For less than the price of a gram of wax, anyone with an Oregon Medical Marijuana Patient card can sign up for a public class and consult with an elite group of extract artists in the Pacific Northwest who believe in sharing their wisdom freely with all who seek it. Known as Skunk Pharm Research, these industry-lead- ing innovators demonstrate safe extraction techniques in a suburban Portland backyard, and they also publish a renowned blog constantly updated with accurate information, experimental results, and answers to all the questions a newbie BHO enthusiast could possibly have.
The Skunk Pharm classroom consists of a picnic table under a portable carport surrounded by a flourishing vegetable garden, and an isolated 12' x 12' miniature laboratory that the crew built themselves from the ground up, even including the massive, metal-clad security door. The compact space is outfitted with an array of instruments and glassware, a vacuum oven and a gas chromatograph; it may be small, but it serves the purpose, since the biggest draw is not the campus, but Skunk Pharm’s knowledgeable team of instructors.
“I came to BHO because it is medicine. I have been self-medicating with cannabis for PTSD and the pain from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome dislocations for 40 years,” Carla explains. “My mom was an advanced-stage Alzheimer’s patient who needed mood enhancement and sleep aids. The only thing that helped her was BHO. There was nothing else concentrated enough to deliver a high enough dose of medicine into her system.”
A confident, outspoken, occasionally sassy woman with a background in electrical engineering, Carla met the men who would later join her to form Skunk Pharm through an underground forum for cannabis caregivers. She describes the difficulty of watching Alzheimer’s transform her mother, Pat, into a stranger, although caring for her was made some- what easier once her mom was “ingesting two to three grams of BHO per day, as well as vaporizing and using topicals.”
Pat became less combative and more cheerful and cooperative as a result. She experienced cognitive improvements and would speak, play jokes on people, and act appropriately with others. Carla was able to discontinue many of the pharmaceuticals her mother was taking, and Pat was able to enjoy her 83rd birthday party.
“She changed the opinion of an entire team of physicians,” Carla recalls. “The doctor who signed her recommendation had never signed one before, and said she ‘wished all Alzheimer’s patients were on cannabis.’” Before beginning the regimen of cannabis concentrates, Pat had been given three to six weeks to live. Instead, she lived for another four years, finally passing in July of 2012.
A former Marine and retired engineering-program manager who designed and installed processes, equipment and factories in the aerospace industry, J.D. is a plainspoken gentle- man whose country accent and casual demeanor belie the intensity of his intellect. Known as “Greywolf” on the Skunk Pharm site, J.D. answers many of the questions asked about extraction processes. Double knee-replacement surgery has made it difficult for him to sit or stand without pain, while smoking too much bud over the years has left him with a developing case of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which can lead to trouble breathing.
“I miss getting high, but I’m not willing to be in pain,” J.D. says, explaining that ingesting BHO orally and vaporizing oil concentrates boosted his tolerance to the point that he hasn’t experienced a high from cannabis in years. He began by making oil for himself and then for a friend who suffered from a brain tumor. After his friend passed, J.D. kept making concentrated cannabis oil for other cancer patients pro bono, and the idea for a research and development laboratory evolved from there.
The youngest member of the Skunk Pharm crew, Joe is a quiet, unassuming teddy bear of a man with a degree in biotechnology. His father suffered from pancreatic cancer, and Joe would sometimes drive hundreds of miles to procure quality meds for him, enduring dry times and an inconsistent supply. “The doctors gave him six weeks,” Joe recalls, “but he lasted 18 months. I think BHO qualifies more as medicine than smoking a plant. You only need one or two dabs versus having to inhale a lot of vegetable matter, which can be very hard on the lungs.”
Farm vs. Pharm
As self-reliant, independent, community- based plant-medicine manufacturers teaching others how to create high-quality cannabis-based extracts, edibles, tinctures, topicals and “alchemical formulations,” Skunk Pharm may be the pharmaceutical industry’s worst nightmare. They certainly threaten the gatekeepers of modern medicine by creating an effective, far less expensive alternative to synthetic drugs.
“There’s a whole lot of people who need cannabis in heavier concentrations than you can get it naturally,” Carla explains, listing various cancers, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis as conditions that can be relieved or managed with a gram of oil per day. “These types of patients do wonderfully under the aid of concentrated oils.”
Skunk Pharm has even developed extraction machines based on J.D.’s designs, including one BHO extraction device that they’ve dubbed the Terpenator. Skunk Pharm’s belief in “open-source hash technology” motivated them to make the design freely available to the public. Specialized Formulations is licensed to sell the kits, and hundreds of these closed-loop Terpenator systems have already been built, with the proceeds funding research and underwriting the organization’s pro bono cancer-treatment program.
