Amid the wave of recreational legalization sweeping the United States, new cannabis products and brands are being introduced on a weekly basis. Many of these forms of alternative consumption allow fans of the culture to avoid smoking flowers (buds) and fall under the category of concentrates. They are sometimes known as extracts (an extraction process results in a concentrate derived from part of a cannabis plant).
Concentrates offer the benefits of fast onset (extremely valuable for patients requiring quick relief), potent effect, vaporization, and the ability to carry a weekend of medicine or recreation in one’s pocket (great for traveling). Vape pens and small viles of concentrate — vaped or smoked in a pipe or joint — offer convenience and stealth for patients who must medicate throughout the day, especially those who maintain jobs.
The most common concentrate, without a doubt, is Butane Hash Oil, more commonly known as BHO and often called honey oil in many parts of the U.S. and Canada. BHO can be made by backyard experimenters who don’t mind risking their lives with a highly volatile explosive like butane to produce a concentrate that helps them get their high on or treat their ailment. Other popular concentrates made with potentially harmful solvents include CO2 oil and live resin.
All About the Trichomes
It may help readers to clearly understand that each of the extraction techniques listed below involves the collection of cannabis resin produced by nearly microscopic protrusions concentrated on the surface of flowers and sugar leaves called trichomes. Those who want to learn the details of trichomes should click here. For the purposes of this article, know that they are minute botanical factories that manufacture every single cannabinoid and terpene produced by the plant. For both medical and lifestyle consumers, trichomes — or at least the special molecules they produce — represent the very essence of the cannabis plant.
Enter Solventless Concentrates
Amid the rapidly growing popularity of concentrates and dabbing is a strong contention of patients and rec users who are seeking out solventless concentrates. These are, as their name implies, simply cannabis extraction processes involving no solvents whatsoever. Patients don’t have to worry about solvents that were never present in the first place.
Solventless concentrates include water hash (also known as bubble hash), kief, old school hand-rolled hash (such as from Afghanistan or India), and even bleeding edge rosin, a homebrew extraction process that can be employed with a $20 hair straightener, some parchment paper, and a few minutes of time.
Water hash, also known as “bubble hash” or “ice water concentrate,” and often extracted by home consumers using a product called Bubble Bags (or one of its competitors), is when the trim or bud of cannabis plants are soaked in ice water and gently agitated, either manually or mechanically. This forces the nearly microscopic trichomes, which become brittle in the icy waters, to fall to the bottom of the bag, where they are permitted to pass through a fine screen that, like the stainless steel screen of a kiefing board, prohibits most plant matter, like ground fan leaves, sugar leaves, and pistils, from making the same trip.
The results of water hash, which was all the rave 10-15 years ago in both Canada and the United States, are often impressive. Like all extraction processes, the law of “garbage in, garbage out” applies. Use of poor cannabis featuring a weak cannabinoid profile and few terpenes will result in inferior products compared to those produced using better examples and strains. When dried, water hash often resembles a crumbly pressed kief.
Water hash that is produced properly is often labeled “full melt” because of its purity and how it will almost instantly melt and bubble when a flame is applied for smoking. Classic hash and kief will burn and most certainly decarboxylate THC-A into THC to be an effective treatment for PTSD and depression or to produce a potent lifestyle high. However, these more traditional concentrates don’t demonstrate the full melt characteristic of water hash.
Kief, along with hash, is the most ancient and traditional form of cannabis concentrate known to humans. It is extracted, or gathered, by rubbing cannabis flowers against a fine screen or shaking plants over a collection plate from which the trichomes are gathered and stored in a container or gently compressed, but not to the point of a true hash, where the trichomes burst and commingle their resinous interiors.
Average consumers can easily extract their own kief. Probably the most popular method is via a three-chamber grinder. This is a grinder that features a fine screen designed to permit only trichomes to pass, but little or no plant matter. The trichomes collect within the spare chamber opposite the mesh screen. Depending almost entirely on the quality of the herb being ground and the volume of flowers that pass through it, a good three-chamber grinder can reward its owner with several grams of fresh, gorgeous kief every few weeks or months.
Another method for collecting kief involves a kiefing tray or kiefing board. This is basically a box containing a hinged, very fine industrial-quality screen capable of permitting only trichomes to pass, but very little or no plant matter. When cannabis flowers or trim are rolled or scraped against the screen, they fall through to a black plastic or metal collection plate below, where they can easily be collected using a credit card or squeegee.
