Last year, 50 million Americans bought mascara, toilet paper, and just about anything else touting the calming, analgesic effects of a dash of cannabidiol, or CBD. The non-high extract of cannabis and hemp is set to become a $16 billion industry by 2025, thanks to producers like CannaCraft founder Dennis Hunter, who was developing therapeutic CBD years before hemp was legalized in 2018. Here's how Hunter turns leafy greens into liquid gold.
In 1998, Hunter was running his own illegal growing operation when an FBI raid cost him 12,480 cannabis plants and six years in federal prison. This year, his Santa Rosa, California-based company will legally process 146,000 pounds of cannabis and hemp.
In 2019, CannaCraft collected $46 million in sales--a little under half of its revenue--from CBD tinctures, topical creams, vape cartridges, beverages, and these discrete gelcaps, which sell for up to $4 each. Most of its remaining sales derive from products containing the mind-altering compound tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC.
Every product begins as dried flower--or biomass, as it's known in the industry. First, a CannaCraft employee stuffs biomass into an extractor, which is then pressurized using carbon dioxide. (Other producers use ethanol.) After about six hours, all parts of the green flower are broken down into a waxy, yellow oil, which will be purified for consumption.
In the Weeds
When Hunter founded his company six years ago, securing just one extractor took almost eight months. "When I finally got one, I was filling it and running it myself," he says. Hunter now builds his own extractors and sells them to other producers for up to $125,000.
The waxy oil is collected from the extractor, and then heated in this vacuum distillation unit. The cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids in cannabis have different vapor temperatures, so they can be separated from the oil individually to adjust or remove its psychoactive characteristics, color, smell, and flavor. At 160 degrees Fahrenheit, THC vaporizes--creating a purer form of non-intoxicating CBD oil.
Cool and Collected
The oil is further refined in this spinning band distillation unit. Once all key ingredients are completely separated, lab workers reintroduce them by hand in precise amounts, tailoring the oil's intended effects. CannaCraft's most popular soft gels have a mild, 18:1 CBD-to-THC ratio.
Good as Gold
In the gel encapsulation machine, capsules are punched from a thin sheet of gelatin, injected with CBD, and sealed. CannaCraft purchased the system in 2015, before Prop 64 made recreational cannabis use legal in California. Back then, no one would train cannabis producers how to use the device, so Hunter and a few early hires spent four months assembling it and learning how it worked. Today, finding vendors is significantly easier. "It's funny," Hunter says. "I go to trade shows now, and some of the same people who wouldn't talk to us before have booths set up and are looking to work with our industry." Most banks, however, still won't serve cannabis producers, which is why Hunter doles out 200 cash-stuffed envelopes to staff every payday.