CBD Decarboxylation: Why Is It Important?

illustration of decarboxylation process using an oven
Written by Nina Julia | Last updated: November 15, 2021

Everyone says that you have to heat cannabis to get the full effect, even if you’re just eating it in an edible. How true is this?

Sometimes, the effect you get from ingesting a cannabinoid depends on your body and how it metabolizes these special chemicals. Other times, you don’t get any effect simply because the plant was not treated properly during preparation.

Active medicinal plants that they are, cannabinoids must be handled not only with love and care but also with precision and accuracy.

Research shows that heating CBDs does decarboxylate its constituents, releasing their active form and resulting in more yield from an equal amount of the product. If you’ve been ingesting the buds without heating, sorry to say, but you’ve been wasting a huge percentage of it.

Learning how to activate cannabis is extremely important, especially if you plan to use it for extraction and cooking, or baking. To prepare an edible that packs a punch, you need to know all the secrets to activate the buds. Yes, that means you’ll be doing the dirty work and digging into the chemistry of decarboxylation.

In this article, we will go in-depth and discover the best ways to activate cannabinoids and minimize effects-causing wastage.

What is Decarboxylation?

Leave all that difficult chemistry behind. Decarboxylation is simply a means of converting one chemical into another. It is a process that occurs in almost every living cannabis plant, but it takes place at such an incredibly slow rate that it would take years for a bud to reach its full potency. That is where the heat comes in.

Heat is not directly responsible for the decarboxylation of cannabinoids; the process is already happening on its own. What heat does is speed up the reaction rate by so much that in around 60  minutes, you will have converted almost 90% of all present cannabinoids to their active forms.

Decarboxylation is an important process for the extraction method. Before decarboxylation, cannabis contains acidic forms of cannabinoids that aren’t chemically active despite their potential health benefits.  The COOH group, which identifies them as organic acids, sort of locks in their cognitive effects. Raw cannabis ingested in this form might as well be grass. 

When supplied with sufficient heat, the carboxyl group gains enough chemical energy to break away. When it does, the compound loses its acidic property (COOH). Hence it is no longer an organic acid.

Let’s look at a practical example. Cannabis contains a very popular cannabinoid called Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. In the raw plant, THC exists as Tetrahydrocannabinoic acid, THCA. Upon heating and subsequent decarboxylation, it releases the odorless gas called CO2. The product formed is THC.  

How are Cannabinoids Formed?

Dry and trimmed cannabis buds stored in a glass jars.

Sadly, it isn’t just as easy as removing a single carboxyl group. The entire cannabinoid is put together from the root, quite literally.

One thing cannabinoids have in common with humans is that every single process spurs off from another process. They are just as complex as your veins and arteries.

Before CBD was formed, there was CBDA, and before CBDA, there was CBGA (cannabigerolic acid), frequently called the mother of all cannabinoids.

CBGA is the precursor for every single cannabinoid that has been identified by humans so far. It is a byproduct formed in the early life of a plant. Because of the presence of this compound during the wee stages of plant growth, cannabinoids must be handled delicately. As the plant grows, the precursor CBGA is converted into over 200 types of cannabinoids. The concentration of these cannabinoids, as well as the type of terpenes present in cannabis, are responsible for the varying characteristics of particular strains of cannabis.

Essentially, CBGA determines the amount and type of cannabinoids found in the plant at any point in its life cycle.

Along with the concentration of the cannabinoids, the method of harvest also affects the type of cannabinoids present. For example, if the plant is harvested too early, it may not contain a sufficient amount of CBDA, which is the precursor for CBD. A strain low in cannabinoids will have less pronounced medicinal effects and reduced potency.

Similarly, if it is harvested too late, it may lose its potency or distinctive aroma. Cannabinoids should always be grown and harvested by an expert biologist or botanist to preserve materials as well as save time.

What Effect Does Heat Have on Cannabinoids?

The day man discovered the fire was indeed the beginning of a new era and an opening of the door of possibilities. Heat is a very important tool in chemistry and the biology of plants. However, such an indispensable and powerful tool must also have limitations.

In this case, aside from that, fire could turn your beloved medicinal plants into ash. It could also damage the bud and prevent the release of the desired ingredients.

That just works against the whole purpose of the plant.

To be able to decarboxylate cannabis effectively, you need to answer two questions;

How low is too low? And how high is too high?

If you have too little heat, you’ll get nothing out of your buds. The result is the same if you use too much heat; either you get nothing, or it ruins the entire taste and the experience leaves you scarred for a while.

After years of continuous research, it was discovered that even cannabinoids have an optimal temperature, a temperature at which they maintain their maximum efficacy, the plant material remains healthy and uncharred, and the inactive constituents are converting to their active counterparts readily. This temperature is known as the sweet spot for cannabis.

It is common knowledge that cannabinoids should be steadily heated to 105℃ and maintained at that temperature for around 60 minutes. This is a special note for those who want to make homemade CBD oils.

How to Properly Decarboxylate Cannabinoids

heating crushed hemp flower bud using the oven

Even before the advent of cannabis in conventional medicine, it had been used for years by herbalists and botanists. Each specialist had their method of curating the herb, but they all agreed that the most effective and most rapid way to activate a cannabinoid was to employ heat.

