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Nowadays, Cannabidiol (CBD) is everywhere. It’s one of the most abundant compounds in the cannabis plant, and research and consumer accounts speak of it being used to treat a whole host of different issues, such as relieving stress and pain, improving mood, aiding in appetite and sleep and easing anxiety. It’s thought to have a wide array of therapeutic benefits to offer and as a result, people have been taking advantage of this compound more and more with each year. With this commercial boom, manufacturers have been pumping out even more CBD-infused products to cater to the market, working this compound into everything from creams, to drinks, gummies, vapes and more.
But what exactly goes into making the product sitting on the shelf? A tiny, unassuming bottle of CBD oil is actually the result of months and months of labour that might not be entirely obvious if merely looking at it. Here, we’ll break down each step of the production process for you, so you can better understand and appreciate your CBD products.
Overview: Steps and Stages
The CBD production process, and the process for any cannabis-derived product, is a complex, multi-step affair. For CBD, it encompasses multiple different stages, all with their own separate equipment and intricate technical details needed to carry out the processing. From picking out strains at the very beginning of the process to the final product ending up in a consumer’s hands, the CBD production process spans many months, and every single product has had a considerable amount of effort and time poured into it.
For CBD, production relies on and centres around hemp as a raw material. Hemp is a type of cannabis - specifically, it’s the term used to describe cannabis plants and varieties that have high levels of CBD and lower levels of THC (under 0.2% by dry weight), thus distinguishing them from more conventional recreational strains. Hemp is used fairly ubiquitously as the source of choice for obtaining CBD. However, as hemp is a living, biological material, inconsistencies between batches are a frequent and inevitable occurrence. An essential part of the production process is dealing with this variance, by way of troubleshooting, minimising errors or deviance, and being adaptable to adjust steps as one goes. High quality manufacturers will do all this and more, investing the resources in order to enforce greater consistency across products and thus deliver better results for consumers.
To provide a quick summary, here is each of the stages of the manufacturing process before packaging and distribution:
- Cultivar selection – cultivation
- Cultivation – growing the hemp plants
- Processing – harvesting, drying and processing hemp
- Selecting Quality Extraction Material – testing and selecting hemp
- Extraction – extraction of compounds from hemp
- Refinement – further processing of extract
- Isolation – separation of CBD from the extract
- Formulation - incorporating the CBD into a final product
Each different stage of the production process is its own industry, and they all must innovate, work together and synergise in order to deliver the final product. Ultimately, every part of the stage is crucial and each must be up to standard in order to create high-quality CBD extract and CBD products. It’s thus essential that one takes into account what goes into the process every step of the way.
Farm: Selecting and Cultivating
The journey of any cannabinoid-based product begins even before planting, with cultivar selection. Cannabis plant breeding techniques have been developed and designed since the birth of the industry to produce a wide range of different cannabis plants, with specific goals in mind. Different cannabis plant varieties have different traits, needs and phytochemical compositions that may significantly impact the result at the very end, so manufacturers must plan and consider what they need first and select cultivars accordingly.
Additional legal tape needs to be sorted before farming can commence as well. Only contract farmers can undertake CBD farming, and they must also comply with regulations and protocols of the agricultural administrators in the region in which they are located. Farmers need to obtain permits from the authorities before beginning to cultivate hemp, and it also needs to be verified to assure that the hemp in question is a certified, registered strain.
From start to finish, each crop’s growing process also needs to be managed according to growing protocols, designed to maximise uniform production and chemical composition across all individual plants. Depending on the variety of plant being grown, the facilities used will also differ, and investment in a dedicated infrastructure to support production is also necessary.
Generally speaking, for the purposes of harvesting CBD, people will use certified hemp strains with elevated levels of CBD and flower and resin production, and low levels of THC and other cannabinoids. Industrial hemp may also be used, but it’s not as ideal for CBD extraction purposes as it typically has lower levels of CBD, lower resin production and runs a higher risk of containing contaminants or toxins.
These plants are usually cultivated outdoors on specialty farms, or sometimes cultivated in greenhouses or indoors, where light, heat and humidity can be manipulated and maintained at optimal levels for plant health and growth.
The ideal CBD in today’s market comes from organic hemp plants, grown in a clean, pesticide and contaminant-free environment at licensed and well-regulated facilities. Everything begins with the hemp, so producing the highest quality hemp possible is what an increasingly large number of growers strive towards.
