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Advanced Extracts: The Current State and Potent Future of Cannabis Concentrates

Where are we now when it comes to cannabis concentrates and extracts? And more importantly, where are we going? Here’s a peek.

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Just a few years ago, dabbing or vaping cannabis was, to put it mildly, a clumsy affair. Leaky cartridges constantly dripped weed juice mixed with vegetable glycerin. Vape pens came with only two settings — “On” and “Off.” Waxes were extracted purely for higher THC content, without second thought to the other cannabinoids as well as rich terpenoid and flavonoid layers left behind. And dabbing — relatively new at the time — was an ugly process resembling a meth binge, with the image of blow torches and red-hot nails defining the consumption method.

But those days are starting to disappear like, well, a puff of vapor.

Today’s concentrate scene is much more sophisticated. Blowtorches are being phased out for sleek batteries and e-rigs. Are you vaping too much? There’s now an app for that. Plus, the newest vape pens are leak-proof, and full-on dab rigs can fit in a purse. Clunky glass monstrosities are giving way to slim handheld units that look like they came straight out of Star Trek.  

Speaking of Star Trek, we are now truly going where no person has gone before. Flower is quickly falling out of market favor as concentrates and edibles soar in popularity. As USA Today reported this summer, numbers from BDS Analytics, the gold standard of cannabis market analysis, show that sales from concentrates are on track to match or exceed sales for flower.

Let’s take a look at the first state to go legal. When Colorado launched adult-use cannabis in 2014, flower claimed 67 percent of all sales. Today, flower accounts for less than half of sales at 44 percent. Meanwhile, concentrates jumped from 15 to 30 percent of sales over that same period.

The same trend appears in America’s largest cannabis market, California. The Golden State kicked off recreational weed at the start of this year, so it’s still too soon to draw conclusions. But market data indicates a 3 percent slump in flower sales during California’s first financial quarter, which is consistent with purchasing patterns seen in other legal states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon.

Today, concentrates are the second-largest sales sector for cannabis products, and at this rate, flower’s dominance seems likely to go up in a puff of vapor, as well. Fitting, as vape pens in particular currently drive the concentrates market due to affordability, ease-of-use, and portability.

Folks don’t just want their cake; they want to hit it discreetly in measured doses, with little or no odor, too. That may be because legalization has led to an increase in user tolerances across the board, and concentrates deliver bigger doses of THC. Or it may be because today’s stoner is, more likely than not, a full-time professional with higher-than-average income and/or a master’s degree. Most consumers can’t very well reek of skunk at the Monday morning board meeting.

Tesla’s co-founder and CEO, Elon Musk, looked awkward enough hitting a blunt on camera last week. Could you imagine that dude fumbling with a propane torch before clumsily stirring cannabis wax onto a hot nail? That may make for great comedy, but the average joe doesn’t want a sesh to feel like blacksmithing. They want to press a button, breathe in, breathe out, and be done with it — until they press the button again, that is.

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So where are we now when it comes to cannabis concentrates and extracts? And more importantly, where are we going? What do we currently talk about when we talk about dabbing, and what will we be talking about in a decade? Here’s a peek.

Consistency, Reliability, Predictability

One of the longest-running problems in this infant industry is inconsistency. Vape cartridges used to be labeled only “Indica” or “Sativa,” indicating a couch-locked or energized high, respectively. Concentrates were often extracted from many different strains and mixed into a single, unpredictable batch. Consumer experiences between an “Indica” pen one month may have felt entirely different from the same “Indica” cartridge from the same brand a month later.

Green Dot Labs, based in Denver, got around this problem by focusing on strain-specific cartridges. For example, the Coin Style cartridge was derived from a strain that leaves a peculiar aftertaste, like a cool margarita sipped from a sugar-rimmed glass. To maintain the strain’s flavor and unique heady effects, Green Dot Labs doesn’t “cross the streams,” to borrow a phrase from Ghostbusters. Every Coin Style cartridge is made with only pure Coin Style extract.

“We used the plant’s natural chemistry to fold in on itself and create a full-spectrum live resin pen,” said Dave Malone, the founder of Green Dot Labs, during a phone call with MERRY JANE. “And we were able to do this without using any cutting agents.”

There’s a bit to unpack here, especially for concentrate rookies. Full-spectrum refers to complete extracts that contain as much of the plant’s original cannabinoid, terpenoid, and flavonoid profiles intact. Live resin is one way to guarantee this, by performing the extraction on a plant just as it’s harvested and either frozen or still alive (hence, “live resin”). 

