The cannabis industry is an exciting place to be. Whether you’re interested in becoming a master grower and overseeing cultivation, working in the retail sector as a budtender, artfully shaping cannabis flower as a trimmer, supporting the next big cannabis brand as a weed marketer, or working in the legal sphere as a cannabis lawyer, there is ample opportunity to forge a path in this fast-growing, constantly evolving industry.
If you’ve got a passion for science and a genuine interest in the cannabis plant, working in extraction might be the lane for you. What is a cannabis extraction technician? What do they do? And how can you become a cannabis extraction tech?
We talked to a variety of professionals in the extraction space to understand what’s needed to land a job and excel as a cannabis extraction technician.
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What is a cannabis extraction technician?
Ever wonder how cannabis products such as topicals, tinctures, edibles, or concentrates are made? If you have enjoyed any of these products, you can thank a cannabis extraction technician for performing a crucial role in their development.
Extraction technicians are a group of professionals whose main job is in extracting and oftentimes isolating the active ingredients in cannabis—cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, for example—from plant material so they can be used to make a wide variety of different manufactured cannabis products.
“A cannabis extraction technician can be anyone in a number of different roles depending on the process(es) that the company uses,” explained William Widmaier, VP of Partnerships and Production at Azuca. There are a variety of different processes and solvents that can be used to extract active compounds from cannabis plant material, not to mention a variety of extraction systems and technologies used to get the job done. So, as an extraction tech, you might be prepping fresh frozen cannabis flower to be washed into hash and pressed in rosin, or you could be running expensive, complicated distillation equipment, for example.
The exact roles and duties of cannabis extraction technicians will vary depending on the size of the company and the type of extraction(s) they do. Still, collectively, extraction technicians are working to produce high-quality concentrates. “So an extraction technician is really responsible for taking cannabis from flower and making it into something special,” said Josh Krane, VP of California Operations with 4Front Ventures.
What does a cannabis extraction technician do?
Cannabis extraction technicians work in a laboratory environment. They use specialized equipment, heat, pressure, and/or solvents to extract the valuable compounds in cannabis (cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, among others), then further refine or process the extracts as needed. Because extraction labs may be working with a variety of volatile compounds and sensitive equipment, technicians are also responsible for maintaining a clean and safe working environment.
From a high level, the cannabis extraction tech will prepare cannabis plant material (also called ‘biomass’ or ‘raw plant material’ in the extraction biz) and run it through an extraction process that may include a number of different pieces of specialized equipment and/or solvents. “A cannabis extraction technician processes cannabis material and crafts premium concentrates with the utmost precise attention to detail and safety,” said Eric Eisele, Lab Director at Item 9 Labs Corp. “The technician is also tasked with maintaining the processed material through post-production and ensuring proper procedures and documentation are adhered to.”
When it comes down to the nitty-gritty details of an extraction tech’s duties, these will vary widely from company to company, depending on their size and the types of extraction they do. “The typical duties of an extraction technician would be preparing biomass for extraction, which could include grinding, decarboxylating, and packing biomass into extraction socks,” explained Revolutionary Brand’s Laboratory Director, Daniel Bryant. “Technicians may operate several pieces of equipment for extraction that may include CO2, ethanol, hydrocarbon, and solventless (water-based) extraction. If a lab has a distillation operation, then technicians may also perform winterizations, filtrations, and distillation on either a benchtop or wiped film short path.”
Larger labs and operations may have more specific and specialized roles, such as hydrocarbon extraction specialists, for example. Or, if you’re working in a smaller operation or a startup, an extraction tech might need to wear several hats and help with tasks like weighing out concentrates or filling vape cartridges.
“Other high-level duties may include ordering non-cannabis materials, recording data and tracking historical potency of final materials, lot tracking, sending samples to third party labs for testing, equipment maintenance, post-extraction processing, production schedules, and much more,” added Widmaier.
Working in a laboratory environment with specialized equipment that may require the use of highly volatile solvents also requires a high commitment to maintaining safety and quality standards. “Solvents can be flammable, asphyxiants, or explosive, so it is extremely important that technicians understand and implement safety protocols,” said Anthony Demeo, Co-Chair of Extraction and Manufacturing at Oaksterdam University. “Technicians are responsible for cleaning the lab, maintaining equipment, and following regulations and protocols.”
