“We're creating a product that is 3 to 5 times the value of gold.”
About five miles from Denver's dispensary district, otherwise known as the Green Mile, sits a small, unassuming building on the western bank of the Platte River. If it weren't for the barred windows and keypad door locks, it would be difficult to tell that anything remarkable was happening on the other side of the building's red brick façade. Pass through the door, however, and the building reveals itself to be a hive of activity: scientists in white lab coats bring beakers in and out of a door marked "DO NOT ENTER," a honeycomb of cubicles house PR and sales reps typing with one hand and answering a phone with other, and a small army of technicians are busy using syringes to fill tiny glass vials with a viscous golden nectar.
This is the home of Organa Labs, the largest producer of cannabis oils on the planet. Every ten seconds someone in the US purchases one of Organa's products, be it a dab, energy drink or gummy bear, but it is Organa's ultra-pure cannabis oil distillates—the golden syrup being put into those vials—that really makes the laboratory tick.
In late October, Organa announced the release of Bakked distillates, a product line with cannabis oils that have cannabinoid contents with up to 97 percent activated THC. On the same day the Bakked distillates line was unveiled, I went to visit Organa labs to see how they turned Colorado's favorite flower into the most potent cannabis oil on the market.
The key to making a potent cannabis distillate begins with the bud. Organa works with dozens of marijuana cultivators in Colorado and it isn't uncommon to see upwards of 2000 pounds of cannabis pass through its doors in a given month. Although some of Organa's products are a mixture of trim—the leaves of the cannabis plant—and buds, its top-shelf oils like the 97 percent Bakked distillate use only the flower. As Organa's president Chris Driessen likes to put it, "we cut our weed with weed."
The potency of the buds sourced by Organa determines how much extract they yield. On the best of days, Organa scientists can get a 15 percent yield, meaning 15 grams of flower produces one gram of distillate oil that pushing 90 percent THC. Given this relatively low yield, the quality of the flower really matters, which is why Organa turns to growers like Tim Cullen at the Colorado Harvest Company for their raw input.
With some 6,000 plants in various stages of growth, Colorado Harvest is a mid-size operation by Colorado's standards. But the grow makes up for its size with the quality of its product, with some strains yielding flower pushing 25 percent THC. According to Cullen, his expertise in cultivating dank is the result of his years of practice growing a few cannabis plants in his basement during his previous life as a high school biology teacher.
When the bud and trim supplied by Cullen and other growers arrives at Organa, it is ground up to make extracting the cannabinoids from the plants easier. Next, this ground up weed is taken to an extractor, which uses supercritical CO2— gaseous carbon dioxide which becomes a liquid under extreme pressure—as a solvent to extract raw oil from the plant material.
According to Driessen, Organa's pioneering use of supercritical carbon dioxide is crucial to the purity of their products. Most labs producing cannabis extracts make use of butane as a solvent to extract oil from marijuana plants, which generally produces a higher yield at a lower cost. The problem, of course, is that butane can leave a residue in the final product and most people prefer to keep impurities out of their bud.
This drove Organa to pursue supercritical CO2 extraction for their cannabis, which unlike butane leaves no residues, and in 2010 they became the first laboratory licensed for this cannabis extraction method in the world.
According to Driessen, they got a lot of flak from fellow producers for their decision to switch to supercritical CO2 extraction because this method had gained a reputation for producing bland, flavorless cannabis oils. The reason for this was because the raw cannabis oil produced through CO2 extraction process is subjected to high pressure and heat, which can volatilize the terpenes and cause the weed to lose its flavor. To avoid this Organa separates as many terpenes from the plant material as possible early on in the supercritical extraction process so they aren't destroyed during the production of the raw oil.
After the extraction process, the oil is decarboxylated in a vacuum oven in order to activate the THC. The THC found in cannabis plants and unrefined oil is in a non-psychoactive acidic form called THC-A, but if you want it to get you high you need to activate it. If you're just smoking a bowl the combustion of the bud does this for you, but if you're creating a cannabis oil it's best to activate the THC in advance so that it requires a lower temperature to vaporize when it reaches the consumer (no one wants a burnt tasting dab).
After the raw oil is extracted from plant matter using supercritical CO2, it still has some terpenes left in it so the raw oil goes through a process of winterization which basically involves mixing the oil with ethanol and then freezing it. This separates undesirable substances like waxes and chlorophyll from the oil so that only the terpenes and cannabinoids remain.
After winterizing the raw oil it is refined in a rotovape to remove the leftover ethanol. At this point the isolated terpenes and cannabinoids in the refined oil are brought into the center of Organa's R&D lab. This small room houses nearly $1 million in scientific equipment and is where Organa's routine and proprietary refinement processes are carried out. Secrecy about Organa's special distillation process is paramount here and photography is restricted—when you're making a product that is "three to five times the value of gold," you can hardly blame the lab technicians for their paranoia.
Here the lab techs further purify the product by separating the remaining terpenes from the refined oil. Although Driessen and Remy Kachadourian, a biological chemist that oversees research and development at the Organa laboratory, wouldn't go into details, the basic idea is to separate the oil's contents at a molecular level: the terpenes are evaporated from the oil, condensed and then collected. These terpenes are then combined with the terpenes isolated during the supercritical extraction process and the mixture is further distilled. The end result is a golden substance with the consistency of molasses.
The terpene distillate is then reintroduced into the ultra-pure oil using a short path distillation instrument. This helps lower the viscosity and returns the strain-specific flavors and effects to the oil. At this point, the cannabis oil is at its most potent and pure: up to 97 percent activated THC in the case of Organa's new Bakked distillate product, and with a full terpene profile to boot.
After running some liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry tests on the distillate to confirm its purity and potency, the oil is brought to the back of the laboratory where a handful of employees are busy reheating the oil and injecting it into the cartridges that will be sent out to dispensaries throughout Colorado.
Although being able to mass produce a cannabis distillate with 97 percent potency is a feat within itself, Kachadourian and his colleagues are able to make extracts that have over 99 percent THC—the problem is making more than a handful of them at a time.
"The race for potency is over," said Driessen. "Remy and his team can purify things over 99 percent THC and everybody equates potency to THC because that's what gives you a psychoactive effect. But the reality is that the experience you are looking for is a combination of all the cannabinoids working in unison for an entourage effect."
This, according to Driessen, is what sets Organa's products apart from other ultra-potent cannabis distillates like X-tracted Labs' Dragon Balls which have 99 percent total cannabinoids, 92 percent of which is activated THC. Organa's latest Bakked distillate has up to 97 percent activated THC, yet still maintains high levels of terpenes and other cannabinoids which give it a flavor profile and controlled effect which is only possible to achieve by using supercritical CO2 extraction and Organa's proprietary molecular distillation methods.
"Historically, CO2 extraction and the associated refining processes have destroyed the terpenes, which is the source of flavor, smell and enhanced effect," said Driessen. "We are now able to preserve those terpenes in the extraction process and purify them during the distillation process. This allows us to preserve the true essence of the plant."
Correction: This article previously labeled butane as a carcinogen which is not true. Butane is a hydrocarbon and if abused in high doses can be fatal, but in the residual quantities found in dabs is not generally considered to be dangerous. Motherboard regrets the error.