With the realization that concentrates that are closer to their pure starting material are of higher quality, there’s a strong push now for products that are clean, smooth, loudly flavored and kept as close to their original genetic expression as possible. The use of synthetic salts, foliar sprays and sulfur burners just won’t do. Even words like “organic” are no longer held in as great esteem these days, as there are many organic elements that one would not want to smoke or ingest. Dead ladybugs, insect feces and even the once popular sulfur burners impart organic material that can affect the taste, quality and healthiness of a cannabis product. Cleaning cannabis is not an option, unlike with most other crops.
Extremely high taxes, fees and exacting regulations make many growers and extractors focus less on quality and more on ensuring that their products can meet the necessary requirements to make it to the open market. What was once a highly profitable endeavor in the black market no longer works in today’s current legal regulated cannabis market (these days, the easiest way to turn a profit is to grow a larger quantity of lower-grade cannabis to make up for the smaller margins).
And as new regulations manifest, a great deal of cannabis fails required testing. What’s worse is that the incredibly popular world of concentrates has seen, in addition to THCA and other cannabinoids, concentrated impurities such as leftover nutrients, sugars, heavy metals and pesticides. These can impart an unpleasant taste, cause headaches, and cause discomfort to the throat, nose or lungs, not to mention making it harder to burn the product. Some of these contaminants can even prove hazardous to consumers’ long-term health. And a focus on regulations and quantity almost always means less attention is paid to detail, resulting in lower-grade products. In contrast, the unregulated cannabis black market had been very lucrative because growers and extractors don’t have to adhere to regulations and requirements that aboveboard companies adhere to, thereby dodging a host of rules, taxes and start-up fees.
However, the times are changing and the cannabis community is slowly learning not to accept subpar, low-quality products that are possibly untested and potentially unclean.
The concentrates world has quickly evolved to meet these greater standards. Producers are now turning away from the open blasting of concentrates—using cans of butane and glass or metal tubes to extract honey oil from flowers—and instead using highly sophisticated closed-loop machines that can extract 20-plus pounds at a time (and operate much more safely). The concentrates themselves have become cleaner, and the extraction process has gone from being dangerous to relatively safe when performed in the right conditions with the correct setup and knowledge. Better practices are being followed—for instance, using uncured, fresher material, known as live resin, to produce higher-grade concentrates—that result in increased terpene retention and outstanding taste.
Additional refining processes like winterization—a technique that uses cold temperatures and time to allow the fats, waxes and lipids to separate from the main body of cannabinoids—help create a product that is especially smooth and easy on the lungs.
The advent of sauce (named for its similarity in appearance to applesauce)— resulting from an extraction technique that keeps the extracted cannabis material in its liquid solvent, allowing time to separate the THCA from the terpenes— has given consumers another popular form of concentrate. This supported two new advancements, the creation of truly high-potency, beautiful THCA crystals that form during the process as well as the ability to lake cannabis flower that has little smell or zest and turn it into flavorfully loud sauce.
A jar of sauce with a quarry of beautifully shiny THCA crystals swimming in a runny, oily sea of terpenes has great bag appeal and can assault the nose like a fresh pot of coffee. Consumers also have the ability to change the ratio of THCA to other cannabinoids as they apply sauce to their dabbers, allowing them to tailor their consumption to their own taste.
The Vape-Pen Boom
While the dabbing revolution continues among connoisseurs, the most popular way to consume cannabis products is by using vape pens containing distillate. Most vape cartridges are produced using a fractional distillation process. This is a technique that uses a base solvent, such as butane or ethanol, to extract the cannabinoids from the flower. The resulting extract-laden solvent is then run through a roto vape—a flask that rotates in a warm water bath to evaporate all liquids into vapor. These liquids then re-condense in separate chambers, leaving behind a base liquid of THCA distillate with few other cannabinoids. All terpenes and flavor have been removed, giving the extractor the choice of reintroducing terpenes from cannabis, or the less expensive option of adding food-derived terpenes. While the end product when using this technique is not of particularly high quality, it’s cost-effective and allows for the manufacturer to satisfy the palates of consumers whose tastes have been honed to appreciate food flavors instead of the acquired taste of a gassy OG Kush or a funky Big Buddha Cheese strain.
At first, low-quality cannabis was being turned into distillate to meet the high demand of vape-pen usage. Commonly referred to as “hot dog water” or the “high-fructose corn syrup” of cannabis, it’s easy to make and works well in cheap disposable cartridges. Some producers use cannabis material that is unfit to consume as flower, turning a profit on what would be considered unusable product. However, this has resulted in a high percentage of cartridges failing testing miserably. And as the word has gotten out, the public is seeking out healthier, tastier and headier products. The best of the vape pens now no longer use distillate to power their cartridges but rather incorporate sauce, oil or rosin, providing a cleaner, higher-grade experience. Yes, there are still many cannabis products that are failing testing. But the situation is improving overall. In fact, cannabis has never been cleaner, healthier and headier than it is right now.