Krane describes the role of an extraction tech as both an art and a science. Technicians need to operate, understand, and be able to troubleshoot complex machinery and keep these skills up to date as technologies advance. Tail-end processes, like distillation, have also become increasingly complex. That needs to be balanced with creative problem-solving and out-of-the-box thinking.
“We’re defining an industry, and we’re defining a lot of these processes as we continue to grow,” he said. “A lot of times, we are adapting machinery from its primary purpose to fit our needs. A lot of this machinery just wasn’t designed for cannabis, so there’s quite a bit of problem solving and solutions engineering.”
One part chemist, one part engineer, and one part passionate cannabis lover: the job of a cannabis extraction tech means never having a dull moment. But if an extraction technician needs such a breadth of mechanical and scientific knowledge, is special education required for this role?
Do you need special education to be an extract tech?
There are a number of educational and professional backgrounds that could offer great foundations for a job as a cannabis extraction technician.
Bonus points if your studies or professional experience have focused on lab work. Experience with lab procedures, data systems, and equipment is all easily transferred to the cannabis extraction lab. Employers will certainly favor candidates with chemistry and lab science backgrounds. “Other fields of experience that are extremely useful in extraction labs include HVAC techs, plumbing, and any type of mechanic,” said Demeo.
Be flexible and willing to learn
With all that said, none of these are strict requirements for getting your foot in the door in an extraction tech position. Because the cannabis industry, and many of the jobs within it, are still relatively new, there are plenty of companies out there who are willing to train techs from the ground up—with some requiring only a high school diploma.
“I have been in the legal industry for almost 11 years, and I have no formal training,” shared Dustin Mahon. As a medical patient who could not find the high-potency medications he needed, Mahon took it upon himself to learn how to make high-potency medicine. He has since gone on to found his own extraction business and processing facility and now serves as Director of Consulting Services for ExtractionTek Solutions.
“I always encourage those interested in extraction work to get certifications, many of them are either free or are very affordable, and many are available online,” advised Bryant. “Some relevant certifications for extraction may include hazardous materials handling, good manufacturing practices (cGMP), and lean manufacturing/six sigma.”
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Another thing we heard from many of the extraction professionals we spoke to is the importance of passion. “No formal education is necessary to become an extraction tech, but a passion and knowledge of the cannabis plant is definitely helpful,” said Krane. “Most of the great extractors that I’ve met throughout the years start with a real passion for cannabis, and more specifically, a passion for extraction products. The best extractors start with a passion for hash and concentrates and harness that to learn and understand the mechanical and chemical processes needed to achieve the final products.”
Other job requirements
While formal education may not be an absolute requirement for all extraction tech jobs, any cannabis extraction tech will need to be 21 years of age or older. Some states require permits or licenses to work in the cannabis industry. Learn more about your state’s requirements here.
Important skills for the cannabis extraction technician
Working as a cannabis extraction technician is a fast-paced and demanding job where one must be able to stay focused on the task at hand, with meticulous attention to detail, while also being able to creatively solve problems as they arise.
Here are some of the most essential skills for the position:
Dedication. From liquid diamonds to live resin, for many, a passion for concentrates is how their curiosity eventually leads to extraction technologies—but this job is not all glitz and glamor. “First and foremost, you have to be willing to show up, roll up your sleeves, and put in the hard work,” said Krane. “From the outside looking in, it seems like it’s a sexy job, but in reality, it’s tough work. With all of the heavy lifting and extreme temperatures that go into the process, extractors need to have a great work ethic and be fully committed to the work at hand.”
Attention to detail. So much about lab work is about the details. Being able to pay close attention to everything from safety protocols to the process of purging solvents is essential in this role.
Focus. Joined at the hip with attention to detail is focus, and both must be maintained at very high levels when working in an extraction lab. “If someone is not paying attention, it could mean the difference between a normal workday and a potential disaster,” said Widmaier. “Staying focused at all times during the process can be the difference in being safe or unsafe for you as well as others,” said Nick Melvin, a Lab Technician with NOWAVE.
Mathematics. Mathematics is a big part of being a cannabis extraction tech. Understanding, performing, and interpreting mathematical equations is part of the day-to-day. “Lots of math, all the time,” said Widmaier.
Mechanical skills. “I have to really stress the necessity of mechanical skills,” said Krane. “The ability to turn a wrench is very, very important. There are no power tools used in an extraction role, so you must utilize wrenches and other tools as an extension of your hands when putting these processors and extractors together.”
Time management. Working to meet output goals means keeping a tight schedule and working efficiently. Strong time management skills are a must.
