Is "Dabbing" the Crack of Pot?
Butane hash oil, a potent marijuana concentrate, is gaining popularity. So why does it split the pro-pot community?
Butane hash oil (BHO)—also known as dabs, honey oil, wax, oil, shatter, or budder—is a potent marijuana concentrate that can exceed 80% THC content. Growing in popularity in recent years, BHO is hailed by some as “the future of cannabis” while others fear it could harm the image of the legalization movement. "It is very, very potent," Nick, 21, a Physics and Applied Math double-major and avid pot smoker from New York, tells The Fix. "It's like the first time you smoked. Every single time."
BHO is produced by one of two methods: “open” or “closed." The open method involves packing a stainless steel tube with marijuana and "blasting" the tube with butane (an extraction solvent). The resulting extract—a thick, yellow-orange oil—trickles out onto a pan. This method can be dangerous: FEMA reports increasing incidents of explosions across the US caused by clumsy hash oil production attempts. The closed system, a safer method, uses a machine called a butane oil extractor—which is also used to perform oil extraction from botanical herbs like lavender and mint to produce aromatics, infusions, and tinctures. Consuming BHO is known as "dabbing," and usually involves the user touching the concentrate onto a heated surface (like a nail) and inhaling its vapors. Some dabbing paraphernalia resembles traditional meth or crack pipes, which Nick says could "freak out a lot of parents once dabbing gets huge."
Dabbing comes with potential health dangers, including inhalation of "dirty" butane. An editorial in the High Times claims that only butane that is "quadruple-refined or better" is suitable for ingestion. However, there are no across-the-board standards for purity. Another risk is ingesting harmful contaminants that may have been infused into the concentrate during the extraction process, like pesticides, herbicides and fungi. "It depends on who's been growing it and what they used," according to Dr. Bob Melamede, associate professor of biology at the University of Colorado, and president and CEO of Cannabis Science, Inc. "If you have contaminants on your plant, that's going to come off into the extract." Still, he believes the dangers are minimal and says "there isn’t any evidence that inhaling residual hydrocarbons like butane are dangerous—at least in small amounts.”
The pro-pot community is somewhat divided over dabbing. Dale Gieringer, PhD of NORML in California, says there has been a recent uptick in hospitalizations for cannabis overdose, which he attributes to rising use of BHO. "Things like this never happened until the popularization of hash oil in recent years," he writes in a letter to O'Shaughnessy's. "The dangers are dire enough to merit a special warning." Others, however, praise BHO's medical merits. Daniel “Big D” de Sailles, a partner at Denver dispensary Top Shelf Extracts, tells the High Times it's practically a miracle remedy. “I’m a 100% proponent of BHO, because I’ve seen it make people’s pain just evaporate," he says. "As medicine, it helps with both harm reduction—it practically cures withdrawal symptoms in people who are alcoholics or addicted to speed or pharmaceuticals— and pain management. It works every single time, and it’s easier to regulate your dosage.”
But some pro-pot activists worry that BHO could harm the herb's reputation, setting back the legalization movement at a time when public acceptance of pot is at an all-time high. “Seeing teenagers wielding blowtorches or blowing themselves up on the evening news might incite a new anti-pot paranoia that could set the legalization movement back decades," writes High TImes senior editor Bobby Black, who notes that the techniques used to produce dabs "bear an eerie resemblance to those used for harder drugs like meth and crack." Meanwhile NORML's executive director, Allen St. Pierre directly attributes BHO's popularity to marijuana’s still mainly illegal status. "Contraband product tends to become more potent under prohibition,” he tells The Fix. “This appears demonstrably true for cannabis, as the more the government commits resources and energy to ban cannabis, the more potent the herbal drug has become over the years.”