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The Rapidly Evolving World of Marijuana Extraction

Extraction techniques and technology have advanced quickly since cannabis was legalized.EXPAND
Extraction techniques and technology have advanced quickly since cannabis was legalized.
Jacqueline Collins

As we approach our favorite unofficial holiday on April 20, it's nearly impossible to know the immediate future of Colorado's cannabis industry, with numerous regulatory and societal changes (and un-changes) surrounding the plant less than a month into the pandemic. But weeds are tough plants — and essential ones, too, according to the State of Colorado. To get more perspective, we caught up with a half-dozen cannabis trailblazers and OGs, all of whom were here before retail was legalized and the money quickly followed. Some have adapted to the evolving culture, others have refused to compromise, but all play a role in how we view the plant now — and how 4/20s of the future might look. Here's the sixth and final installment of our "Rolling With the Punches" series.

Nothing exemplifies the growth and change in the legal cannabis industry quite like extraction, the process of stripping the plant of cannabinoids such as THC and CBD, as well as all the smelly stuff. The word "hash" is a rare one in legal weed nowadays, supplanted by terms like "sugar wax," "live resin," "terpene sauce" and "rosin." Since there was essentially only one form of hash a little more than a decade ago, there was no need to differentiate.

Then the machines came.

Dave Malone was accustomed to smoking joints and an occasional special spliff with old-school hash when he took his first dab of wax — the popular THC concentrate made with butane — in 2007. Two years later, he started tinkering in solvent-based cannabis extraction. Now, Malone and his wife, Alana, run Green Dot Labs, an award-winning extraction lab in Boulder, where they've learned how to make live resin, THC diamonds and just about everything in between.

Westword: Since recreational sales began in 2014, has anything changed more in cannabis production than the extraction part?

Dave Malone: Yes and no. I think this entire industry is rapidly evolving — the technology and the ways we do business. It seems like as soon as you invest in new technology, it's already obsolete by the time you install it. I would say extraction has changed greatly, specifically in refinement of concentrates. Butane [the most popular solvent used in extraction] is an aggressive solvent, but the refining aspect is something a lot of adopters in legalization were sort of wondering about — if it was even safe to be smoking something made with butane that had a skull and crossbones on the package — and rightfully so. But now we have ways to test and refine our concentrates to make sure they're clean and safe, and that's one big change for the better.

If the timeline of cannabis extraction were a history book, how many pages were turned by the time Colorado legalized, and how many pages have we turned since?

The Trichome Institute interviewed me about extraction back around 2014 for its first edition, and it went in a book. I would love to go back and read that, because things have monumentally changed. How we filter our extracts, the equipment we use, how we package them, how we store them — the list goes on and on in terms of what has changed with making high-quality concentrates. It's all changed dramatically over the last couple years. But what we do is generally above and beyond what the mainstream would do.

Trends shape the concentrate sector. Wax was the new thing in the 2010s, live resin came in shortly after, and then THC diamonds after that. Rosin has jumped in and out, as well. How much of a copycat business is this?

Every one of our competitors in this space is using one of three listed, peer-reviewed extraction machines — there might be a few more nowadays — that we're even allowed to use in the industry. So off the bat, it's essentially a level playing field, and we're generally using the same refining equipment bought from one or two main manufacturers. Everyone's standard operating procedures are within a few degrees of variance depending on what they're after, so it doesn't leave much room to differentiate.

In extraction, the golden rule has always been quality in, quality out. That remains true. You can't take crappy weed and expect a quality extract. We have a garden of plants that are specifically bred to do well in extraction. Then there's the branding part, because you want to make sure the consumer has something more to grab onto than a jar with yellow goop inside. We're taking a lot from the craft-brewing industry, honestly. You want something on the can, whether it's loud and bright or a nice little nugget of information about where the hops are grown. We're all getting a little bit better every year, so we have to figure out other ways to stand out.

What more can be done to advance cannabis extraction at this point? Is there a form of concentrate in the future that looks totally different than the waxes, resins and shatter we're dabbing now?

Oh, sure — there are a number things that can be done. The goal from a chemistry standpoint is purity. You want to isolate what you want in the cannabis plant, and get rid of what you don't. I think we've reached a plateau for the last year or two in regard to extract purity, but watch something happen after I say this, and our minds will be blown. That's the beauty of this whole thing: So many smart people from other walks of life are moving into this industry with their own technology and know-how and applying it to cannabis. It changes the game frequently.

There's a gap in the way people consume it. Evolutions in vaping technology that taste better or burn slower, the way the average consumer dabs and understands the effects of temperature — there are things that can be done on that side. As far as extraction, though, I think we're pretty much where we're going to be as far as seismic jumps go, outside of maybe the realm of biosynthetic cannabinoids, which are synthesized from yeast.

Someone will be able to add the entire alphabet soup of synthesized cannabinoids to extracts, which could make it not commercially viable to grow plants at some point. When biosynthetic companies start to emerge and can provide a true full-spectrum cannabinoid dose, that will be game-changing. If that happens, the value of THC will go down so much, companies like ours would become flavor companies, where we grow cannabis plants to extract terpenes for flavor.

How has consumer safety behind dabbing changed since recreational legalization began?

We still don't have data on long-term health effects of dabbing, which isn't much older than a decade. What's the effect of people consuming high-voltage shots of cannabinoids? I'm not the expert to opine on it, but you want to make sure this is pure and not full of chemicals or solvents. Independent testing labs and state regulators quickly identified this, so now you'll see more culturally shared information. Intellectual property is very rare in this industry. Any time someone makes a new extract — like the first time people saw THC diamonds or put live resin into vape cartridges — that information is made widely available, and it doesn't take long. We can't really patent our intellectual property anyway, so all of this information is shared quickly.

Is there still space for kief and old-school bubble hash?

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There's a product for everyone, and it all comes down to what you're willing to pay. It blows my mind that caviar [cannabis flower rolled in kief and hash oil], which is essentially the kitchen sink of concentrates, is sought after, but it is. Bubble hash, at least, has some aesthetic value and integrity, and it's a great product.

What, if anything, would you change about Colorado's cannabis landscape?

The budtender model. I don't want to alienate anyone, but it's kind of an unfair system that we have to participate in. The budtender has more power of influence than anyone in the entire cannabis space. They tell consumers what they want and what they're going to buy. Liquor stores don't have anywhere near that power, because you can browse and read labels yourself there. Once we move closer to pre-packaged goods, I think cannabis will be more like that.

For that indecisive consumer, which is a massive section of the market, they're easily persuaded. A lot of this persuasion goes into who greased the budtender the most with kickbacks or incentives, but I think a true free market will bring a different stratification of products into the marketplace. I could list a book of changes I'd like to see in cannabis rules or taxes, but as far as the marketplace goes, I think it should be more free.

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