What Is Cannabis Decarboxylation?

Cannabis decarboxylation, what is it?

Cannabis decarboxylation is what activates the plant’s THC. Image Credit: By OlegDoroshin on Shutterstock

Cannabis plants are not naturally psychoactive. If you were looking for some of THC’s altering effects, chewing on a fresh, raw leaf will leave you feeling let down — not to mention with a literal bad taste in your mouth, as it doesn’t taste pleasant, either. In fact, the cannabis plant does not naturally contain any intoxicating cannabinoid compounds. It has to go through a heating process called cannabis decarboxylation to remove carbon dioxide (CO2). This process preserves terpenes that releases cannabinoids, bringing a mind-altering high or sedating effect.
Here’s why.

How THCA and THC Differ

In order for cannabis to provide euphoric effects, it needs to go through a heating process known as cannabis decarboxylation. This removes carbon dioxide (CO2) and preserves terpenes. Decarboxylation turns cannabinoid THCA — the natural organic compound (tetrahydrocannabinolic) acid found in the cannabis plant — into THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the compound that makes marijuana and products made from it psychoactive.

From a chemistry and plant biology standpoint, why cannabis needs to undergo decarboxylation is rather complex. It involves the structure of cannabis trichomes, those miniscule “hairs” that grow on plants. These little things are responsible for producing cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes that give cannabis its taste and scent — and when decarboxylated, the “high” that marijuana is best known to contain.

From vape oils to edibles, most all purchased cannabis products that contain THC have gone through a decarboxylation process.

Drying and curing cannabis is not decarboxylation. This will only result in very small amounts of THC — as low as one percent. Whereas cannabis that has undergone the decarboxylation process typically results in double digit THC. Whether it’s fresh or cured, all cannabis plants needs to be decarbed in order to activate THCA into THC and make it bioavailable (i.e. absorbable by the body).

How Much Heat Is Needed for Cannabis Decarboxylation?

Cannabis decarboxylation of THCA begins after about 30-45 minutes of exposure to heat, reaching approximately 220 degrees Fahrenheit (104 degrees Celsius). Although, full cannabis decarboxylation often takes a little more time.

Temperatures between 200 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit are recommended. Anything above the 300 mark could compromise the cannabinoids and terpenoids. Many experts prefer to decarboxylate at lower temperatures for a longer duration to preserve terpenes — responsible for producing cannabinoids. Also, many types of terpenes evaporate at high temperatures which can result in unpleasant flavors and aromas. Other cannabinoids can start to degrade due to heat and time. For example, when THC oxidizes and degrades, it causes CBN (cannabinol) to form — which is less psychoactive and provides a more sedating effect.

Having said this, decarboxylating cannabis really is as simple as heating it — it’s a question of at what temperature and for how long. Too high and too long means important cannabinoids are lost, and the CO2 needs to be removed quickly. However, there are simple ways you can decarboxylate cannabis at home through different heating processes.

Regardless of where it’s done, decarboxylation will result in varying degrees of intoxication for the cannabis user. This will depend on the strain of cannabis plant used, and the percentage of THC found in the final decarboxylated product.

Nicola Bridges
Nicola Bridges
Nicola Bridges is an award-winning writer and editor who’s covered health, wellness, and women’s lifestyle for the past two decades. The former editorial director for Prevention.com and editor in chief of Working Mother, she is currently a regular contributor to Parade Magazine and The Fine Line where she writes about trends in modern health.

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