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As for cutting agents, polyethylene glycol or vegetable glycerin were common fillers in the early days of the cannabis vape pen market (which, to be fair, were within the last decade). Cannabis extracts are naturally viscous, with the thickness of cold maple syrup. Cutting agents would thin the oil mixture so the pen’s coil could vaporize the cartridge’s contents. But, as we’ve all learned over the years, these agents often taste like melted plastic, and could decompose into toxic particles.

Green Dot Labs isn’t alone in its mission for consistent cannabis products. Market leader PAX, which makes vaporizers and proprietary cartridges called PAX Pods, wants the same thing.

Green Dot Labs' Coin Style flower before it's been processed into a concentrate 

Big Data in the Age of “Big Marijuana”

“How do we provide people with a reliable, consistent, and predictable experience?” said J.J. O’Brien, the VP of strategy at PAX. “Cannabis [flower] today is not predictable.”

O’Brien’s team at PAX — the vaporizer monolith, known for its Apple-like devices and reportedly dominating 20 percent of Colorado’s vape market — has developed a phone app that syncs with PAX Era and PAX 2 and PAX 3 devices. PAX Era is a line of vape pens that utilize PAX Pods, and these pens are much more compact than PAX’s flower vapes. Users may opt-in to share their user data with the company, which compiles everything from an individual’s favorite temperatures, to the lengths and strengths of inhales.

The PAX app also includes a new feature called “Session Control,” which helps the company gather more meticulous data on the user’s preferences. Session Control metes out specific amounts of vapor determined by the user’s desired experience, then locks out that user from drawing again until 30 seconds has passed — a godsend for new vapers who may easily underestimate the psychoactive magnitude of a single puff.

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Session Control’s 30-second lock-out isn’t arbitrary, either. O’Brien said PAX settled on that time interval after doing numerous trials with random users. The average time for most of them to feel the full effects of their puffs took about half a minute.

Another company, GoFire, has recently unveiled its own app that also collects customer analytics from GoFire’s metered dosing vape pens. Metered dose vape cartridges come installed with a tiny chip that stores lab data for that cartridge’s particular batch and strain. The lab data contains info such as strain type, cannabinoid profile, and terpene profile, to better match the customer’s preferences with similar GoFire products.

“We’re basically crowdsourcing which products at which doses work best for patients and why,” said Peter Calfee, the GoFire’s CEO. “That allows us to push products back to patients through a dashboard.”

Calfee also recognized that cannabis flower, by its nature, is inconsistent. Even buds picked from different sections of the same plant can produce different effects. By tracking the lab data stored on each cartridge with the user’s favorite settings, GoFire can consolidate this information to customize future product recommendations — kind of like Facebook’s advertising algorithms, or sort of like Amazon’s recommendation filtering (You liked this, so you might like that...), except GoFire won’t tailor product suggestions based on conversations picked up through your computer’s microphone.

Calfee explained: “We know the exact chemical profile, we know the dose, and the app itself allows us to create that dosing regimen, to create that standardization of care so the patient can start having repeatable experiences.” In other words, if you know cartridge X works wonders for soothing your bad knee when vaped at 290℉ for 8 seconds, the GoFire app will record that information for future use, whether it’s linking you up to new products or simply fine-tuning the cartridge you already have.

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For folks concerned about their weed data falling into the wrong hands, the teams at both PAX and GoFire assure that’s not an issue. Both apps identify users through a string of randomly assigned numbers, maintaining the customer’s anonymity while still crunching raw information.

Cannabis Connoisseurship

We’re just starting to crack into how terpenes affect our highs and how they affect us biologically. However, one thing is certain: terps give cannabis plants their unique flavors and scents, two traits that customers are getting pickier about. As Dave Malone at Green Dot Labs aptly put it: “Some people just want something that tastes like lemons.”

Green Dot’s cartridges list the strain name along with the flavor profile for that strain. These aren’t plants that you’ll find in dispensary jars, either. These exclusive, proprietary strains all belong to Green Dot Labs’ in-house genetics, each one carefully bred and cultivated to maintain its aromatic characteristics. That’s because the company only grows plants for extraction, and since Green Dot targets its products to cannabis connoisseurs, its packaging labels list the in-house plant’s pedigree. You may have never heard of Cheese Cake F2, but you may have blazed her parents, LA Confidential and Alien Rock Candy.  

