What are Cannabis Concentrates and Extracts?
With rapid onset and stronger cannabinoid potency than dried flower, concentrates and extracts have a lot to offer patients. But what are they, exactly? Here’s a breakdown of what these cannabis products are and how they may help.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the world of concentrates and extracts, you’re certainly not alone. The sheer novelty of many products, along with new modes of use, present a steep learning curve for both patients and medical professionals alike. That being said, concentrates and extracts may offer numerous benefits for patients and are worth exploring further, especially for those looking for more potent effects and more discretion than is typically experienced with dried flower.
What can concentrates and extracts do for patients?
Patients needing a higher dose of cannabinoids can achieve this with concentrates or extracts. For example, cannabis flower with 20% THC can reach 70% or 80% THC when concentrated. As such, a small amount—the size of a grain of rice—can deliver powerful effects. Onset is also swift, with effects within seconds after inhalation. Concentrates can be used on their own or added to cannabis flower to boost the effects of a preferred cultivar (or strain). Keep in mind it’s very easy to over-medicate with concentrates. If inhaling, take one puff from a concentrate-ready vape pen or dab rig and wait five to 10 minutes before taking another.
What are cannabis concentrates and extracts?
Here’s everything you need to know about concentrates, extracts, and their related products:
Concentrates: Think of fruit juice: when excess water and plant materials are removed from fruit juice, the resulting concentrate has an intense fruit flavour. Cannabis concentrates follow a similar process, starting with either dried or frozen cannabis flower. There are several ways to gather plant resins and remove all other materials, from pressing to sifting to chemical solvents to liquid CO2. All methods yield much higher (or ‘concentrated’) levels of cannabinoids per gram than flower, and some even retain terpenes and flavonoids for a broad-spectrum product. While all concentrated forms of cannabis flower can be called concentrates, extracts technically fall into their own subcategory. Below are some of the most common concentrates:
Kief or Kif: Anyone who grinds their own dried flower will have noticed a sand-like powder that collects at the bottom of the grinder. This terpene-rich substance is kief, or kif, and is made up of separated resin heads. Cannabinoid potency can range between 10% to 25%, although commercially-made kief will be much higher. If you collect your own, it can be sprinkled over cannabis flower before smoking or vaporizing or added into coffee or tea —the warmth from the beverage is enough to activate the cannabinoids, with similar onset to an edible. Commercially available kief is explained in more detail below.
Hash: People have been making hash for centuries, and because it does not require chemical solvents, many patients currently prefer hash. Needing heat to activate the compounds, hash products can be either inhaled with a dab rig or concentrate-ready vape pen, added to dried flower in a joint or vaporizer, or infused into foods. Here are all the different ways it’s made:
Rubbed hash: An ancient method still used in humid regions such as India, Nepal and the Caribbean, rubbed hash is made by rubbing cannabis flower between hands or cloth materials until resins stick and can be scraped off. This is the basis of charas, which is thought to be the very first concentrate. Charas, or finger hash, is sometimes further formed into pressed hash. Rubbed hash is not currently available in the regulated market in Canada.
Dry sieved/dry sift hash or kief: While un-sifted kief resembles the colour of sand, sieved kief ranges from pale brown to nearly white, depending on how many times it passes through fine sieves to catch plant materials and trichome stalks. In the highest quality sieved kief, only the pearly trichome resin heads remain. The term full-melt hash is sometimes used to define the quality of dry sieved kief, which will melt completely when in contact with heat.
Ice water “bubble” hash: An alternative to sieving, ice water hash starts with either dried flower or fresh-frozen flower that is plunged into ice-cold water, causing the trichome hairs to become brittle. From there, the trichome heads are separated and sieved from the liquid with special nylon mesh bags. Ice water hash has the moniker “bubble” hash because of how it bubbles when exposed to heat.
