Photography by Georgia Love for Herb
These days, cannabis enthusiasts can choose so much more than dried flower. With legal restrictions easing around the globe, technologies used to process other botanical materials, like coffee, have made their way into the cannabis scene. Within the last several years, wax has taken the weed world by storm. But, what is marijuana wax, exactly? And, perhaps more importantly, how is it made? Simply stated, marijuana wax is an incredibly concentrated form of cannabis and used for dabbing and vaporization. Yet, before you dose up this ultra potent product, there are a few basic pieces of info worth learning.
Marijuana wax is a concentrated preparation of cannabis essential oil. While some cannabis extracts feature honey or glass-like consistency, wax features a texture almost akin to a flakey clay. Opaque and easy to manipulate, a high-quality wax is soft and features an amber coloration. Wax is also among the most potent cannabis extracts and features superior flavor when compared to many other essential oil preparations, including glass-like shatter. Though, shatter may feature a greater cannabinoid potency overall. Wax is potent, with THC levels ranging from 60 to 80 percent THC. Compared to the amount of THC in a single joint, this percentage is colossal. As you might expect, the high from cannabis wax is also much stronger.
Wax is smoked using a specialized water pipe called a dab rig or an oil rig. To smoke cannabis wax, a dollop of wax is loaded into a metal wand-like tool, which is aptly referred to as a “dab tool” or “dab wand”. This small glob of wax is placed onto a heated hot plate, which is referred to as a nail. Of course, this nail is quite different from one that you would use when building a house. Instead, a dab nail is often made out of heat-safe titanium, quartz, or ceramic and it is used in place of a traditional flower bowl when smoking extracts.
Concentrated extracts like wax require substantially higher temperatures to combust than plain ol’ flower. So, this nail is typically heated with a torch similar to what you’d use in the kitchen when making a creme brulee. Once the nail is hot, the wax is “dabbed” onto its surface while the consumer simultaneously inhales through the water pipe. If vaporizing wax, the cannabis concentrate should not be heated to higher than 446℉ (230℃). 446℉ is the point of combustion for cannabis products (learn here how to clean a pipe, believe us, you’ll need it).
A dab oil rig makes the high almost instantaneous. While taking a puff or two of a joint is akin to skipping on a beer, a dab is the cannabis equivalent of taking a shot. The effects are immediate and potent. Thanks to the high levels of THC in cannabis wax, there is also a greater likelihood of experiencing anxiety, paranoia, and racing heart from these products. Of course, many veteran consumers love the mellow yet heavy-handed experience that wax dabs provide.
Wax is one subtype of butane hash oil (BHO). BHO is a cannabis extraction that was made using butane as a solvent. Before fancy extraction equipment was introduced to the cannabis industry, crude waxes were made by passing butane through a pipe filled with plant material. This is a terrible idea. Butane is highly flammable and needs to be handled in a stable, well-ventilated environment that follows correct chemical handling and disposal procedures. Without these safety measures, butane gas can explode in your home, or wherever you happen to be using the dangerous gas. Indeed, butane explosions have been the downfall of many DIY extractors.
Nowadays, cannabis industry professionals use pricey closed-loop extraction equipment to safely extract large quantities of concentrated cannabis essential oils. To make wax, marijuana buds are packed into tubes and then blasted with butane. The exposure to butane separates cannabis resin from unwanted plant materials. After the initial extraction, excess butane must then be evaporated out of the concentrate. So, the concentrate is spread onto a baking sheet and “purged” in a vacuum oven at low temperatures. The end result is a sticky cannabis concentrate that is then left to cool, harden, and be scraped into storage containers.
Wax and shatter are two of the most common types of BHO. One features an opaque waxy consistency while the other is translucent and features a hard texture. Apart from basic appearance, you’ll need to dive into a little chemistry if you want to understand the difference between shatter and wax. For all intents and purposes, shatter and wax are the same thing. They are both made via butane extraction and both products are “purged” using a low-temperature vacuum oven to remove residual solvent. Yet, during handling and processing, something happens to shatters and waxes that alters the chemical composition of each product. The end result is one product that looks like a translucent sheet of rock candy. The other is a softer, opaque wax. So, what gives?
Shatter is sometimes processed and heated differently than wax. For example, extractors who set out to make a shatter may “winterize” their initial extract in order to hedge against an accidental wax consistency. This winterization process runs the original concentrate through an ethanol solvent for the second round of extraction. Winterization should remove excess lipids, waxes, and many of the terpenes that are found in the initial product. As a result, shatters that have undergone winterization will be less flavorful than BHO and other concentrations that have not undergone this second round of processing. Even with winterization, however, some shatters still “sugar up” and lead to the creation of wax.
Sometimes, after a shatter product is left to sit, crystals begin to develop on top of the concentrate. These crystals are terpene aroma molecules, which have started to separate from the cannabinoids and other resinous materials. Terpenes are the compounds responsible for the unique fragrances of different cannabis strains. There’s a technical name for this separation process—neucleation. Nucleation occurs when different volatile chemicals in a mixture begin to separate from one another other. In this case, beneficial terpenes are separating from cannabinoids.
Nucleation is a common occurrence with many household goods. For example, if you let a hard candy sit on your countertop for too long you may notice that it starts to become sticky and some whitish crystal dust may begin to form on top. Chocolate does the same thing. If chocolate isn’t properly tempered while cooking, fatty acid crystals begin to separate and form a whitish powder coating on the surface.
With cannabis, wax can be created by extractors intentionally or accidentally. When intentionally creating wax, extraction professionals will agitate the product during processing. Agitation mixes up the crystal structures of the concentrate. Shatter that has begun to sugar can be scraped and manipulated to form a soft and malleable wax. This manipulation is agitating the wax.
With accidental wax, terpene “sugars” may be more likely to form when processing specific cannabis strains or when the product has been accidentally agitated at some point in the extraction and handling process. In addition, temperature and humidity of the extraction environment may also contribute to the development of wax versus shatter. Wax products can be further whipped to create a budder.
Since making your own wax is a no-go, where can you get it? That’s easy—a dispensary! Or, for some lucky folk, a mail-order or delivery service might bring high-quality cannabis wax right to your door. Those in regions without legalized medical or recreational cannabis, however, are in for some tough luck. While some would-be extractors may sell wax on the black market, BHO sold on the street can be a little sketchy. Concentrates sold in dispensaries are often required to undergo third-party laboratory testing to ensure that residual butane or other solvents have been successfully purged from the concentrate. Without proper purging, you might be inhaling a mouthful of excess butane. Yuck!
Wax and other concentrates are the most potent cannabis products available. As such, you can expect them to cost a pretty penny. Fortunately for those in regions with legalized recreational and medical cannabis, a number of dispensaries have sales for wax on dedicated days of the week. Hoping to save a buck or two? Do your research! Find local deals! More than anything, however, wherever you buy always remember to be safe, purchase from reputable sources, consume in moderation, and enjoy some darn good wax.