Kief is perfect for sprinkling on a bowl or joint as a potent garnish, although it is often smoked standalone. It should be understood, especially by newbies or those who are easily spun out when consuming potent cannabis, that kief is considerably stronger than smoking or vaping regular flowers. This is because the trichomes contain all cannabinoids and terpenes produced within the cannabis plant, regardless of whether it is indica or sativa.
Hash, or hashish, is a Arabic word meaning “grass.” As readers already learned, hash, along with kief, is the oldest form of cannabis concentrate in the world. Still today, a vibrant international black market exists for old school hash produced in countries like Afghanistan, Lebanon, Morocco, and India. For thousands of years, humans in large regions of Asia, Northern India, and the Middle East have produced pressed hash for local consumption and export. Ancient humans embraced hemp and cannabis, with hash being one of their favorite celebrational substances. It has also traditionally been used as a spiritual sacrament.
Hash isn’t typically produced by individual cannabis consumers, nor is it commonly offered by American dispensaries and processing companies that make more advanced and popular forms of concentrates. Most demand is for BHO or CO2 oil, often in the form of proprietary cartridges for special vape pens, not traditional — and rare — examples of the art like Lebanese Blonde or Afghani Gold Label hash. They do, after all, have to be transported from the other side of the world. A regulated laboratory or processing facility in Seattle can crank out CO2 oil all day long, cheaper and more efficiently than villagers employing a 6,000-year-old manual technique.
Like kief and water hash, hash is great for crumbling and using to top a bowl or joint, giving that added punch for pain management or nausea relief, or simply to deliver intense euphoria and psychoactive effect. However, also like kief and water hash, classic pressed hash is great for smoking alone and often offers intense, connoisseur-grade flavors that go beyond what can be experienced with flower alone. Casual tokers and those who are easily spun out should adhere to the concentrate mantra “start low, go slow” to avoid overdoing it with hash and kief, which can contain 30-60 percent THC.
At the opposite end of the timeline from old school hash and kief is rosin, the newest cannabis concentrate to arrive on the scene. This solventless extraction method safely produces relatively high quality concentrate with little effort and expense. Using only a cheap hair straightener, some parchment paper, and little or no experience or expertise, those who can obtain only flowers, especially in prohibitionist states, are finally able to enjoy potent concentrates.
Rosin is an excellent option for do-it-yourselfers who desire to make their own potent concentrate but don’t want the fire and explosion risk associated with backyard BHO extraction projects — let alone the legal and ethical ramifications of endangering others. When it comes to concentrates, it is recommended that patients and lifestyle users make only their own kief, rosin, and water hash, but leave more dangerous and complex extraction techniques like butane and CO2 to trained technicians using laboratory-grade equipment.
Those in legal states often prefer commercial concentrates from reputable brands made with butane and CO2 extraction methods. The downside of rosin is that it produces highly variable results, predicated mostly on the quality of the cannabis flowers, hash, or kief used to create it and the exact process employed. Temperature and the level and duration of applied pressure play a critical role in determining the quality and consistency of rosin. However, experimentation is cheap; the worst case is that one creates some decent solventless concentrate and owns the crushed remains of a quarter or half ounce of buds.
A Word About Commercial Concentrates
While concerns about the health risks of solvent-based extraction methods are certainly valid, there are significant differences between the black market and legal, regulated companies producing batch tested and accurately labeled concentrates. Black markets have a reputation for shady dealers, questionable quality, and a sometimes complete lack of concern for product purity or patient safety. A great example is the black market for edibles in Denver.
Consumers can trust concentrates — even those extracted using potentially harmful solvents like butane and CO2 — that are produced by reputable companies using professional equipment that’s operated by trained techs and inspected by regulators. The expensive closed-loop systems employed by licensed processing and manufacturing facilities remove the maximum possible amounts of butane and carbon dioxide in an effort to maintain product purity. Many experts agree that such examples of solvent-based extraction methods are safe, even for patients who use them on a regular or daily basis in large quantities.
Companies like Neos, DRx, Bloom Farms, and Colorado Cannabis Company produce reputable, high-quality, and laboratory tested concentrates and vape pen cartridges based on extraction processes involving solvents. It is the thorough testing standards of these companies — or the states or cities that regulate some of them — that protect customers and help maintain the integrity of this fledgling industry.
One option for those who enjoy concentrates but are concerned with their health is growing cannabis or purchasing trim from a cultivation facility or friendly gardener and kiefing it. Another avenue is using one’s own or purchased cannabis to make homebrew rosin with only a few spare minutes of time. A third path is the use of trim or flowers soaked in ice water to produce potent “full melt” water hash.
This post was originally published on November 4, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.