The Ultimate Guide to Cannabis Oil Extraction

The Ultimate Guide to Cannabis Oil Extraction

Introduction to the Ultimate Guide to Cannabis Extraction

The Ultimate Guide to Cannabis Oil Extraction was designed to outline and explain all the major aspects of cannabis and hemp extraction and refinement. This Guide’s aim is to provide a comprehensive overview of the extraction and processing of cannabinoids for three levels of industry experience:

  1. Beginners: those new to extraction,
  2. Intermediate: those already extracting cannabis or hemp) who want to learn more or scale their business, and,
  3. Experts: those already in the industry wanting to stay up to date on the latest developments.

This Guide was created in collaboration with some of the best minds in the extraction and processing industry. Combined, these experts have decades of hands-on experience, have conducted thousands of hours of industry research, and built several successful extraction and processing businesses. Their experience means this Guide is filled not only with long-term expert knowledge and hard science, but also practical, hard-won pro tips that you can apply to your extraction business today and tomorrow.

If you are a novice and/or practitioner and not familiar with any of the more scientific terms used, check out the cannabis extraction and processing Glossary.

If you  are an expert-level extractor, you may want to skip some of the information and jump to later chapters like:

  • The latest innovations in Extraction Equipment and Systems Technologies,
  • Understanding the complexity of the end-market: Strategic End-Products you Need to Care About for 2020-2021, and,
  • Building a sustainable and flexible Cannabis Extraction Business Model to ride out sudden market shifts and industry volatility.

But regardless of your level of expertise, by providing a holistic and comprehensive introduction and overview to cannabis extraction and processing, this Guide will help you build a more successful and profitable business.

*Note, we’ll be uploading new chapters each month over the next few months, if you want to be informed of the publication of the latest chapter? Get on our mailing list to hear about them first.

Reasons Why We Created This Guide:

  1. To provide the most comprehensive, readily-accessible, practical, and easy-to-understand information on the internet about cannabis and hemp oil extraction.
  2. To share our authentic expertise and practical advice based on hands-on, long-term experience in the art and science of cannabis extraction and processing.
  3. To help extractors optimize their techniques and methods, and seize market opportunities to grow their businesses successfully.
  4. To help our customers and the industry as a whole build more sustainable businesses with financially viable and flexible business models.


Here’s an overview of the Guide* with links to each chapter in case you want to jump into the deep end:

*Note, we’ll be uploading new chapters each month over the next few months, if you want to be informed of the publication of the latest chapter? Get on our mailing list to hear about them first.

The Cannabis Plant: Short History of a Complex Plant

The story of this wonderfully complex plant–and its derivatives–reaches far back into prehistory before the written word. Hemp is possibly one of the earliest plants to be farmed by early agricultural settlers.

Cannabis has been cultivated in Japan since the pre-Neolithic period for its fibres and as a food source and possibly even as a psychoactive material. An archeological site in the Oki Islands near Japan contained cannabis achenes from about 8,000 BC, probably signifying use of the plant. Hemp use archaeologically dates back to the Neolithic Age in China, with hemp fiber imprints found on Yangshao culture pottery dating from the 5th millennium BC. The Chinese later used hemp to make clothes, shoes, ropes, and an early form of paper.

Humans have been interested in the cannabis plant for a very long time for various reasons, not the least of which are its psychoactive and medicinal properties.

Over the millennia, humans began to understand that a certain part of the female plant produced the effects that they most enjoyed and used for medicinal, ritual, and recreational purposes. These early cannabis extractors began to devise methods of concentrating these parts of the plant, thereby increasing the potency of their sacrament and medicine.

Fast forward to the modern day, in late 2018, with the passing of the Agricultural Act of 2018 AKA the The Farm Bill a new federal hemp regulatory system was established under the US Department of Agriculture which aimed to facilitate the commercial cultivation, processing, and marketing of hemp. The Farm Bill removed hemp and hemp seeds from the statutory definition of “marijuana” and the DEA schedule of Controlled Substances. It even made hemp an eligible crop under the federal crop insurance program.

