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Does Temperature Matter When Consuming Cannabis?

Phytocannabinoids like Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) are “activated” by applying heat. It’s these activated cannabinoids that interact with your body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) and help you feel better. Without heat, phytocannabinoids exist in their acidic form, which don’t have an effect on your body when consumed. For example, THC-A is its acidic form as it exists in cannabis, and it converts into THC when heated. That’s why you won’t feel any effects if you eat raw cannabis flower, but you’ll feel the impact if the cannabis was heated first. Here, we’ll detail how phytocannabinoids are activated and outline best practices for applying temperature to cannabis.

What is the process to activate phytocannabinoids?

Cannabinoids convert from their acidic form to their active form through a process called decarboxylation. This process occurs when cannabis is heated just enough to activate the cannabinoids without destroying them. That’s why home decarboxylation methods to make infused oil for topicals or butter for food involve a low-temperature oven, a crock pot, or a special device made for decarboxylation. 

The keys to the decarboxylation process are heat and time; how hot your cannabis gets and for how long are important variables. Cannabis lit aflame, for example, activates phytocannabinoids instantly due to the fire’s extreme heat, but those ultra-hot temperatures destroy most of the phytocannabinoid content. On the other hand, decarboxylating cannabis in an oven takes hours due to the lower temperatures used, but most phytocannabinoids are converted to their active forms without degrading. 

No matter if you use a lighter, a vaporizer, or a crock pot to prep your cannabis for consumption, it’s achieving a similar end: activating acidic cannabinoids through the application of heat. The method you choose depends on your goals: If you want to consume cannabis on the spot, then combusting or vaporizing the flower would work. If you want to create edibles or capsules, decarboxylation in an oven would be the option for you. 

Does temperature affect terpenes?

Unlike phytocannabinoids, the aromatic and flavorful terpenes in cannabis don’t need to be exposed to heat to activate. Terpenes are in their active form naturally, without any external factors applied. However, terpenes are very sensitive to temperature, making temperature control crucial for enhancing your cannabis experience.

Terpenes begin to evaporate off the plant when temperatures are too humid or too hot. In fact, terpenes begin to degrade the moment cannabis is harvested, and heat accelerates this process. Too-hot temperatures can zap terpenes and diminish their flavor and purported effects.

What are boiling points, and what do they have to do with cannabis? 

The boiling points of cannabinoids are relevant when vaporizing cannabis flower or concentrates. When combusting cannabis with a lighter or blowtorch, the flame significantly exceeds the boiling point of all cannabinoids. On the other hand, when decarboxylating cannabis, you want to avoid heating the flower to the boiling points of the cannabinoids. When vaporizing, you have more control over temperature and therefore can hit the sweet spot: boiling cannabinoids off into an activated vapor without losing significant amounts like you would during combustion. 

Here are the boiling points for some of the most prominent cannabinoids:

  • THC:  Around 311°F to 320°F
  • CBD: Around 356°F
  • CBN: Around 365°F

Similarly, terpenes have unique boiling points that, when surpassed, degrade the quality and quantity of the compounds in your cannabis flower. Controlling temperature allows you to retain more terpenes, making for a more flavorful experience.

  • Limonene: Around 349°F
  • Linalool: Around 388°F
  • Alpha pinene: Around 311°F
  • Beta caryophyllene: Around 264°F
  • Myrcene: Around 334°F
  • Terpinolene: Around 356°F
  • Humulene: Around 388°F

Best practices for selecting the right temperature

  • Hotter isn’t always better. Given that heat activates cannabinoids, it could be tempting to think that hotter is always better. However, by understanding the process of decarboxylation and boiling points of cannabinoids, it is clear that hotter isn’t always better. Instead, it is important to understand the boiling points of each compound and then set your temperature accordingly. If you want to maximize the amount of THC you vaporize, for example, set your device to 320°F. If you’re more interested in vaporizing CBD and are OK with trading some THC potency for it, set your vaporization device at a higher temperature setting.
  • Precision is key. Combustion-based methods of consumption are imprecise and result in the loss of significant amounts of cannabinoids and terpenes. If you’re interested in fine-tuning your cannabis experience, consider using devices that allow you to control the temperature to maximize specific terpenes or cannabinoids.
  • Know your goals. It’s hard to determine what the right temperature is for your next session if you don’t know your own goals. If you want to experience the relaxing effects of THC, consider adjusting the temperature to that boiling point. If you really want to ensure that relaxing terpenes like linalool and myrcene are part of the mix, you’ll have to push the temperature a bit higher. Making these trade-off decisions is difficult unless you understand your own priorities.
  • Understand compound profiles. Every cannabis product has its own compound profile, or composition of cannabinoids and terpenes. The amounts and proportions in which these compounds appear matters. They work together synergistically in a process called the entourage effect to augment one another’s effects. Identifying a product with the optimal compound profile for your goals, and then choosing temperature wisely to maximize the most important compounds in that profile, are key elements to making your next session a success.
  • Choose the right products. Finally, you need to select products that will help you achieve your goals. A handheld vaporizer with to-the-degree temperature settings is a great way to set precise temperature, but the cultivar (strain) you select needs to support your goals as well. If you want a potent dose of CBD but select a strain with less than 1% CBD content, for example, the temperature setting isn’t going to matter much.

Temperature is key to a positive cannabis experience

Understanding the relationship between temperature, phytocannabinoids, and cannabis terpenes can be enough to make your head spin. For guidance, Ethos associates are here to help you navigate our wide selection of cannabis products to identify the best one for your needs. We’re also here to help you select the method of consumption that’s best for your desired goals. You don’t have to travel your cannabis journey alone — at Ethos, we’re your partner in education and exploration.

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