A sharp tongue of blue flame licks the titanium as a plump glob of wax awaits above, then drips from the tip of the dabber and plops onto the domeless nail’s fading crimson glow, where it’s instantaneously liquefied and vaporized. A sudden burst of smoke is drawn through tiny holes in the nail’s head and into our model’s eager lungs. It’s a ritual that’s repeated time after time at booth after booth within the Prop. 215 area of our Los Angeles Medical Cannabis Cup. There’s nary a seed company, dispensary or retailer in attendance that doesn’t have a dab station set up or an extract entered into the competition—38 solvent-based concentrates in all, nearly maxing out the category and all but eclipsing the nine water-hash entries. Every glass company at the expo has rigs on display, and nearly every clothing company some T-shirt with an oil-based slogan or design. This is the state of the modern cannabis community. This is the dab life.
To many in this up-and-coming generation of young stoners, smoking “flowers” (as weed is now referred to) is fast becoming passé—a quaint custom practiced by hippies, lightweights and the socio-geographically disadvantaged. For hardcore oilheads, “treebasing” has raised their THC tolerance to the point where a joint just doesn’t cut it—they want a quicker, longer and stronger high than mere marijuana can provide. As word of this new way of getting stoned continues to spread and the demand for BHO grows, the market begins to respond: One-hitters are replaced by vapor pens, butane is bought in bulk, and sales of crème brûlée torches skyrocket. Apparently, even major retailers are beginning to get wise.
“I was in Bed Bath & Beyond last week, and they had torches, turkey basters and Pyrex dishes all on display next to each other,” swears Hitman Glass founder Dougie Fresh. “Isn’t that crazy? Either they have some kind of inventory software telling them what items people buy together, or somebody working there knows what’s up!”
But blow torches and butane aren’t the only things in short supply these days.
“Trim is so hard to come by … it’s the most valuable thing right now,” a representative from Cheeba Chews tells me. “We can’t even get trim to make our edibles.”
“Forget trim,” one breeder says. “People are ripping whole growrooms down and just blasting them.”
That’s right: In some circles, pot plants are now regarded as nothing but raw material to be transformed into a variety of waxes, oils and shatters—concentrates that are more potent and profitable, and easier to conceal and consume. As the focus of pot nerds everywhere slowly shifts from botany to chemistry, so shifts the spotlight from growers to the modern-day alchemists known as extract artists, who can transform a pile of leftover leaf into taffy-esque, translucent gold.
The unfortunate slang term that’s arisen for this process is, as mentioned above, blasting—unfortunate because, though it refers to “blasting” the essential oils out of the herb with butane gas, it’s also eerily appropriate in describing the explosive accidents that occur when the process isn’t done safely. But accidents like those are almost unheard of among the pros, who prefer the less dramatic terms “running” or “processing” flowers. These gurus of goo take every precaution, carefully controlling each variable, tweaking temperatures and monitoring pressures to ensure that their final product is exactly what they intended and suitable for consumption by the patients they serve. For them, quality is key, and it begins with the raw material.
“We use what our clients give us, which is typically trim for cost-effectiveness,” says Nikka T, a consummate concentrate maker from Denver. “But we prefer fresh-frozen buds, which we’ve been getting more often recently.”
Frozen buds? That’s right—apparently freezing the weed before processing it prevents contaminates from being extracted by the butane, enabling the savvy concentrate maker to extract more cannabinoids and terpenes and less fats and waxes, as well as less moisture and chlorophyll. In an effort to get the cleanest concentrates possible, many extract artists also “wash” the extract in a secondary solvent (typically alcohol) and then freeze it—a process called winterization. This not only removes any final traces of butane, but also solidifies undesirable components (bio-waste such as lipids, fats and waxes) that are then filtered out before evaporation, thus creating a clearer concentrate known as glass, shatter or snap.
“This is in everybody’s wax,” says Jerett, the cherubic extraction expert from West Coast Cure with the McDabber’s hatpin, as he compares a wad of ugly goop to the amber glass he pulled it from. He drops it onto the nail of the Big Lebowski torch tube on the table in front of us, and an acrid smoke pours forth. “That’s what you’re smoking when you smoke wax,” he adds.
While eliminating these elements technically makes the concentrate purer, some believe that it also eliminates textures, aromas and flavors (via terpenes) that many people find desirable.
“Purity isn’t everything,” says Dan de Sailles of Denver’s Top Shelf Extracts. He has a point—moonshine is purer than Cognac, but which would you rather drink? “Besides, if you’re smoking flowers, you’re already ingesting all of those fats and waxes anyway,” he continues. “So smoking a wax or budder is no more harmful to you than smoking a joint.”
Often, a concentrate’s interesting texture is part of its appeal. For example, the Alien OG “Raw” pictured in “Contact High” on pg. 15: This fluffy, off-white extract, whose consistency resembles Funyuns or cheese puffs, was brewed up using an undisclosed technique by an extract artist who takes his name from that most hated of all Star Wars characters, Jar Jar Binks. If handled, this “Heisenberg hash” quickly disintegrates into a sparkly sand; when heated, its aeration is released and it shrivels like a Shrinky Dink into a tiny worm of wax. Then there’s sha-budder, a full, winterized shatter that’s been placed on low heat, allowing it over time to become budder-like again. Generally speaking, a concentrate’s consistency is just a result of how much moisture it contains. Which is why, when you leave certain extracts out in the air for a while, they begin to goo up—a process known as auto-buddering. Basically, by manipulating the extract in different ways (temperature, moisture, pressure, agitation), the extract artist can produce a variety of textures to appeal to all palates and preferences.
