Cannabis comes in many forms and can be consumed nearly any way you please: pop an edible in your mouth, drip some tincture under your tongue, slap on a patch, load a bong, or take a dab. You’ll feel the effects of THC at different rates with each method. But what happens if you try to eat a raw cannabis flower? Not much. The difference is decarboxylation. 

Shortened to “decarb” by some in the industry, decarboxylation is a chemical reaction that activates the THC (and the high) in cannabis. On a chemical level, when the cannabinoid THCA is exposed to heat, light, co-factors, or certain solvents, it is decarboxylated and releases carbon dioxide and water vapor as a result. This leaves a very active THC responsible for the psychotropic effects in cannabis. 

Products like infused edibles, tinctures and RSO are decarboxylated during processing and already activated before you consume them (the effects are not immediate as your body needs to process it). Chrystal Ortiz, a cannabis farmer in Redcrest, California, has been making RSO and other infusions for decades, and explained where decarboxylation happens in her process during a weekend workshop on her farm. 

“Last time I made RSO, I decarboxylated it all in alcohol, heating it until it evaporated off,” Ortiz said. She used several slow cookers to do the heating, since solvents are flammable. “I mixed this one with the MCT oil, this one with just the alcohol. I actually constituted cannabis oil without the alcohol and then re-added the alcohol, which people think is really weird. The reason I did that is because I wanted the ratios. I wanted to be able to test it and be able to know the potency of the oil that I made first.” 

For cannabis flower, hash, oils and other products to smoke and vape, the decarboxylation happens when you flick your lighter or heat up the dab rig. It’s the heat that makes it happen. Cannabis has to be dried just right so you can get a satisfying taste and effect when the flame strikes, according to Kevin Jodrey, renowned propagator and owner of Wonderland Nursery in Garberville, California. 

“It takes a long time at that level to get the moisture out of the cannabis. Air movement is important,” Jodrey said. “To decarb properly, you need to have even moisture levels all the way through.” As the new industry works to find its ground, Jodrey said that shelf life and holdability are going to be key factors for farmers’ flowers.

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