There’s a common trope in media depicting cannabis users – a character consumes large amounts of raw cannabis and gets completely high out of their mind. But this scene is pretty far from reality. The effects of raw cannabis are minimal at best. The reason behind this phenomenon? A little chemical process called decarboxylation.
What Does Decarboxylation Do?
Decarboxylation is an important step for efficient production of the major active components in cannabis, for example, Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and cannabigerol (CBG). These cannabinoids do not occur in significant concentrations in cannabis but can be formed by decarboxylation of their corresponding acids, the predominant cannabinoids in the plant. The corresponding acid for THC is THCA.
The acidic cannabinoids, such as THCA and CBDA, are thermally unstable and can be decarboxylated when exposed to light or heat via, for example, smoking or baking. THCA is the most abundant non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis.
But consumers, be it for medical or recreational purposes, are less interested in the acidic cannabinoids. They wish to know the levels of THC or CBD they will consume so that they can be certain they will achieve the desired outcome and got what they paid for.
Therefore, the consumer is best informed about a cannabis product’s potential potency at consumption by knowing the “Total THC” or “Total CBD” values. These refer to the estimated levels of active cannabinoids in the cannabis after it has been prepared for consumption by heating through vaping, smoking, or cooking.
When cannabis is decarboxylated, either through heating or processing, its cannabinoid levels increase.
Cannabinoids are secondary metabolites not critical for the plant’s survival. The plant also needs a combination of fats, carbs, proteins, vitamins, various metabolites, and minerals to survive. As a result, the cannabis plant does not have a natural reason to produce more than 25-30 percent total cannabinoids.
What Happens During Decarboxylation?
Two main causes lead to decarboxylation: time and heat. Drying or curing cannabis crops over a space of time can cause partial decarboxylation, which is why otherwise unprocessed flowers sometimes test for small percentages of THC in addition to THCA.
Exposing the plant to heat by smoking or vaporizing it will cause instant decarboxylation through high temperatures. The THC will reach our lungs and enter the bloodstream rapidly. While we can easily absorb these cannabinoids through inhalation, edibles need to have already undergone a decarboxylation process to allow us to feel the effect of the psychoactive components through our digestive system. This takes more time, usually at least 30 minutes after consumption before the cannabis is digested and the THC released into the bloodstream.
Baking or other methods of heating slowly at lower temperatures also causes the process to occur without disintegrating the plant- allowing us to add it to other products.