaner and superior in quality to solvent chemical extractions, the race is on as the industry shifts toward a solventless future.

While I’d be happy to never see another solvent extract again, without the miraculous breakthroughs and advances in all aspects of cannabis manufacturing and production we may have not yet arrived where we are today. When using solvents to extract, the trichomes, which contain the full spectrum of terpenes and cannabinoids, are dissolved by the solvent, which is then evaporated off, leaving behind dissolved trichomes. In solventless hash, these trichomes remain whole and are never dissolved or broken down. Instead they are broken free by agitation in ice and water, separating the trichome heads from their less-active stems. These valuable trichomes heads contain everything pertinent and are never destroyed, dissolved or melted like solvent-extractions are forced to do. The benefit of keeping the heads of these trichomes whole results in a far superior product expressing the full profile of terpenes and cannabinoids the way mother nature intended. This natural profile of trichomes lends itself directly to the entourage effect that solvent extracts were found to be missing.

Extraction techniques are not equal and depend upon whether quality or mass production is the aim. Solvent extracts have quickly begun to represent the old-guard of mass-produced cannabis concentrates, with the solventless new-guard focusing on quality, small batch, hash-rosin excellence.

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Is the Green Rush Over?

By Brian Mitchell
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Ever since California legalized medical use of cannabis in 1996, entrepreneurial people and people with money have been looking to turn the cannabis trade into a bonafide industry. The cannabis Green Rush has been a fast and chaotic ride as growing legalization opened myriad opportunities. It seemed for a while that pot was too big to fail.

Yet the second quarter of this year saw the majority of publicly traded cannabis companies recording double-digit losses (with 10 top cannabis stocks with a combined value of $55 billion losing an estimated $21 billion in collective value). Meanwhile, some of the industry’s most recognizable brands are under pressure to cut costs in favor of demonstrable profitability. It is clear that investors have become leery of inflated and unsustainable valuations.

But pot is still too big to fail.

New York Stock Exchange
Image: Rolf Kleef, Flickr

Polls show an ever-growing majority of Americans believe cannabis should be legal, and the number of states with legal weed continues to grow. The state-sanctioned market will reach nearly $13 billion in sales this year, according to BDS Analytics, with about a quarter in California, the largest, most mature legal market in the world. Total U.S. sales are on track to reach $30 billion by 2024. Legal cannabis remains the biggest investment opportunity of our times, but the Green Rush may be over. And that’s a good thing.

Get over the “green rush” mentality

From the Gold Rush to the Dot Com Boom, great opportunities have tended to create irrational mobs. Have you ever watched a group of Black Friday shoppers? In a frenzy, you often do not stop to evaluate if something is a bargain or if you even need the item. In the investment world, that type of frenzy leads to bubbles. When the Dot Com bubble burst in 2000, almost half the industry’s rising tech companies shuttered their doors, and an estimated $4-6 trillion in shareholder wealth vanished.

A similar thing is happening in cannabis.

The end of the Green Rush means we can now focus on safeguarding cannabis’ future, and not pillaging it for a quick profit.Growing legalization has created an influx of capital, but much of the early institutional money and retail investors went to Canada, where the absence of a federal prohibition allowed for a robust financial market to flourish. Canopy Growth Corp. was the first large-cap cannabis company to go public in 2016, followed by other large licensed producers or LPs. Because they are not violating U.S. laws, Canadian cannabis companies were able to uplist to the NASDAQ and NYSE as well.

American cannabis companies on the other hand – unable to freely tap capital markets at home, flooded Bay Street looking to go public on the Canadian Securities Exchange, and the rush went on hyperdrive. Soon market caps became grossly inflated, and too many cannabis companies that were barely showing profit took big gambles with other people’s money. Now, those investors are paying the price.

But a burst bubble is a good thing. It is a correction that forces companies to focus on priorities and fundamentals, and cannabis is no different. The end of the Green Rush is the start of a real industry with surviving operators becoming even stronger, less reliant on speculation and more focused on performance.

There will always be companies going public to create liquidity, and there will always be venture funding at the ready for any promising new startup. But cannabis will only survive if companies focus less on raising money and more on actually running their businesses.

Cannabis is creating unprecedented cultural and lifestyle shifts. It’s helping shape how people assess, diagnose and treat a broad span of health and wellness issues. Cannabis is helping to break the barriers of opioid addiction, and it’s even beginning to rival the alcohol industry. One out of every five beer drinkers in a Nielsen Market Insights report said they will spend less on store-bought beer due to consuming cannabis. Among the 65 percent of people who purchased over-the-counter drugs for pain relief, 35 percent said they will consider cannabis as a substitute.

The end of the Green Rush means we can now focus on safeguarding cannabis’ future, and not pillaging it for a quick profit.