What's the difference between cannabis oil and marijuana butter, and how do you use them?

With 4/20 around the corner and more legalized recreational marijuana than ever before, both heavy stoners and first-time tokers are asking the same question when it comes to weed in the kitchen: What is the difference between cannabis oil and marijuana butter? While they do have a lot of similarities, confusing the two can have serious consequences—getting uncomfortably stoned, ruining a pan, or even wasting your weed. To truly understand their unique and similar qualities, we need to look at how they’re made, how they’re used, and where you can get them.

How They’re Made

While historians have found recipes involving weed dating back to 15th century Europe and even 10th century India, pot brownies were introduced to pop (or should we say “pot”?) culture in the 1968 movie “I Love You Alice B. Toklas.” Objectively, the most common way to make weed-laced snacks is marijuana butter, but baking with cannabis oil can be even more effective. While these two products have many similar uses and come from the same plant, they’re produced and used in very different ways.

Marijuana Butter (and Cannabis-Infused Oil)

cannabutter (marijuana or weed butter)

Weed’s Home

Part of weed culture since the 1960s, weed butter can be made in a variety of ways. The process begins with some version of decarboxylation—or activating the THC. (Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive chemical compound of cannabis—what gets you stoned and what separates marijuana from hemp.) Decarboxylation can be done a multitude of ways, but typically involves cooking the weed at a low temperature for a prolonged period of time in butter or oil. Keep in mind, however, like any other dish you’re making, too much time in the oven or too much heat will torch the ingredients—rendering the THC ineffective.

While weed butter is best for baking in my experience, vegans and the health-conscious can rest easy knowing that using olive, vegetable, canola, or coconut oil for the process will produce a very similar product. One thing to consider in choosing your oil or butter is fat content—the higher the fat content, the more THC it’s capable of absorbing.

Finally, strain the weed from the oil or butter using a cheesecloth. The finished product is a potent and effective weed-infused ingredient, perfect for nearly any cooking application—minding any food preparation processes that could burn the THC.

Cannabis Oil

cannabis oil

High Times

Now that we’ve gone over cannabis-infused oils, let’s dive into their similarly monikered cousin: cannabis oil. Similar to olive, vegetable, or coconut oil, cannabis oil is made through a chemical extraction process. There are a variety of methods that the marijuana industry uses to extract oil, resulting in similar but unique products. Most cannabis extraction methods involve a solvent, like butane or CO2—or extreme heat and pressure—to extract the cannabinoids. These processes can be time-consuming and usually involve expensive laboratory equipment. Without proper training and the right tools, extracting THC from weed using certain methods is downright dangerous. Unless you’re using a solventless method, the excess yield—or product that isn’t cannabis oil—needs to be removed in order for a clean, non-toxic final result. For those of us who aren’t chemistry experts, most methods of this process should be left to the professionals.

How They Can Be Ingested

Marijuana Butter (and Cannabis-Infused Oil)

Marijuana butter and cannabis-infused oil can be ingested in a variety of ways. Once you’ve created the product, it can be used as a cooking ingredient for any recipe—minding that most baked goods work best with butter. However, one thing to consider is the temperature of the dish you’re preparing—heating the marijuana butter or oil to temperatures exceeding 245 degrees Fahrenheit will burn the THC. For a more simple application, the butter can be used as a spread on toast or even just dosed orally by itself. Some choose cannabis-infused oil as a medicinal ingredient in topical salves, lotions, and ointment, as it can be absorbed through the skin once it has gone through the decarboxylation process.

Cannabis Oil

Cannabis oil extracted via heat and pressure can be used in topicals or ingested by itself orally, but the taste and consistency leave a lot to be desired. The most common way to consume cannabis oil, also known as “concentrate” or “dab,” is by vaporizing or smoking it, but it can also act as an ingredient for an easier method of making weed butter. By simply melting the dab with some butter or oil at a low temperature, mixing them into one substance, you’ve made marijuana butter! Keep in mind, however, that cannabis oil needs to adhere to the same temperature cap of 245 degrees Fahrenheit to minimize the destruction of the THC. One downside to cooking with butter derived from cannabis oil versus marijuana is the stickiness of the product—certain types of oil can leave behind a difficult residue on cookware. (For those reading this tip too late, try rescuing your pan with 99% isopropyl alcohol! It’s super effective.)

However, making marijuana butter with concentrate is not the same as using traditional bud. Firstly, depending on how the oil is extracted, the THC can be already activated. This means you can skip the process of heating it up—it’s already ready to be used or ingested. Usually dispensaries can direct you to types of dab that have and haven’t undergone the THC activation process. Second, and perhaps more importantly, cannabis oil is an extremely concentrated (hence the nickname!) form of marijuana and can be much more effective than using regular Mary Jane. A good way to measure a comfortable dose is by simply doing the math. If a gram of cannabis oil is 70 percent THC (dispensaries usually disclose this information on the package), that means it contains 700mg of THC. With 48 teaspoons in one cup of butter, each teaspoon serving would boast 14.5mg of THC if you melted the cannabis oil gram with the butter. Most dispensaries have edibles in individual 10mg THC pieces, which is a great starting point for seeing what is comfortable. Another major difference is flavor: Some types of cannabis oil have intense flavors which carry over to whatever you’re cooking. Pick your concentrate carefully, as it can really affect the taste of the dish.

Differences in Accessibility

One major difference between marijuana butter and cannabis oil is their accessibility. In states where marijuana is legal, cannabis oil can be readily found at nearly any dispensary. In one-gram packages, cannabis oil comes in a plethora of consistencies, including shatter, wax, crumble, cake batter, sauce, diamonds, and more. While dispensaries in legal states aren’t hard to find, marijuana butter can be. While many shops carry a mass-produced industrial edible marijuana oil or butter product, other shops only carry smokable cannabis oil and traditional bud. It can be a niche product, and I’d suggest calling ahead to check availability. As someone with the privilege to access legal weed, I’ve still found the most consistent way to have marijuana butter is to make it myself. For those in less marijuana-friendly states, cannabis oil can be impossible to find and using the traditional method of making a personal batch of weed butter is their best bet for experiencing edibles this 4/20.

All in all, they’re not so different—but they’re definitely not the same. Cannabis oil can be used to make marijuana butter, but not all marijuana butter is made from cannabis oil. While nearly anyone with cooking experience can make marijuana-infused oil or butter, making cannabis oil should be left to the chemists, and while weed and cannabis oil are mostly readily available in legal states, pre-made marijuana butter can be hard to find—leaving both legal residents and those getting their bud on the black market in the same boat: making it at home.

Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Weed's Home and High Times.

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