Tech + Health

12.21.13

Hey Buddy, Wanna Dab? Inside The Mainstream Explosion of Cannabis Concentrates

A new method of smoking marijuana is taking the country by storm—and blowing up garages in the process. Get to know ‘dabs.’

Recently, at a pot-centered radio program, someone offered me a “dab” of butane honey oil (BHO)—a concentrated form of cannabis.

“This stuff is soooooo clean!” he mused. “You have to try it.”

Never mind that what I was being offered was thick, black, and gooey, like the dude had just dipped a spoon into bike grease. “I made it myself,” he continued, proudly pushing the baggie of black gooeyness into my face. “You’ll love it!”

I declined (I hope politely). And since this wasn’t the first time—and won’t be the last—bad dabs are declared clean, I went to High Times resident dabs expert Bobby Black to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of the explosive new way to consume cannabis.

“If it’s black, that means plant material got into it,” says Black, senior editor at High Times magazine. “They don’t know what they’re doing. If it’s made right, it should be creamy or clear.” Think rich honey, or earwax.

Not knowing what you’re doing when it comes to BHO dabs (also known as “wax” or “shatter”) is a problem. It’s the reason for all those exploding hash lab stories such as the recent case in Brooklyn where two teens suffered from severe burns.

Dabs have been “embraced by this generation of stoners,” continues Black. “If you think of pot as classic rock, than dabs is the heavy metal. It’s a cultural-generational thing. Youth is going to be attracted to something rebellious, new, and different from what their parents are smoking.”

In addition, “dabs are an incredibly effective medicine for patients,” says Black. “You can regulate your dosage very easily, and have instantaneous pain relief. And, if you’re getting it from a reputable source, you’re only smoking the oil. It’s highly effective.”

“People are going to be doing it—there’s no turning back,” he continued. The question then becomes “how can we make sure they do it safely? Let’s do harm reduction, and make it safe.”

Explosive Growth

“The process of making butane extraction [of cannabis] has been around along time, from the 1970s,” explains Black.

“When amateurs pretend to be chemists, you end up with, at best, a crappy product. At worst, they end up hurting themselves and other people.”

Food manufacturers use a similar chemical process to make other extracts, such as extracting vitamins from broccoli stalks, or caffeine from coffee beans, or in the process of producing peanut or soy oils. It’s not a new process.

What is new is how it’s transformed the cannabis scene. In the last five years, it’s gone from the obscure corners of cannabis culture into the mainstream. And, because of prohibition, unlike food products, the cannabis BHO process is unregulated.

“Hash has been around for thousands of years,” Black says. “To make it, it’s a labor of love… Butane is fast and easy to make and the product you end up with is much more potent than traditional hash”—precisely what makes BHO a highly desirable commodity.

The problems start when an amateur decides to make BHO in their garage and doesn’t realize butane is highly flammable.

“’Amateur’ and ‘chemistry’ are two words that shouldn’t go together,” says Danny Danko, senior cultivation editor at High Times.  “And YouTube is not where people should go to learn how to make quality concentrates.”

“When amateurs pretend to be chemists, you end up with, at best, a crappy product,” Danko continues. “At worst, they end up hurting themselves and other people.”

But that’s exactly what the kids these days are doing, judging by the number of views BHO how-to videos receive, and the number of hash lab explosions firing up the media.

And besides the risk of explosion, burns, injury, or death in the making of BHO, if the marijuana used to produce it is contaminated with pesticides, nutrients, mold, or fertilizers, those can get concentrated in the hash oil, too.

Genifer Murray, founder and CEO of Denver-based CannLabs, which tests marijuana and marijuana products for dosage and safety, explains, “We see all types of BHO, [made from] propane, hexane, naphtha, co2, water—we see all that. We see clean BHO, with no parts per million [of contaminants], and then we see terrible, 50,000 parts per million, and then everything in between.”

Long story short, Murray, Danko, and Black agree: You don’t know what you’re getting if you’re getting it off the street.

Often, explains Murray, manufacturers use butane purchased at a hardware store as lighter refill fluid—it’s cheap and accessible. Butane purchased at a hardware store often contains chemicals like benzene, which is known to cause cancer. An amateur might not know how to purge their product of a contaminant like benzene, or be able to afford a test to find out if it’s clean.

If you can go into a dispensary or cannabis collective in a medical or legal marijuana state, many do test their products, and you’ll know exactly what you’re getting. “People who are legitimate have the incentive to have their stuff tested,” says Black. A reputable place simply won’t sell a product contaminated with chemicals, mold, and pesticides.

According to Murray, just 7-10% of the cannabis industry “currently voluntarily tests” for contaminants. That is changing as many new medical marijuana states require permitted dispensaries to test for dosage and contaminants.

“When you’re dealing with states like New York, where cannabis is still illegal, you’re gonna have bad stuff on the market,” says Black. And that bad stuff isn’t just the result of a bad batch or lack of knowledge.

“The danger of dabs is its illegality. When you deal with a black market you don’t know how it was made or what’s in it. But if it was legal and regulated, you’d know.”

Consumer Reports

Since most Americans do not currently live in a state where there is a healthy, vibrant, legal cannabis market place, the question is, how do you know if the BHO is any good? Besides trusting the source, Black suggests using “a good litmus test”: Before you smoke it, put a drop of the BHO on the tip of a nail, and heat it up. If you hear any kind of noise coming off it, it wasn’t purged properly. If it crackles, or bubbles, don’t smoke it. It should simply burn off, silently.

And, “if a dab gives you a headache, it’s not clean. Stop using that immediately.”

“Wax, shatter, or glass, its all the same in different forms based on what their molecular state is,” continues Black. “Shatter is considered the cleanest. After they get the solvent [butane] out, they soak the concentrate in alcohol and they freeze it, and remove the fat and wax, and then you’re left with clean, hard, pure, essential oil.  Some people don’t like that as much as the waxier stuff.”

Black compares it to alcohol: “Moonshine is the purest state of alcohol, but do people want to drink pure moonshine, or would they rather have a Hennessy? Purity doesn’t necessarily mean better. If you’re concerned about purity, gravitate toward shatter.”

Black also points out that dabs are a stronger form of traditional smoking methods, like the dried herb joint—just like whiskey is a stronger form of alcohol than a beer.

Danko, Murray, and Black all agree that if you’re in a state where BHO is not yet legal, and you’re unable to access pure BHO from a dispensary or collective that tests for purity, than your best option is to stick with making ice water extractions or bubble hash—you’ll get a cleaner, safer product, and you won’t risk blowing anything up in the process.

Of course, you still might risk problems with “the law”—but that’s another story.