Heating cannabis, also known as decarboxylation, is a key part of the preparation and consumption process and the only way to fully experience THC's high. If you've Googled this, you'll know there are a lot of articles and charts and in-depth discussions around decarbing. But it might be simpler than you thought.
Here you'll learn how decarboxylation works, why it's important to get the temperature right, and a bottom line you may not have considered. Decarbing is most important if you're using cannabis to make potent edibles or otherwise adding it to food or drink. If you intend to only smoke or vape your weed, skip ahead to the bottom line.
What is decarboxylation?
Decarboxylation is a chemical reaction that results from heating a cannabinoid to the point of removing a carboxyl group, thus enhancing the cannabinoid's ability to interact with the body's receptors.
Cannabis plants produce cannabinoids in their raw, or acidic, form. Heating cannabis turns THCa and CBDa into THC and CBD, and the same goes for other cannabinoid acids. These “activated” chemical forms are capable of interacting with our endocannabinoid system. Decarboxylation, or decarbing, helps facilitate the high that many recreational consumers seek and potentially the pain relief and other therapeutic properties that medical consumers need.
Decarbing is a function of heat and time. While there are plenty of complex charts out there, we prefer to keep our decarboxylation temperature chart simple and streamlined. The following chart shows temperatures and times for activating THCa, CBDa, and CBGa, according to Dr. Adie Rae, a neuroscientist and scientific adviser to Weedmaps.
This decarboxylation chart is intended to be a guide, but be aware decarboxylating cannabis isn't an exact science.
Highlighted sections indicate Rae's recommendations for the ideal temp and time for balanced conversion. As a general rule regardless of the cannabinoid, Rae suggests about 250 Fahrenheit (120 Celsius) for 20 minutes.
Smoking or vaporizing cannabis will automatically decarb any THC present, but for other uses like making edibles, the decarb step is crucial to achieving a potent head high. Don't confuse drying and curing with decarbing, as those processes happen after the plant has been harvested simply to help rid the weed of moisture. While minuscule amounts of cannabinoid acid is converted during these processes, it's not enough to deliver the effects recreational and medicinal consumers typically seek.
Why is it important to get the right temperature?
Though decarbing isn't an exact science, it is important to get the temperature right in order to activate as much of the cannabinoid content as possible without destroying too many terpenes and thereby ruining the smell, taste, and possible entourage effects. Decarbing cannabis is a delicate balance of time and temperature, although temperature is the more important factor. Heating cannabis for the recommended amount of time but at the wrong temperature may not yield the desired results.
Decarbing at a high temperature — hotter than 300 degrees Fahrenheit (148.9 degrees Celsius) — may cause degradation. Terpenes may evaporate, and the smell and flavor may be unsavory.
“Cannabis is full of volatile compounds that are extremely sensitive to the oxidative effects of light and heat. Cannabis consumers often go through great lengths to properly store cannabis in order to minimize degradation and preserve quality. However, this work can often be for naught if you don't understand the fickle nature of these compounds,” said Carlton Bone, Chief Information Officer of Medical Cannabis for Women's Health.
If you are looking to experience specific compounds, the decarboxylation temperature is crucial, regardless of the consumption method you prefer. “Whether you are smoking a bowl, dabbing a concentrate, or infusing an oil, ultimately the quality of your experience will come down to the temperature you use. Too hot and you risk passing decarboxylation and burning off important compounds. Too cold and you might not activate the cannabolic acids into their desired compounds,” Carlton explained.
What's the difference between decarb temps and boiling temps?
As we've seen, decarboxylation converts cannabinoid acids into cannabinoids, allowing the molecules to interact with our bodies' endocannabinoid systems. The temps for that range from about 200 to 300 Fahrenheit (95 to 145 Celsius). Knowing the boiling point of a particular cannabinoid or terpene is only useful for vaping flower and then only if you have a vaping device capable of achieving precise temperatures.
You could, for example, customize your session to deliver the maximum potency for whichever terpene or cannabinoid you choose by knowing the boiling temperature of that compound. Otherwise, boiling temps don't really belong in a decarboxylation discussion. But that doesn't stop the internet from smashing them together when you search for answers.
Each compound present in cannabis has unique chemical properties. The ideal decarboxylation temperature for one compound may cause another to evaporate, resulting in an offensive odor and unpalatable flavor. In addition, oven temperatures can vary by approximately 10 degrees Fahrenheit from one model to another, meaning that the decarbing process will never be an exact science.
Here is a basic step-by-step process to decarboxylate cannabis at home:
- Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 Celsius)
- Break apart the cannabis into rice-size pieces
- Spread the crumbled cannabis evenly on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper
- Bake for 20 to 30 minutes (don't be alarmed if the cannabis turns from green to light brown)
- Remove cannabis from the oven and the baking sheet to let it cool
Once the decarboxylated cannabis is cool, you can pulse it in a food processor to add it to food directly or grind it into a powder for adding to beverages. You can also use your decarboxylated herb to make potent cannabutter the traditional way or via a slow cooker for homemade cannabis edibles.
You might wonder if you can't just skip a step and decarboxylate while infusing to convert every bit of THCa into THC. “That usually requires a precise cooking device like a sous vide water bath to hold the temperature exactly where you want it for exactly how long you want to,” advised Rae. If you want to go the sous vide route and have the proper tools at your disposal, have at it. Otherwise, it's likely easiest for most home cooks to decarboxylate their weed and then infuse it into butter or coconut oil.
Don't worry about decarboxylation if you're new to cannabis or a strict smoker.
Cannabis decarboxylation is necessary for high-tolerance consumers who want to achieve maximum potency and reap potential therapeutic and psychoactive effects. If you intend to add cannabis directly to food or drink to achieve a potent high, the above steps will help you activate the cannabinoids to get the most out of your cannabis. However, low-dose consumers or those who are new to cannabis can still reap some of the potential benefits of cannabis and avoid a potent psychoactive high by skipping the decarbing step. In fact, if you are a new consumer interested in making edibles, you'd be wise to avoid decarboxylation altogether.
If you intend to smoke or vape your weed, there are two things to consider. One, you don't need to decarb it ahead of time because the heat in either process will convert cannabinoid acids to cannabinoids. Two, as we've learned, temps above 300 degrees Fahrenheit obliterate a lot of the good stuff in cannabis. A lighter flame is usually around 600 degrees and the smoldering tip of a joint clocks in at nearly 1,200 degrees when you take a drag. Think about that the next time you carefully select beautiful top-shelf bud and protect it in a sealed container stored out of the light only to set the whole thing on fire.