“The Terpenator is a safe, cheap way to extract good meds, and it makes it practical for us to continue to give people 60 or more grams of oil for cancer donations,” J.D. explains. When the class discusses the relative hazards of different methods of BHO production, he adds: “Our closed-loop extraction system is safer because you don’t have a flammable gas in the atmosphere that can be ignited. Because you are recycling your butane,
it’s environmentally friendly, and it’s also the most cost-effective way we’ve found to extract. We get a better yield, and the resulting product tests in the high 80s to 90 percent THC -- plus all of the cannabinoids and lighter terpenes are there. It’s also very easy to purge with the extraction equipment that I designed.”
The classes offered by Skunk Pharm include BHO extraction, alcohol extraction, oil and glycerin extraction, alchemy and formulations, tissue culture, and a demonstration of how to make Carla’s decadent, cannabis-infused chocolate truffles. Each session lasts a full eight hours and includes a delicious organic lunch and several “safety meetings.”
“Students learn how to do an extraction properly and process it by the various methods,” J.D. explains. “Also, they will learn how to prepare potions and do it safely and consistently; how to read material-safety data sheets (MSDS) as well as assemble and run their own closed-loop extraction units; and how to vacuum-process material after it’s extracted.”
Each session begins with a thorough discussion of the required safety precautions. Students are advised to avoid wearing synthetic fabrics like polyester that build up a static charge and can fuse to the skin if burned, and to opt instead for natural fibers like cotton or hemp; they are also told to invest in a fire extinguisher and fire blanket. Before the alchemy class, Joe dons a chemical-resis- tant apron and nitrile gloves, goggles, a respirator and a face shield in order to work with caustic and acidic chemicals, including sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid and acetic anhydride.
“You get all this stuff on and look like a spaceman,” Joe says wryly, bringing a touch of humor to a serious proceeding. Other helpful hints are shared, including removing any cell phones, pipes or lighters from your pockets. Sparkless fans should always be used -- and, of course, “we never, ever operate this stuff inside. Period, end of discussion,” J.D. states gravely. “Safety means walking away unscathed.”
“There’s some people who attend these classes who should never, ever attempt anything that they are seeing, even under supervision,” Carla adds. “This isn’t a YouTube ‘bro-sci’ thing going on -- this is actual science, and there are real dangers. We don’t want everyone to do extractions, and we emphasize those safety precautions so that people who don’t have the skills and capacity won’t ever try it .... For the people who can’t do their own extractions, there are businesses that will process their cannabis safely and produce a product they can feel comfortable consuming.”
During the BHO class, J.D. demonstrates several methods of extraction and purging, and he explains how to make a virtually transparent extraction from colas on which the glands are still clear -- “for bragging rights,” as he’s fond of saying. “We’re using cryogenic temperatures on the butane storage-tank bath instead of just a 32°F ice bath. We’ve got denatured alcohol and dry ice, and by dropping the temperature of the solvent so low, we’ve been able to extract trans- parent colors, and the resulting product is intensely infused with monoterpenes.”
The preparation of cannabis for extraction is explained, followed by a demonstration of the Terpenator closed-loop system. The plant matter should
be hung for five to seven days, until the small twigs snap. An extraction using freshly frozen flowers is also demonstrated, as is an extraction using material further dried in a 200°F oven until it’s just “frangible.” Students learn the feel of frangible by rolling the material between their fingers and thumbs and personally experiencing the point at which the material begins to break up.
J.D. clamps a filter at the bottom of a stainless-steel column two feet long and 1.5 inches OD (outside diameter), before using a wooden dowel to pack the column with about 150 grams of ground Cinderella-99. He clamps the column onto the machine, vacuums all the air out of the system and applies the refrigerant recovery pump, which push-pulls the butane through the column of packed cannabis material and down into a lower collection tank. The vacuum then recovers the butane as a vapor and returns it to the original storage tank for reuse. That leaves the concentrated oil behind in the lower Terpenator tank. Running the lower tank cold produces light- colored oils, and setting the Terpenator in a 165°F hot-water bath speeds up the recovery process. The “errl” emerges partially decarboxylated and ready to be washed out, put in the freezer and winterized. It will subsequently be further decarbed and used for oral or topical applications.
During the alchemy and formulations class, J.D. and Joe demonstrate some next-level chemistry skills that extract artists can use to polish their finished products.
“We also do alchemy so you can clean up material that you might not be happy with,” J.D. says. “If you’re getting into alchemy, you should at least have com- pleted high-school chemistry. If you’ve done that, there’s nothing involved that’s so dangerous you couldn’t handle it.”