With the passing of the Bill growers began to grow more CBD-rich hemp. The hemp-derived CBD market exploded and CBD flooded the market.

What are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are chemicals that bind to special cannabinoid (CB) receptors in the body in what is known as the Endocannabinoid system. These receptors are found in the brain and spinal cord (CB1 receptors), as well as the rest of the body (CB2 receptors). Cannabinoids were named after the plant that aided in their discovery (but are also found in other plants). They can also be generated within the body (endocannabinoids), derived from plants (phytocannabinoids), or made synthetically.

The cannabis plant contains more than 120+ different cannabinoids. THC or Tetrahydrocannabinol is the most popular and has a powerful physiological impact on the body including changes in mood, pain, focus and appetite.

The next most well-known cannabinoid is called cannabidiol or CBD. Though it contains no psychoactive properties, CBD has shown great promise in the medical community and may be beneficial for its anticonvulsant, antioxidant, anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory and anti-depressant properties (among other things).

CBD is typically derived from the “hemp” plant rather than cannabis. However, it’s worth mentioning here that “hemp” is a term used to classify varieties of cannabis that contain 0.3% or less THC content.. This is purely a legal definition (not a biological one) to describe non-intoxicating cannabis in the Agricultural Act of 2018 AKA “The Farm Bill”. So essentially, cannabis and hemp are one and the same plant but with different percentages of THC content. 

(The reasons for this confusing legal definition are many and varied and will lead the reader down a rabbit hole of ever-evolving state and federal cannabis legalization and prohibition-related cultural hypocrisies which we need not explore in this guide. If you are however, interested in the history of cannabis check out our chapter on A Short History of Cannabis Extraction.)

However, CBD and THC are not the only “cool cannabinoids” on the block. In the last few years, as the medical and scientific communities delve deeper into this beautifully complex plant, other “minor” cannabinoids are starting to show promise in the realms of general wellness, disease prevention, and their ability to (in some cases) replace pharmaceuticals for various ailments and diseases. Notable minor cannabinoids that are increasing in consumer demand are CBG, CBN, THCV, and THCA–just to name a few.

We’ll talk more about these ‘new’ cannabinoids in Chapter 3: What are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoid Specific End-Product Market Opportunities

The profitability of extracting various cannabinoids changes rapidly depending on popular end-products and consumer market trends. For example, only a few years ago CBD was virtually unheard of. Now you can buy CBD products across all 50 states in an infinite array of products from bath bombs, to jellies, to vape carts, pain cream to high-potency tinctures… and the list goes on.

However, just like any industry, it pays to stay in touch with market trends and opportunities by being aware of what’s on the horizon as the next big thing. In the last year there has been a lot of buzz in the marketplace around the extraction of minor cannabinoids such as CBG, CBN, THCV, and THCA–just to name a few.

The reason for this interest is an economic one: as CBD penetrates the mass market it has become less profitable to grow and to extract. Now extractors and producers are seeking more profitable revenue streams as consumers become more educated and sophisticated in their need for a wider choice.

We’ll dive into the latest market research on these up and coming cannabinoids in Chapter 6: Overview of Strategic End-Product Landscape.

What are Terpenes and What do they Do?

If you’ve had anything to do with the cannabis industry you’ve probably already heard of terpenes and terpenoids. Terpenes are aromatic oils that give each cannabis variety or strain their distinctive flavor notes such as citrus, pine, berry, or mint-like flavors.

These are the chemical compounds that give each strain it’s unique odor or smell but they may also contribute to the effects of the strain. Some terpenes are known to promote sleep, relaxation and stress-relief AKA “couch lock”. While others potentially promote ‘chattiness’ and social interaction, or the clear mental focus required for study.

The effect profile of any specific terpene may also change if there are other compounds present. This is known as the entourage effect. But like most things in the wonderful world of cannabis, more scientific research is required to fully understand the effect of each terpene when used in harmony with others.

In fact, terpenes are the same compounds that also create the unique flavor and fragrance ‘notes’ of wine, chocolate, and coffee, and all other foods, flowers, and other plants! From redwood trees to parsley, terpenes exist across the botanical world in countless plant species, including all fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and other botanicals. When you smell a rose or a lavender field, it’s because terpenes are hitting the smell receptors in your nasal cavity.