Preparation: Harvesting and Processing
Once the plants are all cultivated and grown to maturity, the process moves on to the next steps: harvesting and processing the raw material to prepare it to be sent off. This stage encompasses the intermediary steps between the farm and the extraction facility, aiming to provide safe, potent, regulated and consistent material. Only the best quality hemp should be used for production, in order to get the best quality CBD out of it, so quality control of the harvest itself is a necessity.
Firstly, the plants themselves must be harvested - the plants need to be trimmed of their leaves and buds. This can be done in a couple of ways, but generally growers will harvest either by hand labour or by machinery.
When harvesting by hand, the stem of the plant is cut at the base and the hauling of plants is done out of the field where the crops are grown. Hand labour, as a manual process, is time-consuming and requires physical effort and skill from the workers involved. It doesn’t require the use of more expensive, bulky equipment, but much time can be lost as the harvest must be done by hand, and the labour may not be able to scale up to deal with larger crop yields.
When using machinery, growers may make use of debudders or buckers, where wet or dry stems are fed into the machine and then pulled by rollers to strip away the leaves and buds. As a faster, automated process, this greatly reduces the amount of time and the manpower needed for harvesting and processing, and allows for more wide-scale growing and harvesting to take place efficiently.
Proper storage also must always be considered. The harvested plants are dried, and are typically stored in a warehouse after being harvested, in dry conditions and away from any pests that might get into the material. The raw hemp material is then put through milling, where it is ground and broken down to smaller particles, making a coarse powder. This is done in order to prepare for the extraction process, increasing surface area and optimising efficiency of any chemical-based processes.
After this herbal raw material is all prepared, it is sent to the processing and manufacturing facility for quality control. Here it is tested and inspected, in order to account for any potential variability, heterogeneity or inconsistency in the material. If satisfactory, everything can move to the next stage.
Extraction: CO2, ethanol or hydrocarbon
The extraction process is one of the most decisive factors in the quality and purity of your final CBD oil, and it’s thus important that all aspects of it are taken into account by manufacturers. Here, the phytochemicals are separated from the biomass of the plant material, getting a step closer to the end goal.
Several different methods of extraction exist in the CBD processing industry, developed over many years. They can be distinguished and sorted by a number of key factors, which manufacturers will use to decide which option is appropriate for their operations.
Solvent is first among them: deciding what substance will be used to separate your desired chemicals from the biomass of the plant. There are a range of different solvents that are used, all of which have different properties that dictate how the extraction process itself needs to be carried out. They also have varying levels of efficiency, yields and technical demands, and will likewise demand different sorts of equipment that needs to be constructed for the express purpose of carrying out extraction.
Ethanol extraction is the oldest form of extraction used - though it can be any high proof alcohol, not necessarily ethanol. These alcohols are polar solvents, so they can mix with water and dissolve water-soluble molecules, including cannabinoids like CBD. Ethanol extraction is done by simply soaking the raw material in the alcohol and leaving it for a certain amount of time, letting the compounds be naturally drawn out. It’s a very technical method that requires experienced, trained operators to get the best results, but when done right, ethanol extraction is a great and efficient method. Ethanol extraction is favoured by companies who prioritise relative cost-effectiveness while still maintaining quality and safety, or work on a smaller scale of production.
Hydrocarbon extraction is another early extraction method, using a light hydrocarbon as the solvent of choice, usually butane, pentane, propane, acetone or another hydrocarbon with a low boiling point. By submerging the raw material in the solvent and allowing it to steep, the compounds are stripped away and left in a liquid form mixed with the solvent. Afterwards, the mixture can simply be heated in order to boil the hydrocarbons to evaporation, leaving the CBD oil behind. It’s a cheap and straightforward method, but it is comparatively inferior to other methods due to its low yield of CBD, the flammable nature of hydrocarbon solvents, and the fact that the method can result in harmful residues contaminating the extract. It’s also difficult to automate it or scale it up, which is why it’s largely fallen out of practice.