Organization. And what better way to stay on schedule and complement those time management skills than with solid organizational skills? “If the technician performs all extraction processes in a systematic and compliant way, everything will work well,” said Sanabria
Problem solving. “The technician has to be ready to solve any issues related to changes in raw materials, each step in the extraction process and possible damages to the equipment,” said Luis Alfredo Sanabria, Laboratory Technical Director of Flora Growth Corp. “It’s important to be patient and think quickly!”
Pros and cons of being an extraction tech
Growing industry: Non-combustion methods of consumption are gaining in popularity, which means the demand for extractions (and extraction technicians) is growing. “It can be exciting to be at the forefront of a growing market with opportunities to develop new products and standardize testing protocols,” said Demeo.
Interesting and fun work: In addition, the complexity and dynamic nature of the job keeps things interesting—the workday is almost never boring or uneventful. “Science is fun,” said Demeo. “Dissolving compounds into different solvents, using thermodynamics to transfer liquids and gasses, boiling and condensing molecules—these are not things you’re going to experience making toys in Santa’s workshop. It can only be done in cannabis labs.”
Satisfying: Hands down, the most common high point we heard from extractors was the sense of pride and satisfaction that comes with extraction. “There is a lot of hard work that goes into cannabis extraction, and it’s a great feeling to see the end product of the process,” said Connor Ferrante, a Manufacturing Technician with NOWAVE. Extraction attracts many folks who are already passionate about concentrates, which offers built-in satisfaction when one finally comes to understand the “magic” behind liquid diamonds or what it actually takes to make an exceptional live rosin. “There’s some glory to it: To understand how the tech works, master those machines, and create tangible products that both consumers and patients love,” said Krane. “I’d say pride in their work is a highlight for most extractors.”
Physically and mentally tasking: First off, it’s hard work—both mentally and physically. In addition to being able to lift and move heavy loads, you’ll also be performing physical maintenance on machines or working in freezing temperatures for extended periods. You may also find yourself working in small and confined spaces. Then, there is the mentally challenging side of things. “Balancing production demands with proper procedures can become a difficult space to navigate,” said Widmaier. On any given day, there is a lot on an extraction technician’s plate. Meeting production schedules and being highly organized at the big picture level all while paying meticulous attention to the details needed to properly execute an extraction and keep everyone safe is a lot of mental gymnastics. “Those who struggle with multi-tasking, time management, and organization often do not thrive in these positions,” said Bryant.
Exposure to allergens: “Extraction, like many parts of the cannabis industry, involves working with allergens,” explained Bryant. While protective equipment is available to employees, it’s common for some aspiring technicians to have their career derailed when they realize their body is just too sensitive to the plant material, terpenes or extracts. “What may only slightly bother someone doing light trimming or grinding at home may severely impact them at the scale we operate at in the commercial industry.”
Challenging consumer preferences: “Dispensary and consumer buying habits are probably the largest challenge,” said Demeo. He used the example of consumer buying habits around THC levels. People are most often looking for the best THC-to-dollar value ratios: they want bang for their buck. But they also report wanting superior flavor, and what they don’t realize is that there is a trade-off there. “For extractors, this is challenging because we want to make great-tasting products, and the better the product tastes, the lower the concentration of THC. This is disappointing because many extractors make absolutely fire concentrates and then have a hard time getting shelf space because of the relatively low THC content.”
How much do extraction techs make?
The starting hourly wage or salary of an extraction tech will vary widely by state, experience, and the duties of the role itself.
Hiring platform Indeed reports an average 2022 annual salary of $40,326 per year, while cannabis staffing agency CannabizTeam reports a 2022 salary range of $43,400 to $74,500 with a median salary of $58,450. Cannabis hiring platform Vangst reports an hourly salary range in 2021 of $16 – $21/hour, and most of the sources we spoke with reported similar hourly wages.
The bottom line
Cannabis flower may be the original and most-often used form of consumption, but today, there is an impressive array of cannabis edibles, topicals, transdermals, concentrates, and vapes for cannabis lovers to explore. All these products contain some form of cannabis extraction.
As an extraction tech, you will be part of the team of scientists and laboratory staff that takes cannabis from plant material to a carefully crafted and concentrated extraction. As consumer buying habits continue to evolve and the industry continues to grow, so too will the demand for cannabis extraction technicians. So, if you’re interested in the intersection of the cannabis plant and cutting-edge science, becoming a cannabis extraction technician could be the job for you.