Strains & products

How to Identify and Shop for High-Quality Cannabis Oil

Published on July 19, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
distillate, cannabis concentrate, marijuana concentrate
(Grant Hindsley for Leafly)

Cannabis oil, or concentrated cannabis extracts, can be consumed in many different ways: you can puff on a vape oil pen, flash vaporize extracts using a dab rig, or simply sprinkle wax onto your next bowl for added potency. And those are just a few of the many ways to enjoy cannabis concentrates.

However, finding high-quality cannabis oil is not easy without knowing what it takes to manufacture good, clean oil. And with many brands to choose from in legal states, it’s easy to feel lost in a sea of options.

For this guide, we’ll look exclusively at raw oil products meant to be inhaled, such as oils found in vaporizer cartridges and dabbable concentrates.

What Makes Good, Clean Cannabis Oil?

A few crucial factors come into play when extracting cannabis oil: the quality of the starting material; a dialed-in extraction method; and proper post-processing.

1. High-Quality Starting Material

Great cannabis oil is sourced from clean, well-grown cannabis that is rich in cannabinoids and terpenes. Some things to consider when evaluated the source material include:

  • The quality of strain genetics
  • Freshness of the starting material
  • What part of the plant was extracted
  • How carefully the cannabis was handled after harvest

Not only will extracts consolidate the desirable qualities of the strain, but they’ll also concentrate any negative attributes or contaminants found on the plant; that means any defects will be amplified in the oil. That’s why the best cannabis oil comes from clean, high-quality cannabis flower.

2. Good Extraction Practices

Proper extraction preserves the chemical profile of the strain, creating a potent and flavorful iteration that accentuates the subtle nuances not always apparent in flower form.

If the extraction method isn’t fine-tuned, there’s a greater chance of the product taking on defects such as lackluster flavor, contamination, or other imperfections that lead to an underwhelming or negative experience.

3. Proper Post-Processing

Similar to the way an improper cure can ruin an otherwise prosperous cannabis harvest, the same can be said for post-processing cannabis concentrates.

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Most cannabis oils go through some form of post-processing after their initial extraction. This involves drying and storing practices, purging excess solvents, and distilling or isolating specific cannabinoids, among other refinement processes.

Common Misconceptions About Cannabis Oil Quality

Myth #1: There is only one way to extract cannabis oil correctly. The truth is, each type of extraction has its own unique merits. There might be an extraction method that you prefer based on the type of oil it yields, but there isn’t an absolute “right” method. However, there are best practices for every type of extraction to ensure that the resulting oil is clean of contaminants and residual solvents.

Myth #2: Color and clarity will tell you the quality of your oil. Color and clarity can be manipulated and don’t tell a complete story when it comes to the quality of cannabis oil.

Darker oils may be viewed as less attractive than light or translucent concentrates, however there are a number of reasons that an oil might be darker colored. It could be as simple as the amount of light the packaging allows in, oxidation, or—at worst—poorly purged and worth avoiding.

Myth #3: Oils with more THC are better. This may be true if you are only after THC and the euphoric (and, for some, anxious) effects it provides. But if you’re looking for a robust spectrum of nuanced effects, you’ll want to find something that encapsulates the wide diversity of cannabinoids and terpenes found in the cannabis plant.

Myth #4: Oils with more terpenes are better. While terpenes are important for creating a wonderfully complex cannabis experience, they aren’t the whole story either. High volumes of terpenes can cause adverse effects or discomfort like a scratchy throat or itchy nose. The ideal oil will be a balance between flavor and potency, and should show a balanced mix of cannabis compounds as the strain has developed naturally.

Visual Cues of Quality Cannabis Oil

If color and clarity aren’t enough to judge the full quality of an oil product, then what can we tell from the appearance? First, we can look for visual defects like dust, dirt, and hair. Even though most extractors are meticulous about the way their products are packaged, visually inspecting for any contaminants is always a good idea.

The appearance can also give you an indication of the consistency and composition of the oil. Its consistency will help you understand what this oil will be like to use, apply, and dab. Furthermore, it can allude to the chemical profile of the oil. For example, runny oils sometimes called “sauce” generally feature a low viscosity consistency thanks to their high terpene content. Solid, stable concentrates generally feature higher cannabinoid levels as a result of THCA molecules clumping together into a more solid form.

What Can Cannabis Packaging Tell Us?

Packaging can tell us a lot about a product, but don’t be so distracted by beautiful branding that you overlook the actual product inside. Here’s what it can tell us:

  • The extraction method
  • The farm that grew the oil’s source material
  • Strain-level details like lineage and the original breeder
  • Chemical profile of the concentrate

Packaging can also tell us more about the care that the extractor takes with their products. For example, did they invest in airtight, glass containers to better preserve the product? Or did they collaborate with a sustainable, clean farm to source their starting material?

Additionally, state-mandated labels like warnings and potency analyses will give you an indication of things like THC percentage, total cannabinoids, and possibly even terpene profile and pesticides. These labels serve as a list of active ingredients and should help you draw some conclusions about the expected effects, flavors, and experience.

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How to Ask Your Budtender for High-Quality Cannabis Oil

The best way to find what you’re looking for is to ask the right questions. If your budtender doesn’t provide you with the answers you need or tells you that they don’t enjoy cannabis oil, ask if there’s another budtender who can help.

Here are a few simple questions you can ask your budtender to get a deeper understanding of the quality of the cannabis oil they have to offer:

  • What can you tell me about this extractor? Maybe they have personal experience to share.
  • How is this oil extracted? This can be important if you have a strong preference between solventless or solvent-based extraction.
  • What farm is the cannabis from? Maybe it’s from a farm you already know and love, or from one you’ve been wanting to try.
  • Is this a full-spectrum extract? A full-spectrum extract will encapsulate all the cannabinoids and terpenes as they occur in the flower naturally. If you want a nuanced experience, this is what you’re looking for. If you are after one specific compound like THC, then isolates or high-terpene extractions might be a better fit for you.
  • What’s your freshest concentrate or latest drop? Cannabis has a long shelf life, especially when stored correctly in a cool dark place. However, not everyone handles cannabis oil the same way. By shopping for the freshest cannabis oil, you can ensure that the terpene profile and consistency are best preserved.

If you have a specific price range, flavor, consumption method, or any other personal preferences, let your budtender know right away so they can help narrow your search.

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Will Hyde
Will Hyde
Will is a brand builder, product expert, and storyteller with 2 decades of experience in the cannabis industry. The former co-host of Leafly's "What Are You Smoking" podcast has dedicated his life to sharing his passion for cannabis with anyone who will listen. Follow him on Instagram at @the.avid.dabber
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