As of yet, there’s still no solid scientific evidence that BHO itself—if made properly—is dangerous to ingest, even if it does contain trace amounts of residual butane. If made improperly, however—using plants containing pesticides or mold, or with inferior-quality butane—there may be legitimate health concerns. Hopefully, as more cannabis labs begin to test for contaminants and solvents (something that Seattle’s Northwest Botanical Analysis, for example, has started doing), these concerns may be addressed by buying from reputable sources.
Other possible health issues that have been raised, such as metal-fume fever (from inhaling trace amounts of metal that may flake off the nail) or cannabinoid hyperemesis (a syndrome characterized by symptoms of nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain), will likely remain unsubstantiated until real clinical studies can be done. In the meantime, to minimize these potential risks, we recommend always seasoning the nail (heating it until glowing red, then cooling it off in water) to burn away any possible impurities before use.
Frankly, the greatest likelihood of injury we’ve encountered so far seems to be from passing out and falling over after doing a dab. Make no mistake—this stuff is potent, and even seasoned stoners have been known to get a bit dizzy after a decent-sized glob. For this reason, we recommend dabbing in a seated position whenever possible or, if you’re in line for a dab at an event, asking the person behind you to be your spotter. You hear that, guys? Be ready to perform a “dab grab” in case the person in front of you faints!
Seriously, though—while the health risks of ingesting BHO may be somewhat exaggerated, the risks involved in making it cannot be overemphasized.
For every master blaster, there are likely dozens of idiots out there who think they can make their own wax with a can of cheap lighter fluid and a piece of PVC pipe, and end up blowing up some hotel room instead—or, worse, their parents’ house. We’ve said it before, and we’ll continue to say it: Blasting should never be done indoors, and never near a flame or any electronic appliance or device that could cause a spark (refrigerators, cell phones, etc.).
Think it won’t happen to you? Think again: Last November, a medical marijuana patient in Portland, OR, was severely burned and blew out a wall of his apartment while attempting to make BHO. In January 2013, a young man in a San Diego hotel sustained life-threatening burns after he caused an explosion that was described by other guests as “like an earthquake.” Two similar incidents happened in February (in Lakewood, CO, and West Hollywood), and another three in March: in Forest Grove, OR; Petaluma, CA; and Edmund, OK (where, owing to the state’s House Bill 1798, which makes it a felony to perform any type of THC extraction and was signed into law in April 2011, the poor perpetrator could now face life in prison). Sadly, these instances have become far too frequent—so much so, in fact, that in the February 7 edition of their Infogram newsletter, FEMA included a section entitled “Hash Oil Explosions Increasing Across U.S.” In it, they instruct first responders and law enforcement on what to look for to distinguish BHO blasts from bomb-making or terrorist activity.
Unfortunately, it’s stories like these that are introducing BHO to the mainstream media—and as one might expect, the results haven’t been good. On March 11, an NBC News affiliate in Grand Junction, CO, ran a feature about the “potent and potentially toxic new form of marijuana” called dabbing. Instead of interviewing experts on the topic—such as one of the many professional extract artists or medical marijuana doctors that have appeared on our dab panels—the producers instead chose to interview a high school girl and the obligatory reformed “pot addict” who claimed that, after smoking marijuana for the first time at age 13, he got “hooked” and proceeded to waste the next 18 years of his life. (You know, unlike everyone else in the world who smokes some weed, gets a snack and then manages to go on with their life.) The report also claimed that dabbing could result in overdoses and increased cases of schizophrenia, which it called a “known potential side effect of marijuana.” Talk about bullshit … as usual, network news prefers to drum up ratings with halftruths and scare tactics aimed at paranoid parents rather than presenting an objective, scientific examination of the issue.
Nevertheless, with news coverage like that, it’s easy to see why pro-pot activists fear that the dab phenomenon—with its seeming “hard drug” overtones—could throw a roadblock in front of the otherwise overwhelming prolegalization wave sweeping the nation. And let’s face it: The PR problem is bound to get worse before it gets better. But if there’s one thing we should’ve learned from the DARE and “Just Say No” campaigns of the 1980s, it’s that scare tactics and misinformation don’t help keep kids off drugs—if anything, they end up doing the opposite. Which means the best formula for ensuring the safety of all would-be dabbers is the same as it is for plain old pot: open dialogue, an honest examination of the facts, establishing quality controls on the product and an age limit on its sale—and all of these aims are better served by legalization and regulation than by prohibition and propaganda.
History teaches us that once a new technology or paradigm arrives, there’s no turning back. When rock’n’roll hit the scene, it was condemned as dangerous and corrupting—and today, it’s as American as apple pie. Dabbing isn’t a fad—it’s a paradigm shift, and rejecting it won’t make it go away. Attempts to stop a new generation of cannabis enthusiasts from dabbing will ultimately prove as futile as trying to stop them from tweeting or texting. Ultimately, all we can do is make sure they have access to the most accurate information and the best-quality concentrates at their disposal so that when they’re old enough, if they choose to dab, they can do so safely and responsibly.
Read the full issue here.