Know your dispensary menu: What are cannabis extracts?

A shatter type extract of cannabis
This ‘shatter’ type of extract is brittle and translucent at room temperature. | Photo: David Downs

Legal cannabis is in full bloom in nine states and Washington DC– a modern market where we no longer have to settle for any old grass. There is no clearer evidence of this change than the expanding world of cannabis extracts. Taking up one-third of most dispensary menus, extracts can offer the best of cannabis’ effects and flavors, without the plant matter — allowing users to get the same impact from a fraction of smoke or no smoke at all. Extracts also offer all manner of effects, from the soaring, heart-racing mood lift of purified THC, to an intangible sense of wellbeing, courtesy of a CBD vape pen. Let’s dig in.

What are extracts of cannabis?

People used to call it “hash,” or “hashish” or “keif.”  Today, we call them all cannabis extracts. They can take solid, semi-solid or liquid forms. All extracts contain concentrated amounts of cannabis’ main active ingredients — cannabinoids.

The active ingredients in cannabis come from trichomes — tiny, crystal-like resinous external plant glands. Manufacturers produce extracts by literally “extracting” the molecules in trichomes using a variety of mechanical or solvent-based processes. The results are among the most potent forms of cannabis available and come in a variety of forms.

Why should I care about extracts?

If you hate smoke or feeling high, extracts can be helpful. Extracts unlock far more uses than smoking raw flower and we are just now seeing all the benefits of controlling the individual compounds in cannabis. Some like CBN can be used for sleep. Some like THC-A offer pain relief without effects on mood. Extracts can offer more precise dosing and isolations of specific molecules to better dial in effects.

What do extracts look like and how do they differ from marijuana?

Extracts come in a variety of forms based on the processes used for extraction:

Kief: Kief is a powder of raw trichomes and trichome stalks that fall off or manually get removed and collected by sifting cured buds through mesh or screens (sometimes called dry sift). Kief can be sprinkled onto buds when smoking or compressed into balls or blocks called pressed kief, or hashish. Hashish made from live cannabis plant resin is called charas.

Extracts are made in licensed labs.
Whipping a sugary shatter into a crumble concentrate. | Photo: David Downs

Bubble Hash: Ice-water and special narrow screens can be used to create so-called “bubble hash.” Makers submerge trichome-rich plant trim in ice water and agitate the slurry, separating the trichome from the plant. Then, makers use screens to isolate the trichomes from the ice water. After it’s dried, bubble hash can be consumed as a fine powder or compressed into hash balls. Hash’s quality depends on the proportion of plant material to trichomes; the less plant material, the better. These varying qualities can be visually measured when the hash is heated —it will either bubble (good) or melt (better) after it’s heated. The color of bubble hash also indicates quality. High-grade bubble hash is light blond. The lowest grades tend to be black, brown and green.

Rosin: Rosin pressers use heat and pressure to squeeze out and collect the plant’s resin. This method can be used with either buds and/or trim (flower rosin) or hash (hash rosin).

Waxes and Oils: These highly potent concentrates are produced using a complex process involving solvents and lab equipment to extract the resins from the plant. Waxes and oils can come in many different options usually named for their extraction process and/or overall consistency, including: wax, shatter, budder and so on.

Who are extracts right for?

There’s an extract for every experience level.  Beginners enjoy extracts in vape pens like the dosist calm pen. Experts enjoy the newest trend — inhaling highly aromatic “sauce” — using special water-filtered pipes called “dab rigs.”

The dosist calm pen is intended to induce sleepiness.
The dosist calm pen is intended to induce sleepiness.

Some critics worry about extracts being more potent than crude flower because some people tend to over-consume anything. But extract’s potency allows consumers to use less material for the same effects — similar to espresso versus coffee or hard alcohol versus beer.

Since extracts come in so many physical forms, they offer a multitude of benefits for different types of recreational and medical users alike – from less harsh smokeless and vape options to highly potent and dose-specific concentrates.   

How do I use extracts?

The number of ways to use extracts far exceeds the modalities for raw flowers. One of the most discreet and popular ways is vape pens, which contain cannabis oil extract. Rosins, oils and waxes can be inhaled by placing them on top of flower bowls, or used on their own with a special pipe — either a hash pipe or a dab rig. Extracts can also be ingested in pill form, tinctures, or infused into edibles. They can be applied onto the skin in topicals, lotions or patches.

A light colored wax.
A light blond wax extract. | Photo: David Downs

Are extracts dangerous?

The biggest danger in extracts is making them. Some extracts are made with volatile solvents like butane and propane and should only be done in a licensed facility by licensed technicians.

Certain inhaled high-THC extracts can also be very strong for new consumers. If you take too much of certain types of cannabis high in THC — you may experience temporary negative side effects like anxiety, dry mouth, increased heart-rate or difficulty concentrating. Cannabis can make people temporarily dizzy, forgetful, nauseous and can potentially be habit-forming. Unlike highly potent caffeinated products or alcohol — you cannot die from an overdose of cannabis extract. 

There are also new studies that show high temperature “dabbing” may produce toxic chemicals.

How do I find clean and safe extracts?

Extracts can concentrate the good things in cannabis, like THC, but also any bad stuff present, like pesticides or other contaminants. Bubble hash can harbor mold, mildew, fungus and protozoans. Thus, extracts should only be purchased from trusted sources. Buy from regulated state systems, look for lab testing and ask for third party certification — where an independent third party certifies the claims of the maker. Leading cannabis testing company Steep Hill provides great resources on the science behind their technology.

Dan Michaels is the author of “Green: A Pocket Guide to Pot” (2017)