Pressed hash or hashish: This brick-like product is what most people recognize as ‘hash’. It’s traditionally made by gently heating sieved kief, or more commonly today, ice water hash until it reaches an elastic consistency before being pressed into blocks and wrapped with cloth or cellophane. However, un-sifted kief can also be heated and made into pressed hash, which typically skews darker on the colour scale. Pressed hash varies widely in colour and texture, ranging from pale brown to almost black and soft to brittle. As a general rule, a good-quality hash is fragrant and should smell like the cultivar (or strain) it was made from, though less grassy or “weedy”.
Hash rosin: This runny concentrate is made by applying heat and pressure to either pressed hash, kief, and most often, ice water hash. The result is a malleable, toffee-like product. To remember rosin over resin, think of a rose pressed between pages of a book: Rosin = pressed concentrate; resin = sticky plant substance.
Flower rosin: Like hash rosin, flower rosin is made by applying heat and pressure to dried cannabis flower. Resins separate from the plant material without solvents and often retain many of the cultivar’s (or strain’s) terpenes along with cannabinoids. Flower rosin can sometimes taste more grassy than hash rosin, which some patients may like or dislike depending on preference.
Distillates: Many foods we consume are distilled, from vinegar to vodka. Cannabis distillates are made using the same distillation process: an extract is boiled at specific temperatures to target individual cannabinoids (each has its unique boiling point), which separates them from the fats, terpenes and other materials present in the extract. The cannabinoid-rich vapour is then collected to make distillate, usually, 80 to 90 percent of a single cannabinoid or a mix, which is then added to edibles, vape cartridge oils, cannabis oils or capsules. Distillates sometimes have botanical or synthetic terpenes added back in.
Isolates: Cannabis isolates refer to plant compounds that have been fully isolated, usually in the form of CBD isolate or THC isolate. While distillates are an oily liquid that can contain a mixture of cannabinoids or even some terpenes, isolates are powder or crystals made up of nearly 100% of the isolated CBD or THC molecule. Isolates can be derived from distillates, concentrates or extracts that are further refined to the molecular level. Powdery isolates are very versatile, needing no decarboxylation (heating) to activate. They are easy to dose and can be added to foods or even creams for a topical. Isolate crystals can also be vaporized with a dab rig, a concentrate-ready dab pen, or sprinkled into dried flower in a joint or vaporizer.
Extracts: Cannabis extracts are made with a liquid solvent, similar to how food-grade extracts are made, such as vanilla. Because not all concentrates use solvents, not all concentrates are technically extracts, although these terms are often used interchangeably. Many cannabis extracts are ready after the extraction process, such as bubble hash or wax (defined in more detail below). Sometimes extracts are then further concentrated into products such as distillates, cannabis oils or vape pens cartridges. Again, if a product doesn’t use a solvent, such as dry-sifted kief, it isn’t technically an extract, although very few people apply this distinction. Below are some of the most common extracts, explained:
Butane hash oil or BHO: This term refers to the chemical solvent used—butane or sometimes propane—to make a hash oil extract, which is not the same as cannabis oils made with isolates. Using either dried flower or fresh-frozen bud, this method soaks the flower in butane (or another light hydrocarbon) under pressure, which effectively pulls resinous oils from the cannabis plant. Resins are then collected and heated at varying temperatures while the residual solvents are purged. Though some patients worry about solvents in their BHO-based extracts, those made by licensed producers (LPs) in Canada are strictly regulated and inspected by Health Canada for safety. While the products themselves are relatively similar in terms of cannabinoid strength, BHO extracts come in various consistencies. They tend to have higher concentrations of cannabinoids and terpenes than non-solvent concentrates.
Shatter: Translucent like amber candy, shatter can be as hard as glass (hence the name) or somewhat bendable. Sometimes the clearness of shatter is mistaken for purity, but it’s of no more or less quality than other BHO extracts on the regulated market. Shatter is made by applying heat at the butane extraction process to create its glass-like appearance. Because of its solid form, shatter is considered less messy and easier to use than other BHO extracts, although it can still be sticky. Patients can add an apple seed-sized amount to a concentrate-ready vape pen or dab rig for inhalation, or shatter can be added to dried flower in a joint or vaporizer.