About 200 terpenes exist in cannabis and hemp but only a small handful of those are in amounts to have a psychoactive effect.

Common Cannabis Terpenes:

  • Alpha-pinene (essential pine oil); the most common botanical terpene
  • Beta-caryophyllene is found in black pepper, oregano, and other edible herbs, and green leafy vegetables.
  • Limonene is a major terpene in all citrus fruits (lemons, limes, etc.)
  • Linalool is a terpenoid prominent in lavender
  • Myrcene occurs in mangoes, hops, bay leaves, lemongrass, and basil

It’s interesting to note that THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids have no odor. So it’s the terpenes that work to give each strain its unique fragrance and ‘dank’ smell, along with their own accompanying psychoactive and medicinal effects.

For example, generally speaking, Indica cannabis strains are known for their ‘mellow’ couch-lock qualities. While Sativa strains are known for a more mentally-stimulating high. And hybrid strains will be a combination of those effects. And further still, the blend of terpenes within each strain will produce the unique smell and ‘flavor’ of the psychoactive high.

A cannabis strain like Cherry Pie actually smells a bit like the sweet but sour flavor of cherries and is known for its giggly and happy ‘vibe’. Sour Diesel is named after its diesel-like ‘dank’ aroma and delivers an energetic and uplifted high. And Granddaddy Purple will plant you on the couch for a relaxing Netflix binge watching session. And to add further complexity, all these strain-specific effects may vary depending on the individual but all are the result of an interplay of THC, CBD, minor cannabinoids and terpene combinations in a full-spectrum end-product.

What is Cannabis and Hemp Oil Extraction?

The practice of extracting botanical oils from plants is an ancient one that goes back for thousands of years. Oil has been extracted from a wide variety of plants for various reasons: medicinal oils, fragrant oils, food flavorings, aromatherapy, and more. From roses and rosehip, to peppermint and spearmint, lavender, and eucalyptus… The list is endless.

But when it comes to cannabis or hemp extraction, the basics are the same but the complexities are different. For example, when you’re extracting lavender oil you are essentially extracting one type of molecule to create a fragrance.

In contrast, when we’re extracting cannabis or hemp oils, we are selecting specific molecules (THC, CBD, CBG, etc.) from over 120+ different cannabinoids!

Obviously, THC and CBD are the two most abundant cannabinoids, and hence the most well-known or ‘major’ cannabinoids. The other ‘minor’ cannabinoids may be less abundant in the plant but may, in fact, end up being more valuable to extractors as market trends evolve.

We’ll learn more about cannabinoids and their benefits in Chapter 3: What are Cannabinoids?. You may also be interested in cannabinoid-specific market opportunities in Chapter 6: Strategic End Products for 2020-2021.

The Basics of Cannabis and Hemp Extraction

Extraction is a generic term used widely in the industry to encompass several stages of the cannabis and hemp oil extraction, distillation, and purification process. And for most end-products, extraction is merely one of the first steps in the journey of transforming biomass (raw cannabis plant material) into a purified high-quality product that is readily bioavailable and ready to be sold to consumers.

As you will see in Chapter Five, the beauty of cannabis extraction and refinement is that it is both a craft and a science due to the complexity and delicacy of the cannabis plant.

It’s a craft in that it takes an experienced cannabis connoisseur to produce a high-quality derivative with the right ‘bouquet’ of terpenes to sell in the marketplace. Just like a viticulturist or winegrower would be able to know the taste of good wine.

It’s a science in that to get a high-quality result there are several chemical reactions for the biomass to move through before you can achieve the high-quality result you’re seeking.

Outlining any generic or basic cannabis extraction process is challenging due to the complexity of the plant, the various solvents used, and the wide variety of end-products (otherwise known as derivatives).

In fact, when you’re considering setting up an extraction business it’s critical to always begin with the end-product in mind:

  • Are you aiming for a connoisseur, full spectrum, high-end product rich in minor cannabinoids and terpenes?
  • Or, are you wanting to extract THC or CBD isolates at scale?
  • How flexible do you need your operation to be to adapt to new end-products to meet ever-changing consumer demands?

