Concentration: the evolution of cannabis extraction

cannabis extraction

In the world of cannabis, one of the largest and most contested categories is extractions. To begin with, there are two main camps, the solventless and the solvent-driven extractions or extraction artists as they used to be known as. 

To examine the two distinct sides of the extraction coin, one must understand the differences between the two main subcategories: solvent-based extracts and extracts made without solvents. Hash, which comprises water-based separations, sieved ones, and hand-rubbed varieties, is the predominant category of extracts found around the world. 

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In the case of hash, it is less of an extraction and more of a separation, meaning the head of the trichome is separated from the stalk via one of the aforementioned techniques. With solvent-based extractions, the biomass is mixed with the solvent, which separates the trichome heads into a homogenized whole that has a consistency that is more like a viscous oil. 

The key defining characteristic of extracts is that the trichome head, which contains the cannabinoids and terpenes, is separated from the plant material and collected. In some cases, with the traditional style of hash, these separated trichome heads are eventually pressed, releasing the oil and homogenizing it into a whole piece of hash.

With butane hash oil (BHO), it’s different, whereby the extractor first separates the oil and then lets it crash out, so to speak. The THC-A crystals form in a bath of terpenes and THC. This chemical reaction reforms the oil into two components: the sauce and the diamonds. 

hash ball cannabis extraction
A hand-rolled ball of hashish Photo: Roman Budnyi / Getty

The evolution of extracts

The initial difference between hash and solvent-based extracts was that solvent extractions were quite dangerous and often involved the use of large and costly equipment. It was also profoundly difficult to get large amounts of solvents prior to legalization. In fact, the first mass-produced extraction system or technique was really the bubble bags or ice-o-later kits sold starting at the emergence of the naughts.

For this reason, hash was really the most predominant strategy of extraction up until the early 2000s when, as a result of medical legalization, butane hash and distillate started to become popular techniques for extraction. This was also when the closed-loop BHO extraction systems started to appear, making that form of extraction safer and more widely adopted. 

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The biggest argument against solvent-based extractions is the danger involved in manufacturing them and the potential for residual solvents. One, though, could argue that if a lab test came back showing no solvents in your oil, then, in fact, it would be solventless at that moment in time. Meanwhile, with regular hash or solventless extracts, no chemicals were used in the separation process. Some people argue that water and terpenes themselves are solvents, which is true. Still, in the case of water hash, the water acts as a carrier rather than a solvent since the cold water separates the head from the stock, and then the individual screened bags separate the heads by micron size.  

The earliest techniques for traditional hash were either hand-rubbed or sieved. The hand rubbed was usually darker and creamier, feeling more slick and oily to the touch. The sieved was typically a bit drier and had a consistency more like sand pressed together. In some cases, the sieved hash was super oily and homogenous due to its high oil content. 

These two forms of concentrates were very popular in Europe, which has a long history with hash. In the U.S., there was less of a cultural connection to hash, like in Europe, because it was harder to import. As a big chunk of hash was made in Morocco, it was very easy to make its way into Spain and the rest of Europe via Gibraltar. Also, in Europe, they smoke spliffs where tobacco and hash are mixed together.

Interestingly, though, when hash oil, a.k.a. dabs, hit the U.S. like a storm in the 2010s, it soon became one of the most prominent forms of consumption. This culture eventually evolved and produced the rosin heads that now rule the hash world in America and other global cannabis hotspots. 

Rosin would become an elite entry into the extraction world as people realized they could squash the heads off mediocre hash, producing a more oil-like dab-able product. Due to the extremely low-yielding results of this technique, rosin would become not only sought after but also one of the most expensive types of extracts. 

In its long tradition, hash and now extracts have evolved into a myriad of types with distinct products and ways of producing them. As cannabis legalization spreads across the globe, it will be interesting to see what further innovations in the extraction world may come. 

This article was submitted by a guest contributor to GreenState. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Harry Resin Harry Resin is a long-time cannabis cultivator, breeder, and writer who spent two decades in Amsterdam honing his craft. He has been featured in High Times, GQ, and several other publications.