The Skinny on Fast-Rising Distilled Cannabis Oil
It barely existed two years ago, and even at the beginning of this year vape pens filled with THC distillate rather than oil represented a fairly small piece of the fast-growing vape market.
But things have changed, dramatically so, during the past 10 months. If distillate was once an afterthought, now it increasingly is the center of attention. And wholesale marijuana growers in California and other states are working hard to meet demand.
WHAT IS MARIJUANA DISTILLATE?
The cannabis elixir that has captured fresh markets in Colorado and Oregon, and is becoming more and more popular in Washington and California, is related to its competitor for vape cartridge market-share — oil.
The word to describe it, “distillate,” is apt because the process used to make the concentrate is similar to that used to make spirits like vodka and rum. Before distillers have whiskey, for example, they make something called a “mash,” which is often similar to beer — a low-alcohol, fermented liquid that contains a lot more than just alcohol. Some spirits, like cognac, are made from what is essentially wine. What distillers do is heat the mash in a still until the alcohol, which has a low boiling point, turns to vapor and rises in the column. As the vapor cools, it condenses, which means it turns back into liquid. The still captures this liquid alcohol and holds it separate from the mash. That’s the base for vodka, whiskey or whatever spirit is being produced. Before it is bottled, the alcohol is thinned with water — on its own, the nearly pure alcohol is far too strong to sip.
The process is similar with marijuana. First comes the decarboxylated oil, which is similar to the mash — a liquid that contains many things, including THC, and is made from marijuana plants; more and more of the cannabis grown by wholesale marijuana companies in California and elsewhere is used to make oils, which are key for edibles, topicals and concentrates. This oil is what most manufacturers used to fill vape pens for the past few years. But now many brands and manufacturers are adding another step and distilling the oil. They heat it until the THC evaporates. As the THC rises in what is basically a still, it turns to vapor, and then it condenses back into liquid when cooled. The still captures this liquid THC and voilà — cannabis distillate.
Distillate is simply a more concentrated form of THC. While most distillate is not 100 percent THC (the distilling process does not always eliminate all other elements in the oil), it is close.
DISTILLATE SALES SPIKING IN STATES WITH LEGAL RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA
The rise of distillate has been most dramatic in Colorado and Oregon. Back in September 2016 in Colorado, the oil-filled cartridges captured 63 percent of $7.95 million in vape sales, and distillate sales represented 27 percent according to cannabis market research firm BDS Analytics. A year later, during September 2017, the roles reversed. Vape sales of $14.92 million during the month broke down into 52 percent for distillate cartridges and 22 percent for oil cartridges (the rest of the categories were much smaller niches, like disposable vapes and vapes filled with live resin).
In Oregon, distillate sales during September 2016 captured just 3 percent of the vape market — oil nabbed 96 percent of all vape sales. But just a year later, in September 2017, consumers bought enough distillate-filled vape cartridges for the category to capture 43 percent of the vape market. Oil remains ahead, with 50 percent of the market, but distillate’s astonishing upward trajectory suggests that it could beat oil in Oregon by the end of the year.
Distillate sales captured just 7 percent of California’s vape market in September, with $3 million in sales during the month. But in March consumers spent just $1 million on distillate, and sales represented only 4 percent of the vape market. So in six months, distillate sales tripled and its hold on the vape market nearly doubled.
Why are manufacturers turning to distillate? For one, discriminating consumers are demanding more and more distillate every day. In addition, the distillation process eliminates nearly everything but the THC from the concentrate — including pesticides. In states like Colorado and Oregon with rigorous marijuana testing procedures, distillate offers at least one way towards ensuring products are pesticide-free.