The World of Dabs, Shatter, THC Oil: A Guide to Cannabis Concentrates
by Mell Green
What are cannabis concentrates?
All concentrates are made by extracting the most effective compounds from the cannabis plant to make a ‘concentrated’ form of the cannabinoids and terpenes responsible for the high associated with marijuana use.
Using solvents, professionals extract these concentrated chemicals by separating the most important compounds from the plant matter itself. The resulting mixture consists almost entirely of these psychoactive chemicals, distilled into their purest and most potent form.
Depending on the extraction method used to distill these, concentrates can take the form of a solid or a liquid. Their effects can also be drastically different to those produced from standard cannabis flowers, especially if vaporized. This is largely due to concentrates’ higher THC levels, which can range from 50 to 90 percent10 to 25 percent levels of marijuana buds.
Rising in popularity in the 2010s, the three most commonly used cannabis concentrates are now dab wax, shatter, and THC oil. But how are they made?
How to make cannabis concentrates
Cannabis concentrates are extracts, which are made by using chemicals or solvents to separate the cannabinoids and terpenes from the original cannabis plant. The result is a concentrated mixture almost purely comprised of psychoactive cannabinoids and terpenes.
These cannabinoids and terpenes are naturally concentrated in resinous glands called trichomes, which cover the outside of the plant. During the extraction process used to make concentrates, the trichomes and their psychoactive compounds are separated from the vegetative material of full cannabis plants using a solvent or extraction chemical.
To make dabs or shatter, extractors often saturate their picked marijuana buds with butane to separate the trichomes from the plant matter. The mixture of cannabinoids and terpenes is then subjected to temperature and pressure changes to determine the physical texture that it obtains when it solidifies.
THC oil is often produced using CO2 extraction, which is widely considered the safest extraction method. By placing the carbon dioxide under extremely low temperatures and high pressures, the natural gas can strip the terpenes and cannabinoids from the plant’s trichomes.
The resulting THC oil is commonly used in vaporizer cartridges for convenient, odorless, and discreet consumption. The supercritical CO2 extraction method used to make THC oil is known to better preserve terpenes than the butane extraction used to create shatter and dabs. So, what are the different types of cannabis concentrates?
Dabs are a form of butane hash oil (BHO), a term that refers to the solvent first poured over the cannabis buds. The soaked buds are then ‘purged’ in an oven or vacuum at room temperature to remove the butane. The subsequent temperatures, handling, and pressure levels applied will determine whether the BHO solidifies into malleable dab wax or shatter. As the temperatures used in this process aren't hot enough to decarboxylate the delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) into active THC, the BHO isn't orally active and so must be vaporized to experience the desired effects.
These vaporizers, or nails, are often electric, which can allow temperature control. But certain consumers are known to use a ceramic/titanium/quartz nail heated with a crème brûlée torch, which is unlikely to produce a consistent temperature.
Like dab wax, shatter is a BHO extracted from the cannabis plant. The differences come after the initial extraction process, when the BHO is cooled to induce solidification. Unlike dabs, which are left undisturbed while solidifying, the BHO is shaken and stirred as it’s left to cool. This results in a solid cannabis concentrate with an entirely different appearance, one that’s translucent and glasslike. Despite these differences, though, the effects of dabs and shatter are more or less identical, as they’re both derived from BHO.
On the molecular level, the differences between dabs and shatter are the result of differing molecular alignments, which is determined by heating versus cooling, pressure applied, and handling (whether the mixture is shaken or left undisturbed). Dab wax has a relatively disorganized molecular composition, while the molecular alignment shatter is organized into neat, parallel rows.
Like dab wax, shatter can be vaporized with a dab rig. A small pinch of shatter is applied to the dab nail, which is subsequently ignited to heat the concentrate and produce a potent vapor that delivers powerful, instant effects.
Unlike dab wax and shatter, THC oil is a liquid cannabis concentrate and not a BHO. And whereas wax and shatter are extracted using butane, THC oil is usually derived using CO2. Except this CO2 isn’t a gas, like it is at room temperature. To act as a solvent, this CO2 is first heated and pressurized until it morphs into a supercritical liquid. Only then can it strip the psychoactive compounds from the trichomes of the original plant matter. The resulting liquid THC oil is rich in cannabinoids and terpenes and commonly used to create vaporizer cartridges to attach to battery-operated vape pens.
Cannabis concentrates are often preferred by consumers who are after a more powerful high, or those who suffer from ailments that require instant relief, such as chronic pain, migraines, and other common conditions. As cannabis concentrates continue to grow in popularity, more innovation and research on these potent delivery methods is sure to follow.
Mell Green is a writer who advocates for the cannabis plant in more ways than one. Catch more of her work here.