The use of cannabis extracts can provide a wide range of unique therapeutic benefits for medical users. Extracts are potent, portable and require the inhalation of significantly less smoke or vapor than a comparable dose of unrefined cannabis (thus potentially reducing the chance of respiratory tract irritation). The explosive growth of medical cannabis in the last several years in North America, as well as technological advances and a rapidly increasing interest in these substances by users of cannabis products has led to a bewildering array of different categories of extracts. This guide is intended as a basic user manual for these types of refined cannabis. In general, storage, handling, and application techniques are the same for all of the different types of extract. Exceptions to the norm are noted. For a more thorough (although by no means exhaustive) explanation of the differences between different refinement techniques, see our ‘Extracts - Varieties and Properties’ pamphlet.
Vaporizing is the safest and most effective method for the inhalation of cannabis extracts. Although this method requires the use of specialized equipment, the recent proliferation of cheap and high quality vaporizers on the market has made vaporization a viable (and desirable) technique for many users of medical cannabis. Vaporizers use heat to gently evaporate the extracts. This means that vaporization is significantly more efficient than methods using higher heats, as almost none of the active constituents are destroyed by excessively high temperatures. Since the vapors being inhaled are a relatively cool temperature and do not contain combusted plant matter, the risk of respiratory irritation is significantly lower than any other method.
• Vaporizing extracts requires slightly different equipment than that used for the vaporization of dried cannabis. Often, the piece of equipment will simply be an add-on to an existing vapor pen or e-cigarette. Full units for the vaporization of extracts are also common and popular.
The most important distinguishing feature of a vapor pen (besides manufacturing quality) is the type of heating element used. A short list of the most common varieties follows:
An atomizer is a plate that is heated to evaporate the extract directly, sometimes surrounded by a metal mesh.
Cartomizers are composed of an absorbent wicking that has a heating element wrapped around it.
Absorbent wicking that draws the liquid to be vaporized into a chamber containing a heating coil. These will only work with glycerin-based extracts.
Pipes and bongs are commonly used to inhale cannabis extracts, and are the simplest method available. Unfortunately, these methods are also the least efficient, have a high risk of respiratory irritation, and involve the inhalation of whatever substance is being used to combust the medicine.
Since extracts become liquids at higher temperatures, it is recommended that individuals use a base of cannabis underneath their chosen extract to prevent loss due to melted extract running into the smoking implement.
Pre-heated elements involve the use of some form of metal or glass implement that is first heated to very high temperatures (typically using a butane torch) and then has an extract applied to it. This instantaneously produces thick smoke from the extract, usually resulting in the entire dose being consumed at one time.
The use of a pre-heated element requires the use of several specialized pieces of equipment. Titanium elements, or “nails” are the standard, with good heat retention and no possibility of metal vapor being created due to heating. Glass elements can also be used, which will not release chemicals when heated. Glass elements are significantly cheaper than titanium, but also break much easier.
Most cannabis extracts are very stable. If properly prepared and stored, extracts can remain almost entirely chemically unchanged over spans of multiple years. Properly storing these products will help ensure their quality for when it is needed most, and only requires following a few simple guidelines.
- Avoid extreme temperatures, moisture, and direct sunlight.
- Extracts should be stored in an airtight container (preferably one with non-transparent sides) in a cool, dark place.
- Different types of materials may be used to store extracts. A brief overview of the benefits and downsides follows:
Easy to clean and completely nonreactive, glass containers are ideal for storing extracts. Dark glass and an airtight seal are both highly recommended.
Metal containers may be coated with a non-metallic coating or composed of an alloy, both of which may react with any residual solvents in the extract. Many metals (e.g., stainless steel or titanium) are almost completely unreactive, as long as they have not been coated. Ensure you know what your container is made of!
Note: Depending on the purity of the extract, freezing can make it brittle and significantly easier to separate.
Contraindications (reasons to re evaluate treatment) and warnings
Although the high potency of extracts is their main attraction for many individuals, this high potency also carries with it an increased risk of side-effects. THC use quickly results in the development of a tolerance to many of the effects of cannabis. A high tolerance will require significantly higher doses to achieve the same effects that smaller doses would have achieved before tolerance was developed.
Higher doses cause tolerance to increase more rapidly.
A single dose of an extract can be incredibly potent. Some negative cognitive effects are more common with these types of extracts. Paranoia, anxiety, memory loss, loss of motor control, and transient narcolepsy are all potential side effects.
Repeated high-dose use of cannabis can lead to cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. This is a relatively rare condition that causes uncontrollable vomiting (emesis), usually occurring early in the morning after a large amount of consumption the previous evening. Once an episode of cannabinoid hyperemesis has occured, future episodes are significantly more likely to occur in future. The high-dose/high-tolerance nature of extracts can increase the likelihood of developing this syndrome.
Improperly prepared extracts
Improperly purged extracts can contain residual solvents. This can lead to a number of health effects, and can cause the container extracts are stored or transported in to leach contaminants into the extract.
It is very difficult for the end consumer to know the quality standards that an extract was held to during its production. There are numerous ways that an extract can come to contain undesirable impurities (e.g., butane reacts with PVC piping, impurities in the cannabis being concentrated, etc…).
Respiratory distress associated with various methods
Various methods can cause respiratory irritation if caution is not taken. Pipes, bongs, and any form of pre-heated element can lead to the inhalation of very hot air and dense smoke.
Increased legal risk
Extracts carry significantly more serious punishments in Canada for possession and trafficking than does unrefined cannabis.