Honey oil or sap: Sometimes, the acronym BHO is used for “butane honey oil”. Both honey oil and sap are essentially the same things: a sticky, runny extract made with a hydrocarbon solvent. Patients can inhale honey oil using a concentrate-ready vape or dab rig, smeared on the inside of rolling paper before adding dried flower, or easily added to foods such as butter or honey after being activated (heated).
Pull and snap: Often classified as shatter, pull and snap (or pull ‘n’ snap) is named for the sound it makes when pulled apart. This taffy candy-like extract is not as sticky as honey oil or even wax, although it can get gooey if exposed to warm temperatures. Pull and snap can be inhaled with a dab rig, a concentrate-ready vape, added to dried flower in a vaporizer, or wrapped around the outside of a joint (but be mindful of dose).
Wax: The consistency of wax depends on how much heat has been applied at the butane purging process. In general, the wax is made at a lower temperature than shatter so that it doesn’t harden, plus it’s agitated to create texture. With varying colours and textures, wax is typically a soft and opaque concentrate reminiscent of candle wax. Its near-solid form makes wax reasonably easy to work with. You can inhale wax with a dab rig, concentrate-ready vape, or add it to dried flower in a joint or vaporizer.
Butter/Budder/Badder/Batter: Whether the consistency is like butter, cake batter, or somewhere in between, this soft and popular extract has been whipped or agitated beyond wax. Like all other extracts, an apple seed amount or less of budder/badder can be inhaled with a dab rig, concentrate-ready vape, or added to dried flower in a joint or vaporizer. (There are also several live resin badders on the market, with live resin explained further below.)
Sugar: Also called sugar wax, this extract has the consistency of wet sugar. The crystalline texture develops when terpenes and cannabinoids separate, typically after agitation, but can sometimes happen by accident when an extract is unstable or undergoes changes in temperature and humidity. Some people like the spoon-able consistency of sugar, which can be inhaled via dab rig, concentrate-ready vape, or added to dried flower in a joint or vaporizer.
Honeycomb or Crumble: Sometimes filled with holes resembling a honeycomb, this extract is also called crumble because of the way it crumbles when touched. The driest of BHO extracts, it’s very easy to sprinkle and distribute a small amount of honeycomb or crumble in with dried flower to smoke or vaporize. Patients can also inhale honeycomb or crumble via a dab rig or concentrate-ready vape pen.
Live resin: While technically also a BHO, live resin starts with flash-frozen cannabis flower instead of dry-cured, which tends to lose delicate monoterpenes in the curing process. Extracted at low temperatures to retain as many compounds as possible, some patients prefer the full-spectrum flavours and effects from the plant’s natural compounds instead of concentrates that have terpenes added back in. However, patients should note that “full-spectrum” is not a trademarked term and can be used to describe products containing original terpenes or synthetic terpenes added back in. Here are some of the terms associated with live resin products:
High-Terpene-Full-Spectrum-Extract (HTFSE): This runny product focuses on preserving as many terpenes as possible by using low temperatures at the extraction process. However, it can also contain crystallized cannabinoids. HTFSE is not the same as isolated terpenes, which are made from a secondary extraction method.
High-Cannabinoid-Full-Spectrum-Extract (HCFSE): As the name implies, this product focuses on preserving as many cannabinoids as possible, which tend to take on a diamond-like texture in the extract, especially THCA, the precursor cannabinoid to THC.
Sauce: Both sauce and terp sauce are just informal names for HTFSE. Sauce can be inhaled via dab rigs, a concentrate-ready vape pen, or added to dried flower in a joint or vaporizer.
Terp slush: With a little more texture than terp sauce, terp slush is just another HTFSE. Use it in a dab rig, concentrate-ready vape pen, or add to dried flower in a joint or vaporizer.
