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Cooking With Cannabis: Decarbing

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The army made me do it. I started cooking with cannabis in the late 1990s. I was a PhD student at an Ivy League school, several years out of the military, where I’d served as a rocket artilleryman in the army. Sometime in 1998 I began experiencing painful muscle spasms in my shoulder and neck, severe and constant headaches, and numbness in my arms all the way down to my fingertips. I started going to the doctor, one after another, but got nowhere fast. But these were university healthcare providers, so after a few months of growing pain and no relief, I began visiting a Veterans Administration Hospital to see if Uncle Sam’s healthcare was any better.

Turns out that I was one of more than 100,000 US troops exposed to nerve agent after the Gulf War fighting has ended. Combat engineers and demolition experts began destroying Iraqi stockpiles of weapons. At three locations, they destroyed thousands of what they thought were simple artillery rounds, but which turned out to be chemical weapons. The demolition created a giant cloud containing low levels of nerve agent, mostly sarin.

For years, our own military and government denied this, delaying help for many thousands of veterans both in and out of the service. The cover-up and outright denial of how the U.S. exposed its own soldiers to Saddam’s chemical weapons is its own story. This is the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. No, that’s another story too. This story is about how I stopped hurting when I learned to love cooking with cannabis.

Some exposed troops began exhibiting symptoms right away, others took years to be affected, and others never showed any signs of exposure at all. For me it took seven years to show, and when it did, it was nearly crippling. I went through days and months in pain, unable to do my academic work, barely able to keep up with my teaching responsibilities.

After months of tests leading nowhere and physical therapy that didn’t work, the docs at the VA began prescribing me a series of muscle relaxers and painkillers. The muscle relaxers had no effect and I quickly discontinued their use, but those magic pills that took away the pain became my very good friends. Every two weeks I went to the VA to get a new prescription; they kept changing the scrips to keep me from getting addicted to any one pill. Regardless, I became a zombie—awake for a few hours to deal with lecturing and grading for the college courses I was teaching, popping painkillers and sleeping for fourteen, fifteen, sometimes sixteen hours a day. After a year, I couldn’t do it anymore.

One day I sat down with my VA doc. I said, “I’m a mess. I sleep all the time. I can’t get work done. I am going to get kicked out of grad school. We need to do something different.”

The doc looked conspiratorially to the left and right. sHe cooted his chair closer to mine, leaned in. For a brief moment I thought he might kiss me. “Have you ever tried marijuana?”

“Yeah,” I said, “Of course.”

“Not for recreation, for pain relief. It’s especially good for nerve-based and muscle pain, which is exactly what the nerve agent exposure is causing. You’ve also mentioned nightmares; it can help with those too.”

He was right. The marijuana helped with my pain and numbness in my neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. It eased my headaches, removing the ice pick that had been jammed into the back of my head and eyes. It helped with my sleeping.

The doctor told me I could smoke it, of course, but the better way would be to cook with it. And so began my secret life as a cannabis cook.

Nearly twenty years later, with legalization happening faster and faster in state after state, cooking with pot is no longer about making terrible, barely effective butter to use for a bad batch of grassy brownies. Cooking with cannabis today is as complex and full of passion as any other segment of the current foodie craze. From professional chefs to home enthusiasts preparing private pot-luck parties, people are finding that if you can cook it, you can cook it with cannabis.

It does all begin with the butter,or the oils or syrups or tinctures or various infusions used to deliver the THC. In subsequent columns, we’ll discuss cannabis strains, dosages, and the science behind activating THC for use in cooking. But today, we’ll begin with a lesson in cannabis decarboxylation, or decarbing. The first step in preparing any marijuana meal.

What you’ll need:

  • Coffee grinder or blender
  • Baking sheet
  • Oven thermometer (preferably digital)
  • Airtight container, tinfoil, or baking bags (optional)
  1. Grind marijuana to a rough mix, like finely chopped or ground herbs bought at the grocery store.
  2. Heat oven to either 220, 250, or 310, depending on desired decarb time. The higher temperature will allow you to decarb quicker, but you will lose terpenes to vaporization, which affects the taste and smell of the cannabis.
  3. Spread ground marijuana evenly on baking sheet. Alternately, you can place the marijuana in a sealed tinfoil tent, baking bag, or airtight baking container, which will allow you to preserve terpenes.
  4. Place marijuana in oven for the required time at the temperature you’ve chosen.
Temperature (⁰F)Cooking Time (Minutes)

It’s important to carefully monitor your temps and time, especially if using the highest temperature option. If heated at too high a temperature, you will vaporize the THC in the marijuana.

  1. Remove marijuana once it is lightly toasted and turns from green to a golden brown. If you are decarbing in a container or sealed packet, allow the marijuana to cool at least 30 minutes in order for any moisture or vapor containing terpenes to absorb back into the marijuana.

You now have decarbed cannabis and are ready to make your cannabutter, oils, tinctures, or motley assorted infusions so you can begin cooking with cannabis.