These variables will also affect your business decisions on what extraction equipment and technologies you may need to purchase to meet market demand.

In general, extraction methods generally break down into two categories; solvent vs. non-solvent:
  1. Solvent
    • Ethanol (one of the most popular forms of extraction)
    • CO2 Supercritical
    • Hydrocarbon (butane, propane)
    • Oils: Olive, coconut, vegetable.
    • Combining different methods (e.g. injecting ethanol into CO2)
  2. Non-Solvent (Mechanical Separation)
    • Water and/or Ice Based (water is technically a solvent but referred to as a non-solvent for “mechanical” cannabis separation)
    • Cold-pressed extraction (using intense pressure to extract oil)
    • Other solventless technologies (steam, lipid infusion)

We’ll get into the intricacies of the extraction and purification process much deeper in Chapter 5: Extraction Process Overview, and in Chapter 7: Common Extraction Technology and Methods.

CBD and THC Extraction Equipment: What Machines and Systems are needed for Cannabis and Hemp Extraction?

Generally speaking, it is widely accepted in the industry that ethanol extraction is one of the easiest and safest forms of cannabis and hemp extraction and the most suitable for high volume production. But each of the common solvents have their pros and cons depending on your desired end-product. You may also want to consider other solvents and therefore other systems and machines.

Other critical considerations you will need to think about include:

  • What end-products are you wanting to make? Have you done your market research into consumer demand?
  • How big is your business? How will you scale it?
  • How adaptable is your equipment to end-market shifts?
  • Is your equipment certified safe by industry bodies?
  • What’s your business model? Do you have a Business Plan?
  • What do you need to know to make capital investments? 

We’ll do a deeper dive into the various cannabis extraction equipment in Chapter 8: Extraction Equipment and Systems.

What are the differences between Cannabis vs. Hemp CBD Extraction?

Whether you’re extracting CBD from hemp or cannabis the process is similar but ultimately, it is the end product you’re aiming to produce that will dictate the extraction process.

Cannabis and hemp are essentially the same plant (more about that later in Chapter 4: Biomass: Starting with the Right Stuff) but we process them in different ways to get different end-products.

The two most common forms of extracted CBD are:

  1. Full-spectrum CBD: a whole-plant extract containing other compounds such as terpenes, waxes, and other cannabinoids including THC in minute amounts (0.3% THC or less). Ideally extracted from CBD-rich hemp plants.
  2. CBD isolate: Pure ‘isolated’ CBD molecules (which can be derived from either hemp or CBD-rich cannabis) that can be sold wholesale to other producers.

For example, if you’re seeking to produce full spectrum CBD oil with 0.3% THC or less, terpenes, and including minor cannabinoids, your process will vary than if you’re trying to produce CBD isolate, or a pure CBD molecule, at scale.

So ultimately, the biggest differences between cannabis and hemp begin way before the extraction process: in the choice of which plants to grow in the first place to produce our desired end product.

Read more about Biomass: Starting with the Right Stuff.

Is it Legal to Extract Oils from Cannabis and Hemp?

Thanks to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and all of the plant’s derivatives across all 50 states, hemp oil is legal at the federal level but only if it’s derived from hempnot cannabis. Hemp is legally defined as a cannabis plant that contains less than 0.3% THC.

Things get a lot more complex at the state level.

With 30 states at different stages of legalization, it pays to do your homework and find out about your own state’s laws before undertaking any oil extraction from cannabis plants. (Note: at the time of writing, all cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds still remain illegal at the federal level.)

Lastly, it’s also important to be aware of your state’s laws around transporting cannabis or hemp biomass or end-products across state lines. Even if you’re transporting from one fully legal state to another fully legal (or medically legal state) you may still be breaking the law. So it pays to do your homework.

Where to next?

If you’re ready to increase your knowledge about all things CBD and THC extraction we recommend reading this guide from this Introduction page all the way through to the end. If you get confused about any of the terms we use head over to the Extraction Glossary.