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Medical marijuana is rapidly transforming into a mainstream industry, as evidenced by the growing national acceptance of MMJ and the increasing number of states passing favorable marijuana laws.

A major reason for this trend is the growing popularity of alternative methods of consumption, such as vaporizer pens, taps and infused products that don't scream "petrify". All of these are focused on derivatives of cannabis concentrates, i.e., plant oils.

This segment of the industry is growing rapidly: some dispensaries are seeing impressive year-over-year revenue growth in concentrates, with fair share reporting that these products account for 50% of their sales.

Unlike the traditional food or natural products market, which relies on large manufacturing facilities with national transportation and distribution networks, the production of cannabis concentrates is largely carried out by small local or regional operations. In other words, many dispensaries are starting to make their own concentrates even though they have little or no experience with the processes or equipment involved, opening the door to mistakes and inefficiencies in an increasingly important part of their business.

If you want to get into the concentration game, here's a short primer on the manufacturing process, along with some tips and questions to ask - and some potential pitfalls to avoid - along the way:.

Concentration methods

The first thing pharmacy owners who want to make their own concentrates need to know is that there are several methods available for vegetable oil extraction. All of them require the same core process: extracting the oil, wax and/or other elements containing the desired compound from the bulk plant material.

There are basically two mechanisms that can handle extraction - mechanical or chemical. Mechanical methods include pressing, water extraction, dry ice extraction and pruning specific flowers or leaves from the plan. Chemical methods usually use a solvent that can dissolve the desired oils/waxes in order to separate them from the rest of the plant material. The solvent may remain in the oil mixture, for example when butter is used, or can be removed from the extracted oil. Removal of solvents is often required if they adversely affect the taste or quality of the product, are unsafe for consumption, or are unstable under atmospheric conditions. Ethanol, hexane, isobutane, propane and carbon dioxide are examples of solvents that are typically removed from the extracted oil.

Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, so be sure to perform due diligence before choosing one.

Equipment

Once you have chosen your desired method, the next step is to start looking for equipment. This is arguably the most important consideration after the extraction method itself. There are a number of questions you should ask before purchasing concentration equipment.

Experience - Does the equipment manufacturer have the necessary experience to safely design, engineer, build, test and modify the equipment to meet the specific extraction requirements? An experienced equipment manufacturer will have comprehensive expertise in engineering, design and manufacturing for the given process they are marketing.
Manufacturer vs. Reseller - Does the equipment supplier build their own equipment, or do they resell or label their equipment with another company's? Resale can work if it is done well and the manufacturer supports the reseller. This is especially important if equipment is being imported due to time zone and language barriers.
Custom vs. production - Custom equipment or "one-offs" are great for specific atypical applications, but often lack the field testing needed for long-term reliability. How can you tell if a particular piece of equipment is disposable? Long lead times and large deposits on system components are red flags. Documentation or lack of documentation may be another sign. Don't be afraid to ask for engineering drawings, documentation, operation and maintenance manuals, or performance data.
Food Grade - Does the design and design of the equipment support the good manufacturing procedures required for food grade applications? Materials that come in contact with the product to be consumed should be stainless steel, easy to clean, free of inaccessible areas, and free of grooves and cracks that could trap material and harbor bacteria.
Warranty - The fine print is important. Read. Are consumables covered under warranty? If not, ask for specific information about which items are considered consumables. If it is indeed necessary, how long will warranty work take?
Updates - Will the equipment be updated with newer technology and future improvements? Are there costs associated with updates?
Customer Service - Does it include training and customer support? How will questions and issues be answered?
Legality - Is the device legal in your state? This issue has become more acute since Washington State adopted the Adult Use Rule, which requires all withdrawals to be made using a closed-loop system. Talk to your manufacturer about their system process and verify that it complies with your state's regulations for your operation.
Pretreatment and post-treatment requirements

After researching extraction methods and finding an equipment supplier, it is also important to understand what additional processing is required for the chosen extraction method. Does the material need to be dried or ground to a specific particle size prior to processing? Can the extracted oil be used after extraction or does it require post-processing? Almost every extraction method requires some level of pre-treatment and post-treatment.

Other considerations

If you choose one of the more common methods of cannabis extraction that is heavily equipment dependent, there are other factors to consider.

Recirculating Hydrocarbon Extraction - Hydrocarbon extraction is popular due to its lower cost requirements and higher extraction efficiency. However, the flammability of compressed hydrocarbon gases requires some additional equipment considerations. The equipment and the tools required to operate the equipment must not generate heat, sparks or flames that could cause the compressed gas to catch fire. Electrical components must be rated in accordance with the appropriate NEMA and NFPA hazardous materials requirements. Operation of the equipment must also be conducted in a facility suitable for flammable gases in accordance with NFPA 70 and other local requirements. Extraction and storage vessels must have appropriate safety equipment, such as safety valves or rupture discs, and emissions must be vented to a suitable safety location or container. In addition, due to the low boiling point of hydrocarbons, a post-blowdown of the extracted oil is almost always required. The used material also needs to be stored in a well-ventilated area while the captured hydrocarbons are degassed.
CO2 Extraction - The high pressures required to turn CO2 into a liquid or supercritical fluid require that pressure vessels and components be designed, built and tested in accordance with ASME codes. While CO2 is not as flammable as hydrocarbons, high pressures do require advanced manufacturing and inspection methods to maintain proper safety margins. As with hydrocarbon systems, all CO2 vessels must be equipped with appropriate safety equipment such as safety valves or rupture discs.
Opportunities for the cannabis concentrate processing business will continue to grow as the health and safety benefits of concentrates are better understood and continue to gain mainstream acceptance. Due diligence in the areas of equipment, process and supplier selection is critical to long-term success.

Careddi exclusive Supercritical CO2 Extraction machine
donaldfisher joined Amara on Dec. 4, 2021.

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