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Q: I am on a team of professionals who answer a 'hot line' for alcohol and other drugs. We've had someone ask about distilling marijuana in order to get concentrated THC. (A concerned parent says her teen is now doing this.) I have no information about distillation of THC. In fact, if it is fat soluable, it is unlikely that a water distillation would be as potent as other means of intake. I'd like your input, please. Thanks Helen

A: Without asking the person who uses the term 'distilling' for what they're actually doing, it is impossible to know for certain since there is no agreed upon use of the word 'distill' for cannabis.

'Distilling' seems most likely to refer to an extraction of some kind. The psychoactive
cannabinoids in cannabis are (as you point out) oil or non-polar solvent soluble, so using
water isn't an efficient way of extracting the desired compounds.

Extracting cannabinoids can be done using edible oils (such as butter) or with solvents such as acetone, butane, alcohol, or a wide variety of others. Usually extractions from cannabis are only done on leaves or very low quality buds to take material which is mostly unsmokeable and turn it into something useful. Extractions are rarely done on high quality buds. I think there are three main possibilities for what someone might mean by distilling in this case (in order of likelihood):

1) Solvent extraction. The main health issues with using solvents in home extractions are around the purity of the solvents available to non chemists. Many of the solvents available at hardware stores contain residues of oils which are undesireable and unhealthy to either eat or smoke.

Usually, an extraction is as simple as soaking the leaves of the plant in the solvent, stirring
or shaking occasionally, straining off the leaves, and then evaporating the solvents. This
usually results in an oily goop that contains high levels of THC. If a low / paint / hardware
store grade solvent is used, this oil may also contain some nasty toxic leftovers. Sometimes
one can tell just by smelling or tasting the material or smelling vapors from this whether there
are unwanted residuals, but not always.

If someone is concerned that a loved one is using impure solvents, a simple test can determine how much residue is present in the solvent by taking a half-cup of the solvent and evaporating it in a glass jar or cup. Once the solvent is completely evaporated (this should be done outside, as most of these solvents produce nasty fumes and are flammable) the bottom of the jar can be checked for residue. If any residue is present, it is probably not acceptable for any ingestion-related use.

You can find a description of a 'honey oil' extraction technique at:
Honey Oil Technique But there are lots of solvent extractions published for cannabis.

2) Alcohol extraction. Using food grade ethyl alcohol, such as vodka or grain alcohol, cannabis
leaves are crushed and soaked for a few days, the leaves strained off, and the resulting liquid
dryed or evaporated until left with a sludge. Because many things are soluble in water and
alcohol, the resulting sludge contains far more organic matter than an extraction done with a solvent. The sludge can be dried thoroughly and then smoked or used in cooking.

3) Food / butter extraction. Using butter or other food grade oil, the leaves are crushed and sauteed in a frying pan until they turn brown, the plant material is strained off and pressed
to remove any remaining oil. Often a second extraction is done to remove any remaining THC from
the plant material and then the two butter-extractions combined. The butter/oil is then used
in cooking such as making cookies or cake.

4) Water extraction: using water for a cannabis extraction is likely to result in nothing of use.
THC is not very soluable in water, so most of it will remain with the plant material,
wherever that ends up.

Outside of the concerns about solvent impurities, concentrated cannabis also poses more of a risk of unintentional overdose which can be extremely unpleasant, although not life threatening as long as no cars are involved. Oral ingestion of cannabis is widely known to cause more extremely negative reactions per ingestion than smoked cannabis because the effects can take so long to come on and the dosage can be hard to control. Often yummy snacks are infused with cannabis and there are many tales of unknowing snackers eating several strong cookies without realizing what they've done. The worst reactions are usually from those who didn't intend to get high but find themselves experiencing 4-10 hours of confusion, agitation, fear, paranoia, etc.

Hope that helps answer your question, I included a lot of details since these issues may come up again.

Asked By : searching for info
Answered By : earth
Published Date : 4 / 12 / 2000
Last Edited Date : 4 / 12 / 2000
Question ID : 154

Categories: [ Cannabis ]

Ask Erowid v1.7 - Jul, 2005

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