Caviar: With even more texture than terp slush, caviar is a product with larger THCA crystals in sauce. Note there is another type of ‘caviar’ in the recreational market: dried flower dipped in BHO and coated in kief, also known as moon rocks.
Diamonds or Crystalline: While dried cannabis can be used to make THCA diamonds, this product is more commonly made with fresh-frozen cannabis that usually has more THCA present. Diamonds can come in a sauce or slush, or they can be isolated on their own. THCA diamonds can come in all shapes and sizes and need to be decarboxylated (heated) to convert into THC. You can inhale diamonds with a dab rig, a concentrate-ready vape pen, or sprinkle them into dried flower in a joint or vaporizer.
Live resin vape cartridges: Made to fit 510 vape batteries or PAX pens, live resin cartridges may or may not be combined with distillate to create convenient, vape-ready products.
Supercritical liquid carbon dioxide (CO2): This extraction method is used in many other pharmacological industries and considered by some as a ‘clean’ way to extract plant compounds without the need for chemical solvents. However, they do undergo chemical winterization before further processing. With specialized equipment, carbon dioxide can reach a supercritical state, so it takes on the properties of both a liquid and a gas. It can wash resins from the plant in this state, sometimes at a low enough temperature to retain some terpenes. CO2 extracted products are readily available in vape cartridges (510-thread, PAX pod or Dosist pod) and disposable pens. They also make up many cannabis oils, sprays, edibles and capsules.
Below are a few more terms that patients might find useful when shopping for the right concentrates and extracts:
Trichome: These delicate, specialized hairs on a cannabis plant are where most of its valuable terpenes and cannabinoids are: also called resins. Resembling a golf ball on a stalk, trichomes can be separated to collect the resin inside: the golf ball (or resin head) part is severed and collected through sieving, freezing, or hand-rolling dried flower. The scent of any given cannabis flower is due to ruptured resin heads releasing terpenes into the air.
Winterization: Sometimes, extracts undergo a process called winterization, also called de-waxing. Waxes and lipids naturally present in cannabis resin can affect the end concentrate product’s flavour, and they also contribute to crystallization. Not to be confused with cellaring wine or beer, winterization means extracts are dissolved in another solvent at freezing temperature, forcing lipids to the top so they can be filtered and removed. Some manufacturers winterize extracts to ensure a smooth texture, or winterization may also be done before distillation.
Fresh-frozen: Instead of dry-curing cannabis after harvest, fresh-frozen (sometimes called flash-frozen ) cannabis is vacuum-sealed after harvest and sent directly to a freezer—not unlike commercial frozen blueberries. Extracts and concentrates made with fresh-frozen cannabis tend to have terpenes and other compounds intact, creating broad-spectrum products such as live resin.
Dab rig: What may sound like something out of a science lab is just a modified cannabis bong made for inhaling a small amount—a dab—of cannabis concentrate. The dab rig has a heating element, called a nail, where the concentrate is added. Dab pens are like a cross between a dab rig and a vape pen where a small, battery-operated chamber heats up to vaporize the concentrate for inhalation.
How to extract CBD
Cannabidiol, or CBD, can be extracted in several ways: distillation, supercritical liquid carbon dioxide (CO2), or chemical solvents are the most common methods and explained in more detail below. As high-CBD cultivars (strains) become more common, we may even see products such as CBD flower rosin or live resin in future (also further explained below).
There is often confusion around CBD extracted from industrial hemp (which contains less than 0.3% THC) versus cannabis. In Canada, all cannabinoids are regulated under the Cannabis Act, regardless of origin. Whether industrial hemp or cannabis was used as the starting product, CBD is extracted in the same way as any other cannabinoid, with the resulting products overseen by Health Canada.
If you’re keen to make a homemade cannabis tincture, either CBD or THC, be advised this is not permitted under the Cannabis Act. Under Section 12, any form of alcohol ≥ 24% ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is considered a flammable solvent that can not be used for individuals’ extraction purposes.