In California, the legalization of recreational cannabis has given birth to a new industry of designer cannabis products. Many still prefer the traditional choice of smoking cannabis flower. But other products like cannabis-infused edibles, beverages, capsules, tinctures, topicals, and concentrates are becoming an increasingly popular choice for those who are looking for an alternative way to consume cannabis. And one thing all of these alternatives have in common is that they’re made using cannabis extracts.

What Is Cannabis Extract?

In the cannabis industry, an extract typically refers to a concentrated form of cannabis made via solvent extraction. The extraction process removes the active ingredients—cannabinoid and terpene compounds—from the cannabis plant matter to create a more refined and potent solid, semi-solid, or liquid form of cannabis.

The exact method of extraction determines the final product. Cannabis extracts include liquid cannabis oil as well as more solid, dabbable extracts like shatter. Extracts can be used to make cannabis edibles, beverages, and topicals or directly consumed themselves.

Why Choose an Extract over Cannabis?

Cannabis products made from extracts are increasingly popular among consumers. That’s because they’re an ideal option for those who want to avoid smoking dried cannabis.

Cannabis extracts—especially those sold in legal markets like California where potency testing is mandatory—are typically easier to dose. For example, tincture oils usually come with a measured dropper and edibles come in discreet doses that are easily portioned. Moreover, the high potency of certain types of extracts are a boon for both recreational users and those using cannabis medicinally to treat pain, nausea, or sleep difficulties.

How is Cannabis Extract Made?

Extraction can refer to a number of different processes. We extract minerals, metals, and hydrocarbons like crude oil and natural gas from the earth. We use pressure to extract oil from olives. Even an act as simple as making your morning cup of coffee can be considered an extraction.

However, in the context of the cannabis industry, the term extraction typically refers to solvent extraction. This type of extraction uses a liquid solvent medium to separate compounds based on their relative solubilities. The use of solvent extraction to purify natural compounds from plants was perfected in the pharmaceutical, food, personal care, and fragrance industries before it was co-opted by the cannabis industry.

A variety of solvents can be used to extract cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis plant. But to make sure the resulting extract is safe for consumption and the process can be performed at a large scale, manufacturers in the cannabis industry typically use one of three types of solvents: carbon dioxide, hydrocarbon, or alcohol.

In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at three most widely used types of solvents in cannabis extraction and discuss their relative strengths and weaknesses.