Supercritical CO2 extraction, or more simply known as CO2 extraction, relies upon supercritical carbon dioxide (CO2) as its solvent of choice for extraction. CO2, when placed in specific high pressures and temperatures, becomes supercritical - a substance that exists in a sort of intermediary state between distinct liquid and gas phases and possesses properties between them. Supercritical CO2 can effuse through solids in a gas-like manner, but it can also dissolve materials like a liquid, making it perfect for extraction. Using this, CO2 is passed through the raw hemp material and dissolves the compounds within - CBD mainly, but also other cannabinoids, terpenes, lipids and other assorted compounds - and this array of substances are “pulled” from the plant cells with a near perfect efficiency. The CO2 can then be extracted and sublimated once back at normal atmospheric pressure, leaving behind a clean extract with not a trace of solvent. CO2 extraction is cleaner, purer, and completely safe for consumption thanks to this, and it has the added benefit of minimising any waste created.
Of the different methods of extraction, supercritical CO2 extraction is a clear standout just for sheer purity and quality. While other extraction methods can produce safe and high-quality products, they tend to have more risk or inconsistency built into them simply due to their mechanisms - the residual solvents in hydrocarbon extraction can be hazardous to health, and ethanol extraction tends to yield lower or inconsistent amounts of CBD compared to CO2 extraction. CO2 extraction is more expensive to carry out, which leads to a bigger price tag on the final product, but it is an assurance of high quality work, and is the best possible method of extracting CBD on a commercial scale.
With any method, though, the end result of extraction is broadly similar - a series of fractioned cannabinoid, terpene and other phytochemical-containing extracts. At this point, the extract is referred to as ‘raw crude’, thanks to its resemblance of sorts to crude oil, and will contain all of the necessary active ingredients that a manufacturer might want. Not all of these compounds are desirable, though, so now the desired compounds need to be selected and the extract purified and refined.
Refinement and Isolation
Once extracted, the mixture then needs to be put through further steps in order to remove the unwanted elements present in the extract.
Winterisation is one of these processes, used to remove undesirable elements such as waxes, fats, plant pigments and other impurities. This purification process is widely used, but only necessary when the oil extraction is carried out using high pressure and high temperature conditions, as this sort of intense extraction pulls everything from the plant indiscriminately. Extracted oil from these methods is effectively a sort of hemp-based crude oil, which needs to be refined.
To carry out winterisation, the extracted mixture is combined with 200 proof alcohol, and stirred vigorously until all of it is completely mixed together, and then stored in a deep freezer overnight. This results in a cloudy-looking mixture the next morning, which can be put through filtration.
Filtration can be done a couple of ways - one of these is to simply run it through a filter paper into an extraction jar. Once filtration has been executed to satisfaction and the other compounds and elements have been removed, the extraction mixture is warmed. As it’s warmed, the alcohol evaporates, removing it efficiently and allowing for reuse on different batches, thanks to the lower boiling point of alcohol as compared to the oil.
Decarboxylation is also carried out. When found in the cannabis plant, naturally-occurring cannabinoids are typically found in an acid form - CBD, for example, is found in the form of CBDA, or cannabidiolic acid. Such ‘raw’ cannabinoids need to be activated in order to produce the actual desired molecules. Original acid forms of cannabinoids may be produced when it comes to low-temperature methods like supercritical CO2 extraction, so to properly activate the CBD and remove the acid part of the molecule, decarboxylation is carried out. This sounds complex, but is quite a simple process in practice - just the heating of the extract. The heat removes the acid molecule, thus producing the active compound. This decarboxylation may also be carried out prior to extraction, and different manufacturers will differ on the order.
An interesting note on the ‘raw’ acid forms of cannabinoids is that they interact with the body differently from ‘activated’ or non-acid forms of these same substances. THCA, for example, does not possess the same psychoactive properties as activated THC. These differing traits tie into a limited body of research and some anecdotal user experiences, which may indicate that these ‘raw’ forms may hold promise for alternative therapeutic benefits. However, the activated forms are still far more popular, and unless specifically outlined as a ‘raw’ product all CBD products on the market are usually decarboxylated.
At the end of all of these refinement steps, you have a distillate, which should consist of approximately 80% CBD alongside cannabinoids, terpenes and some other miscellaneous compounds mixed into the extract. At this point, the distillate is a ‘broad-spectrum’ product, as it still contains a range of cannabinoids and terpenes. Depending on whether or not the final product is intended to contain a wider mixture of compounds or CBD alone, there is one more step to be taken.