To get the most out of terps, Oregon’s Guild Extracts manufactures high-terpene extracts (HTE) that look just like any other dab oil. The difference is Guild’s HTE oils prioritize terpenes over cannabinoids, ensuring every dab tastes and smells just like the plant it came from. For instance, GSC (formerly known as Girl Scout Cookies) is known for its saccharine yet earthy notes. A mixture of the terpenes linalool and limonene contribute to GSC’s flowery bouquet, while beta-caryophyllene, pinene, and myrcene confer a flavor like spiced wood.

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HTE can be tricky to make because heat-activated THC often degrades the oil’s terpene profile. To avoid damaging or evaporating the terps from heat, Guild first removes the non-psychoactive THCa from live resin oil, heats the THC, then infuses the bioactive stuff back into the mix. This is the process that ensures a GSC HTE not only tastes and smells like the plant, but that it’ll also get you higher than Elon Musk’s spaced-out roadster.

Above, a photo of various concentrates by Guild Extracts

Guild designs HTE oil for medicinal purposes, too. The reason for keeping the terpenes intact comes down to the entourage effect – or what Guild’s cofounders Mike Clemons and Claudio Miranda, among other connoisseurs, like to call the “ensemble effect.”

“‘Entourage effect’ makes it sound like THC is the star and everyone else just follows it around,” said Clemons. “But what we’re really finding is that sometimes it’s the subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — relationships that these compounds have with each other that really shape our experience.”

“And at the end of the day,” Clemons continued, “that’s what we’re really looking for. We’re all looking for a very specific experience.”

The ensemble or entourage effect assumes that different cannabis strains instill different highs — whether sleepy or awake, anxious or soothing — because of the complex interaction of hundreds upon hundreds of variable cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids acting on our neural receptors in unison. Ensemble effect is basically another way of describing the the effects of full-spectrum cannabis consumption. 

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“What you’re really getting is a balanced extract product,” Miranda said. “When you have all of the compounds acting in concert, you tend to get a greater therapeutic utility and medical benefit from cannabis that conserves that original matrix of compounds.”

Or, in other words, “What you wind up with is an OG Kush cartridge that actually tastes like OG Kush,” Clemons added.

Kiss the Torch Goodbye

Today’s vape pens may offer customization, and they’re ideal for keeping seshes discreet, compact, and portable. However, to truly indulge in the nuances of concentrates, you must dab the oil or wax on a hot crystal or quartz nail. Some newer products, such as delta-8 THC, are only available for purchase in some areas as dabbable oils. Besides, dabbing is one of the most efficient ways to inhale cannabis, which benefits both recreational and medicinal users alike.

Although you’ll still see blowtorches for heating rig nails in a quick-and-dirty fashion, they’re off-putting. Besides the danger posed by blasting open flames from a high person’s absent-minded hands, consuming cannabis with a handheld flamethrower is… extra, to say the least.

Puffco, a vaporizer and dab rig company, recently introduced The Peak to not only resolve the blowtorch problem, but also to cater to social dabbing sessions. Each cannabinoid and terpene boils, or vapes, at different temperatures. Dabbing at a low-temp versus a high-temp could mean the difference between catching the underlying notes of a unique bouquet — or getting straight wrecked.

Every cannabis consumer is different. Some want to taste it. Others just want a high that can surpass the last one. Different strokes for different folks, as it were.

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Above, the Puffco Peak

The Peak is battery-powered and portable. It’s a little smaller than a 12-ounce Coca-Cola bottle, and the conical glass cap attachment can be easily switched out — for example, to dozens of ornate glass attachments fashioned today by glass blowers and artists. A single shot glass’s worth of water fills the chamber. But where The Peak really sparkles is in its thimble-sized ceramic nail, heated entirely by battery — no blowtorch required. 

“We wanted a rig that could bring new dabbers into the cannabis space,” said Roger Volodarsky, the founder of Puffco and inventor of The Peak. “It’s designed to give you the same experience back-to-back, whether you’re using it alone or sharing it with friends.”

For newbies, this rig does all the hard work for you: When it’s your turn at the dab, simply set the temperature where you want it, give the unit a few seconds to adjust, and it’ll let you know when it’s time to take that perfect hit. If you get too much in one go, the glass cap will capture extraneous vape, so not a single drop gets wasted. Then you can hand it off to your buddy, who can rinse-and-repeat the cycle according to personal preferences. 