Software Vs. Hardware
Now that we’ve really begun to understand the intricacies of cannabis and the evolution of top-shelf concentrates, there lies a distinct shortcoming in the ways we consume cannabis. In many cases, the medicine is beginning to outpace the technology that we use to consume it. Many vape-pen cartridges use cotton wicks to draw the liquid to the heating clement, imparting a burned flavor and adding impurities to a clean concentrate. Oftentimes, if the wick isn’t wet from contact with the oil, it can burn and lend a distinctly charred flavor. Most cartridges come in 350-milligram to 1-gram sizes, with the concentrate contained in a single chamber and heated by a central clement. This means that the first few hits are fresh and flavorful and rich in terpenes. But after several draws, the concentrate’s flavor degrades and becomes less enjoyable. Three-quarters of the concentrate is turned into a low-grade sludge that one would be hard-pressed to consume if it weren’t in a cart.
More frightful are cannabis vape pens containing solvent-derived concentrates testing clean when they’re produced, but then testing dirty due to being housed in cheap, mass-produced metal cartridges. These disposable units can leach heavy metals, machine oil and other contaminates into the concentrate, adulterating the hash with harmful compounds. Furthermore, cheap, low-quality vape-pen batteries don’t have the capability to consistently reach appropriate temperatures to vape the oil.
The technology of consumption is lagging behind in the concentrates industry. The tech supporting the world’s most popular form of cannabis product badly needs an upgrade.
Fortunately, there have been some advances in dabbing tech. Coupled with the desire to be eco-friendly, many consumers have been waiting for a healthy way to enjoy cannabis that also results in the least impact on the environment as possible. Titanium nails were once the norm in dabbing concentrates. But this method could produce too-hot temperatures that burn instead of vaporize the essential oils, resulting in the flavor being off and an inherently unhealthy process. Titanium also expands and contracts through repeated heating, gassing off impurities and slowly degrading the nail. Yes, there’s even a thing called titanium-fume poisoning, which leads to many health issues. Then came ceramic, which is porous and takes forever to clean and heat up, but retains heat very well.
Concentrate consumers finally ended up turning to the same material that laboratories use due to its cleanliness and durability—quartz glass. The real problem was then twofold, though: the hassle of having to use lots of butane and a torch to heat the nail before waiting for it to cool down to an appropriate temperature, and the social acceptability of using a torch with a big flame in public—it’s a touch crackish. No matter how adorned a torch is and how artfully presented, the bulk of the public will most likely never approve of the sight of someone heating a glass element to consume a substance.
The newest products for consuming concentrates on the market utilize batteries and heating elements to provide a user-friendly and socially acceptable way to dab. Instead of a torch to heat a nail and timers to regulate the heat, electronic rigs now provide an easy and accurate way of enjoying concentrates. Dabbing a concentrate at high temperatures—and burning oil instead of vaporizing it—can result in the inhalation of any number of chemicals; some can even be carcinogenic. The ability to dial in specific temperatures on electronic rigs proves to be not only easier on the lungs but also produces a better flavor and more accurate effect based on the terpene profile.
While these devices do have some drawbacks—like the inclusion of ceramic bowls instead of a quartz surface, which provides the cleanest and safest dabbing experience—they do represent a significant improvement over the old standard. Being able to fully dial in specific temperatures is a welcome addition, especially compared with using the imprecise colored-light settings for low, medium, medium-high and high temperatures seen on older products. If a gram of good oil costs $60 to $80, a consumer is most likely willing to spend a good sum on ensuring the most efficient way to consume the headiest dabs.
Going with quality hardware makes not only for a better-performing device but also for a more reliable one. Nothing is worse than going on vacation to some far-off land and having your inexpensive pen or electric rig stop working. Hot-knifing on a stove is not an option for most people on the road. There are a few devices out there that work well, but they are very temperamental and require the most delicate of hands to clean and operate. Some companies have been forward-thinking, having introduced a plug-and-play ability with their products and allowing for heady glasswork to be incorporated into devices as custom attachments. This allows for opportunities to represent one’s taste in a most unique and individual way. The inclusion of handmade glass art opens up a whole new world of potential collaborations and creativity.
A Higher Consciousness
The desire to consume clean products safely and efficiently is finally overtaking the popular reign of cheap-but-inferior products of the past. Still, the battle isn’t over. CBD products and shops are popping up everywhere, and more people are consuming it now than ever before. You can find CBD products for sale in gas stations, grocery stores and at the mall. Even the fine chocolatier in my small hometown offers CBD candies for sale. NYC bodegas offer CBD products and knockoff THCA vape cartridges. However, most of these products are made with unregulated Chinese hemp, most likely grown with harmful chemicals.
US-grown and state-regulated products are slowly meeting the new needs of consumers by providing compliant products without sacrificing quality and reverting to profit over patients. So don’t settle for inferior cannabis products. Support companies that work to represent the plant and community in healthy and beneficial ways. You are what you consume and what you surround yourself with, so never settle for anything less than the best the cannabis community has to offer. Always insist on higher standards.
Originally published in the September, 2019 issue of High Times magazine. Subscribe right here.