J.D. begins by explaining winterization, which is a way to re-dissolve a nonpolar extraction like BHO in a polar solvent like 190-proof ethanol and then freeze it, so that the nonpolar waxes coating the trichomes and leaves precipitate out and can be removed by filtration. Waxes typically compose five to eight percent of an extraction, and outdoor plants can produce extracts with wax levels sometimes as high as 20 percent of the total yield. When J.D. runs a previously winterized hexane extraction through a Whatman #1 filter using vacuum assist, it pulls the solvent-and- cannabinoid mixture through the filter, leaving the waxes behind. J.D. uses this base extract to demonstrate polishing procedures, Carla to show how to make a topical called Holy Anointing Oil, and Joe to illustrate how to create an analog called cannabis acetate.
One-half of the sample extract is put through a 0.45/0.2- micron syringe filter to remove any spores and bacteria before being washed with hexane and brine in equal parts to the alcohol. The mixture is placed in a glass bulb called a separator funnel and shaken. The water and ethanol alcohol separate and settle below, while the hexane-and-cannabinoid mixture rises to the top. The water and alcohol are drained, and more brine is added to wash the extract a second and then a third time. The remaining cannabinoid-infused hexane is emptied into a Pyrex dish, which goes into the vacuum oven with a glass sheet over it to prevent splatter from bumping or bursting bubbles.
J.D. pours the second half of the base extract into a stainless-steel canister sitting in a hot canola-oil bath contained in a fondue pot at 250°F. The object is to get the extract to 250°F, which will fully decarb the oil and cook off the solvent. When the bubbles stop, it’s ready to be transformed into Holy Anointing Oil. Carla creates this topical by starting with 14 grams of hash oil, heated to the 2.5 setting on a Volcano vaporizer.
“Here’s a tip,” she offers. “An IKEA ramekin fits perfectly on top of a Volcano!” To this ramekin containing the hash oil, she adds 4.6 grams of coconut oil, 0.9 grams of cinnamon leaf and bark, and 0.5 grams of myrrh. This recipe is based on biblical instructions, but converted to use hash oil instead of flowers and concentrated to come out 20 times stronger than the Old Testament formula.
The cannabis acetate is made using a technique similar to the one chemists use to synthesize aspirin from salicylic acid, which is found in the bark of willow trees. This highly concentrated cannabis isomer passes the blood-brain barrier very quickly when dabbed, resulting in a clear, immediate high that is felt squarely in the front of the forehead. Joe places 21.8 grams of hexane suspended oil into a boiling flask over a hot plate and runs a magnetic stirrer for a few minutes. He attaches a long condenser tube to the top of the boiling flask and pumps water though the condenser so that any vapors rising up are cooled, condensed back into a liquid and then dripped back down into the boiling flask, in a process called “refluxing.”
When Joe adds the corrosive acetate hydride with a manual pipette, J.D. advises the class that “if you see Joe run, run yourself!” Joe also adds concentrated sulfuric acid (be careful -- it burns!) and sets a timer to let the acetate run for two hours. To finish the acetate, he first neutralizes the acetic anhydride (basically vinegar with no water in it) by slowly dribbling salt water down the side of flask. This creates an exothermic reaction; the mixture can react violently and bubble over, so Joe proceeds slowly and patiently, testing the temperature by touching the flask’s side. If it gets too hot, he’ll stop adding salt water until it cools again. Next, Joe washes with brine and then some grain alcohol in the separator filter before placing it in the vacuum oven at 115°F, until the hexane is vacuumed off and the acetate stops bubbling. The result is called the “smoothest concentrate I ever dabbed” by one enthusiastic student. Others praise how their “senses are extremely acute” and declare that “my mind is relaxed but alert, and there’s no anxiety.”
After being diagnosed with MS five years ago, a student named Russ started using concentrated cannabis oil to treat his disease. “It’s better than taking shots, better than Avonex,” he says, describing how he grows and processes his own cannabis medicine on a self-sufficient farm. “I feel sorry for people who don’t live as close [to Skunk Pharm] as I do.”
After class, the Skunk Pharm crew discuss the future of their budding hash school. Carla likens the emerging cannabis industry to Oregon’s successful microbreweries and world-famous pinot noir vineyards, saying, “It’s got to be a bunch of little guys standing together and holding hands, sharing information. The very best medicine in the world that you could possibly take is the medicine that you researched, you found the seeds, you grew it out, you flowered it, harvested it, cured it, extracted it, formulated it and then you took it ... now that has intent!”