The Peak has four fixed temperature settings ranging from 450°F to 600°F. Lower settings preserve the terpene integrity and mellower highs; higher settings guarantee full potency. For dabbers who’ve been in the game for a while, fixed temperature settings can be a boon, too. Finer settings on some electric rigs will let you dial down to an exact temperature, but figuring out which temps are needed for which cannabinoids or terpenes may require checking a chart. With devices like The Peak or Green Dot Lab’s vape pens, the charts can be thrown out, so you can focus on getting lifted instead of reviewing high school chemistry.

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The Dark Side of the Force?

Are these technological advancements a good thing, though? Concentrates can reach over 90 percent THC (compared to the average 20 percent for buds), and the long-term effects of their use are medical unknowns.

In 2014, Mallory Loflin and Mitch Earleywine explored the psychological consequences of concentrate use among dabbers. Loflin is currently a research fellow at the University of California, San Diego, while Earleywine is a professor at the University of New York, Albany. In their Addictive Behaviors study, they found that chronically inhaling high doses of THC could lead to rapidly-increased tolerance and stronger withdrawal symptoms in some consumers — two hallmarks of, you guessed it, addictive behavior.

“The problem right now is that cannabis isn’t one thing,” said Loflin in a phone interview. “It’s not one drug. It’s many. There are so many active components in cannabis that we haven’t categorized them all yet.”

Loflin explained the issue of dabbing versus vaping, or smoking versus consuming edibles, is further complicated by the variety of delivery methods.

"If you administer cannabis five different ways to five different people, we can't say anything about the risk of cannabis withdrawal or cannabis use disorder because of those differing effects,” she said.

Both Loflin and Earleywine stated there isn’t enough research to draw any definitive conclusions about the long-term effects of concentrate use. Basically, we’re all guinea pigs right now, so dab at your own risk. Regarding policy — such as proposals in past years to limit concentrate potency or to ban concentrates in legal states — Loflin believes that’s a moot point.

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“As long as it remains federally illegal, I don't think any state-level legislation will make any difference,” she said. Dabbers will keep dabbing, and the science regarding concentrate use will remain hazy so long as the federal government’s restrictions remain in place. “Until then, we’re just guessing, basically. It will take us a long time to catch up.”

On the plus side, all of these new developments in customization and dose control could not only prevent bad experiences, but could also reduce the severity of cannabis dependency, too. According to Loflin and Earleywine, an individual’s power to micromanage their own THC intake could lead to less overall consumption rather than more, simply because users will have the means to dictate the size of their hits.

The Future Is Here, and It’s Clear (Headed)

But why should novice dabbers toss their hats into the concentrates game? If the plant ain’t broke, why fix it?

For some consumers, concentrates offer an additional level of customization; one that flower can’t always offer — the ability to remain functional. There are some concentrates that will knock out a rampaging bull, but most waxes and oils offer a clearer high while retaining the moods that mark a strain’s legacy.

“I love Sour Diesel. It’s my favorite strain,” said Volodarsky of PuffCo. “But when I smoke it in a joint, there’s this feeling I get that’s tiring. It gives me a spacey feeling… But if you take that same Sour Diesel and concentrate it, I find that I’m more energized. I feel happier, because I don’t feel slowed down or burnt out like I do from smoking it.”

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Volodarsky’s experience with dabbing may be common, but it’s not universal. We’re still figuring out why some people get wired from weed while others feel more inclined to take an insta-nap. Although it’s becoming popular to attribute a concentrate’s effects to its cannabinoid and terpenoid ratios, those two factors may not offer a full explanation.

The ensemble or entourage effect has become something of a truism in the cannabis community. Believe it or not, the influence of terpenes on psychoactivity remains a contentious issue in the scientific community. Yet until the feds step aside and let us delve deeper into the plant’s mysteries, we won’t know for sure, but most stoners will tell you the ensemble effect is real. Whether it’s terpenes, CBD, or some other mystery compound that influences what kind of high we get, one thing is often left out of the discussion: individual genetics.

Personalized genomics is a relatively new field of medicine, where an individual’s genetic profile can tell scientists how that individual may react to certain drugs. In 2016, researchers discovered that variations of the AKT1 gene could be responsible for some tokers feeling anxious or paranoid after taking a hit. It’s possible this gene — or a smorgasbord of other genes — could determine how we respond to combinations of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, or why someone like Volodarsky gets sleepy on flower, but amped on dabs.

The key to understanding markets and genomics lays entirely in analytics. Only by compiling mountains of information, then analyzing that data, can we begin to unlock the secrets behind directional or customizable highs. Given the current state of concentrates, we may be arriving at this future much sooner than we think.

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Are we ready? Oh yeah, we’re ready.

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