Isolation is done primarily to ensure that THC is gotten rid of, down to the tiniest trace. THC can be seen as undesirable for a couple of reasons, including its psychoactivity, its complicated legality, or simply its other associated effects - regardless, some CBD manufacturers prefer to keep it out of their products. To isolate, manufacturers use processes such as chromatography or short path distillation.
Short path distillation works very similarly to winterisation, with both processes involving the extract being heated and each compound being separated into fractions according to their different boiling points. This also allows for the cannabinoids to be concentrated and purified to an even greater degree. The final appearance of the refined, isolated substance is a purified white crystal form of CBD. This flavourless isolate is around 99.5% CBD, and all other cannabinoids, terpenes, plant materials, oil and chlorophyll are removed in its creation.
Isolation is not carried out if the intended final product is supposed to contain these other compounds. While isolate is potent and versatile, isolate-based products are generally thought to be less effective than oils that contain a full or broad-spectrum cannabinoid profile thanks to the entourage effect. Cannabinoids and terpenes synergise when consumed together, and boost their combined effects.
Quality Control: Laboratory Testing
Once again, quality control comes back into play - after all of the intense extraction and purification work is done and a distillate is acquired, the product needs to be tested for quality and potency to ensure consistent and pure results.
Every batch of CBD should ideally undergo in-house or internal lab testing,
If a product passes, it acquires a certificate that assures that it has been analysed and assured of quality, and can be made available for customers. Afterwards, quality manufacturers will ensure that their products go through an additional round of testing with a third-party or external laboratory, done on a regular basis for verification of the certification.
Additional testing can also encompass checking for various contaminants and serious toxins. Heavy metals are a major test, particularly those like arsenic, lead or mercury, which when ingested by humans can build-up and poison a consumer with severe adverse effects. Analysis for aflatoxins, mycotoxins and pesticides can also be carried out, making sure that the chemicals that are used to keep the plants pest- and fungi-free during the growing process don’t make it into the final product. Testing for terpenes or microbial testing of cannabis may also be done.
Formulation: the Final Product
At this point, the CBD itself has been produced and checked for quality to satisfaction. From here, all the manufacturer has left to do is incorporate the CBD into the final product, as well as package and distribute the product. The innovative ways that CBD is worked into different products have only expanded as the industry has grown, and nowadays you can find CBD in everything ranging from foods to lotions to even vapes.
If you’re interested in getting quality CBD products, we highly recommend that you try our own CBD vape cartridges here at Amphora. Our carefully-formulated selection of vapes each have their own unique flavours and associated holistic wellness benefits, meant to give you exactly what you need in your daily life. Vaping is also one of the most effective ways of taking CBD - fast-acting and efficient, it’s great for those who need to feel their results fast or need to get their dose on the go.
Amphora CBD vape distillates are produced using cutting-edge supercritical CO2 extraction technology, with our CBD also being sourced entirely from organically-grown hemp plants. This results in natural, organic CBD distillate, with selected terpenes for flavour and wellness and products absolutely free of any additives, THC or toxins. Our products are also run through third-party laboratory testing in order to ensure that they are kept to a medical-grade standard. We’ve made sure that every step of the production process is carried out perfectly, so everyone who uses our vapes can enjoy their CBD experience to the fullest.
Written by | Infused Amphora Team
The Infused Amphora Team is dedicated to creating resources to educate and engage consumers on the growing evidence of CBD benefits and the extensive health and wellness properties of CBD oil.
Contributors | Angus Taylor + Dr Gaylord Wardell
IPI is a pharmaceutical ingredient company that cultivates cannabis strains curated to extract specific cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids for the formulation of effects-based health and wellness products. Angus is an experienced public speaker, engaging stakeholders, governments and media. Angus was the co-founder of NewLeaf Cannabis, Canada’s most successful retail brand to date, and has been established as a well-known and recognized expert in the field.
Dr Wardell is a practising physician with over 40 years of clinical and educational experience in pain management, medical practices and education. Dr Wardell is past President of the Pain Society of Alberta, and current President of the Alberta Medical Association, section of Pain. He is a popular public speaker, an active blogger on medical and pain-related issues, and proponent for scientific validation for patients experiencing pain.
Infused Amphora “Learn” is intended for informational purposes only and is NOT a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.