Now, remember, THC isn’t the only cannabinoid present in your sample. It may elicit the most cognitive effects, but you also have a host of other compounds which contribute directly or indirectly to the activity of THC — for example, CBG and CBD as well as terpenes. There are several methods of converting THCA and CBDA to THC and CBD, but many of them tether the border of wasting the beneficial material.

To keep the temperature under supervision, it is best to use an oven. Here are a few heating methods that can be used in the activation of cannabinoids, as well as their advantages and disadvantages.

Brewing

If you love your early morning cup of tea, you should try brewing a cup of homemade cannabis tea from carefully selected buds. You may be tempted to say that you’ve tried that once before, and it tasted like grass, but let’s apply one or two tricks, shall we?

For baking purposes, cannabinoids are usually heated to 100℃ for about an hour. Brewing your tea for just 15 minutes will not be enough. It also seems impractical to boil a few buds for an hour just because you want a drink. You’re trying to get a cup of tea, not make a stew!

To save time and get the most out of your material, preheat the buds in a thick-walled glass jar. The jar should be kept in a water bath and gently heated to 100℃. After this stock is prepared, subsequent brews will require only reheating, and you’re good to go. 

Direct Heat and Cooking

With or without food, some people prefer to roast the plant in a pan over direct heat. Others prefer to add it to almost cooked food and let the heat do its work. At this stage, the heat is only able to affect a small percentage of its duty. The plant is activated, but it could be so much more potent.

Such direct methods are prone to overheating which may altogether ruin the material and uneven heating. With these methods, it is virtually impossible to get all the buds roasted, and the ones that do get roasted haven’t reached their full capacity.

These methods also need constant monitoring, aka stirring. You better not take your eyes off that pot. However, if it is the only method available within your means, you can go ahead with it. Half bread is better than none, isn’t it?

Smoking

Probably the most generic method of consuming cannabinoids, smoking releases the active compounds by making use of steam. When you take a draw, the steam at the tip of the blunt courses through its length, taking a stream of the active ingredients into your mouth.

A lot of waste is involved in this process, but it is faster and requires no setup. All you need is some Rizla and a lighter.

Baking in the Oven

The oven method is the most dynamic of all activation methods. It requires little or no stirring, and it has a great turnover rate and, better still, no preliminary steps; you just get right into it. One thing worthy of note is this; heating in an oven will express over 90% of active constituents. These include the terpenes responsible for the aroma. You’ll be stuck with the soothing aroma of marijuana for a while; on your clothes, your couch, your hair.

How to activate cannabinoids using an oven

  1. Preheat the oven to 90–110℃
  2. Place the cannabis buds on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper
  3. Break the buds into smaller pieces to increase surface area and enhance penetration.
  4. Cover sheet with parchment paper to prevent loss of volatile terpenes
  5. Place baking sheet into the oven and steadily raise the temperature to 105℃
  6. Hold the oven at this temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  7. Allow the dried buds to cool naturally. Do not refrigerate as sharp rises and falls in temperature affect the release of cannabinoids.
  8. Store in an airtight jar, away from direct sunlight.

Conclusion

Cannabinoids, such as THC, CBD, and CBG, hold great therapeutic potential that can be used to treat myriads of health conditions. These components, however, naturally exist as THCA, CBDA, and CBGA. In all the mentioned cases, the suffix “A” added to their names indicates that they are organic acids. They must be converted into their active form by decarboxylation. Since heat speeds up the rate of this reaction, it can be used to enhance as well as trigger the activation of cannabinoids.

The most efficient way to activate cannabinoids is to subject them to dry heat in the oven. This method requires minimal assistance, it maintains a steady heat inflow and it yields good results as regards taste and potency. 

How do you decarboxylate CBD?

References

  1. Moreno, T., Dyer, P., & Tallon, S. (2020). Cannabinoid Decarboxylation: A Comparative Kinetic Study. Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, 59(46), 20307-20315 
  2. Perrotin-Brunel, H., Buijs, W., Van Spronsen, J., Van Roosmalen, M. J., Peters, C. J., Verpoorte, R., & Witkamp, G. J. (2011). Decarboxylation of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol: Kinetics and molecular modeling. Journal of Molecular Structure, 987(1-3), 67-73. (2)
  3. Shoyama, Y., Tamada, T., Kurihara, K., Takeuchi, A., Taura, F., Arai, S., … & Kuroki, R. (2012). Structure and function of∆ 1-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) synthase, the enzyme controlling the psychoactivity of Cannabis sativa. Journal of molecular biology, 423(1), 96-105. (3)
  4. Decarboxylation: How to activate cannabis/THC by Emily Earlenbaugh, PhD. Sep 15, 2019 (4)
  5. Sensi-Seeds, M. (2020, April 29). Decarboxylation of CBD and THC– That’s How You Activate Cannabis. Mark Sensi-Seeds. Retrieved October 24, 2021, from https://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/decarboxylation-of-cbd-and-thc-thats-how-you-activate-cannabis/ (5)

Nina created CFAH.org following the birth of her second child. She was a science and math teacher for 6 years prior to becoming a parent — teaching in schools in White Plains, New York and later in Paterson, New Jersey.

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