THE OXFORD DICTIONARIES listed "vape" as "Word of the Year" for 2014. Take that as evidence that by now, most people are familiar with the concept of vaping in some form.

For most, the introduction was via the explosion of "e-cigs"—electronic cigarettes that use cartridges of liquid nicotine, suspended in a base of glycerin or propylene glycol, and sometimes blended with flavors like mint or banana split. When you inhale, the liquid drips onto a heater that turns it into a vapor. What you are inhaling and exhaling isn't technically smoke, since nothing is combusting.

Nicotine users can opt for relatively inexpensive disposable units filled with "e-juice" cartridges, or drop up to $500 for "mod vapes," which feature stronger and longer-life batteries, dual heating coils, refillable tanks, and the ability to adjust the thickness of the vapor.

Cannabis users have similar options. There are $50 disposable pens filled with cannabis concentrate, often extracted with butane and mixed with the aforementioned solvents, or there are rechargeable pens that use a wide variety of cartridges filled with specific strains. Or you can puff off a lightsaber-sized mod that costs as much as a couple of car payments, and look totally ridiculous.

But ask someone to explain how cannabis vape oil is made, and you'll most likely get a hesitant answer along the lines of "Well... they use, like, butane or propane to get the THC out, and uh...." Which is true—butane, propane, and, less commonly, ice water and CO2 are used to extract THC and other cannabinoids from plant matter. But aside from the evidence of now-weekly news stories about stoners who blow up their houses after using butane near a spark, most of us don't have a lot of information to go on.

So I took a drive down to Ashland a few weeks ago to see the process for myself. I visited the production facility at the headquarters of the CO2 Company, which is in the cannabis oil extraction business. I met with CEO Karen Sprague and Marketing Manager Ryan Walsh. Along with Sprague's husband, Dave Tanksley, and Walsh's brother Kevin, the two families took their relationship from neighbors to business partners just over a year ago, and since then the CO2 Company has distinguished itself on several fronts.

They only use organically grown, locally sourced cannabis plants, often grown outdoors, usually through partnerships with growers in their area. "The focus has always been on the patient/grower relationship," says Sprague. "I serve my patients with what they need, and if I don't know I go looking for the answer. We use feedback from our patients in developing strains that address specific medical conditions." CO2 was selected as their solvent for extraction because it's environmentally friendly, non-flammable, and leaves no residual solvent in the finished product.  

"We place the health and safety of our customers and patients at the forefront of what we do," Sprague says. "Which is another reason we don't use glycerin or glycol, either." The CO2 Company produces oils that are either sativa or indica dominant, and they also make a line of oils that are high in CBDs, the non-psychoactive cannabinoid used to treat a variety of ailments, including epilepsy and medical conditions where impairment from THC would be problematic to the user.

Walsh also points out that the company does not add terpenes (the oil that give cannabis its smell and taste) to their finished product like some other makers, but focuses on extracting the full range of existing terpenes from each plant. "We strive for a balance of taste and potency, and are always searching for new strains and new ways to perfect the oil."

Seven pounds of organic, sun-grown bud trim or full flower from a specific or mixed collection of strains is ready for extraction. The long stainless-steel vessel holds the cannabis.

One of four 50-pound tanks begins pumping CO2 gas into the cannabis vessel. Under high pressure, the CO2 takes on a unique state akin to "fog." It passes through the cannabis repeatedly for about 24 hours, depending on the strain and desired quality of medicine.

As this is happening, the cannabis oil travels with the liquid CO2 out of the vessel. As the CO2 changes back to a gas, the oil drops into a separator and settles into a collection cup.

The oil is now ready for use as raw cannabis extract, or it can be refined for use in vaporizer pens or dabs.

In the refinement process, the oil is given a pure cane alcohol bath to remove the fats and waxes.

Then, the pure cane alcohol is distilled and removed from the oil to produce a viscous substance that can be absorbed into the wick of a vaporizer.

Seven pounds of trim or buds has netted 200-400 grams. The yield variance is due to the strain of cannabis, how it is grown, how it is harvested and cured, pressures and temperatures, and hours of extraction runtime, to name a few factors.  

The cannabis oil is now stored in a container, from which staff will fill individual-use cartridges and syringes for medical dispensaries around Oregon.

  • Photos by The Budtender Society