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Dabbing—The Higher High

By Meg Williams 01/23/14

Doing butane hash oil, a.k.a. dabbing, might seem strange with the cooking and the weird pipe, but it's really just pot.

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Laura took a hit from an intimidatingly complicated pipe. It had a strange long neck, and a metal piece where the bowl should be. She used a butane torch to heat up the metal until it was red hot. Then she put some gooey stuff on there with a poker, and it instantly incinerated. A small glass dome above the metal collected the smoke and sent it up the pipe.  

That was the first time I saw someone smoke dabs. That is, smoke butane hash oil (BHO). Even though I’d been a stoner early in my drug use, I’d never seen it before. While visiting my family in Miami after celebrating two years sober, I had decided to hang out with Laura, an old running buddy. We were still close.  

Laura, I thought at the time, had calmed down with the heroin. Just falling back on good ol’ harmless pot, having gone for the “moderation” route when I got sober.

We had smoked on average $50 worth of weed a day together in the past. When she was in a court-ordered outpatient rehab, we had even tried the fake stuff from the gas station called Mr. Nice Guy. It tasted like fish and was probably one small step up from doing bath salts. That was before we both got into hard drugs. I was a speed freak while she preferred downers like Xanax and oxycodone. 

As Laura started to slump down against her folded up futon bed after two hits of BHO, I thought, Well, at least it’s not heroin. 

I had seen an article on the web that quoted someone calling dabs the “crack of pot.” As far as my experience went, crack was the crack of crack. While writing this, I looked up the article and read it again, wondering if I had missed the point. 

I had. This statement refers to the fact that butane hash oil has to be “cooked” out of marijuana. The similarities end there. The two drugs are made using drastically different methods and materials. Not to mention that producing BHO is a “concentration” process whereas producing crack cocaine is a “let’s make this cocaine smokable by adding baking soda” process.

And for those with a higher tolerance to THC, dabbing can offer a way to get a more potent high, like when they first started smoking. 

Smoking cocaine allows the chemical to reach the brain in less than 8 seconds versus 14 minutes to peak effect when snorted. Crack gives the user an intense but short-lived high. So the power of the drug comes not from its purity but from its delivery system. The only quicker way to get coke into the bloodstream is intravenously.

Modern high-grade bud usually has a THC concentration level of 25%, which is way up from the concentrations found in pot even 30 years ago. The THC concentration of BHO can be up to 75% depending upon the skill of the chef (is that what you call it?). The delivery system of smoking is the same, but in this case, the product is purer. 

Although I am sure the author of the aforementioned article was well aware of the sensationalistic appeal of comparing anything to crack cocaine, producing BHO using the most common method is not without its dangers. 

Ken, another Florida user and small time pot dealer, said he has heard of people starting fires while trying to make BHO using what is called the “open method” of extraction. That’s why, he adds, he always does it outside. (Because if you’re going to set yourself on fire, might as well spare your house.) In this process, butane is passed through broken up marijuana in a small tube that is set over boiling water for a time. The butane is cooked off (for the most part at least), and voilà you have some BHO. 

The more sophisticated way called the “closed method” of extraction requires more elaborate equipment and is generally used by professional BHO producers. The high grade hash oil can also be created using methods that involve CO2 or ice water instead of butane. But once again, these methods are more complicated and less likely to be used by us common folk. 

Most people Ken knows use the open method. They’re DIY-ers in states that don’t allow the legal sale of marijuana products for recreational or medical uses. Reserving judgement on the addictiveness of BHO, this particular risk associated with dabbing seems more like a by-product of marijuana prohibition than the drug itself. 

Over on the West Coast, you can buy professionally made BHO. I talked to a friend named Julia from California who said her boyfriend smokes it at “dab bars” in some cannabis clubs. She says her tolerance is way too low to handle dabs, and that if you see someone smoke them for the first time it’s “pretty hilarious.” 

According to Julia, there is still controversy in cannabis communities over the way in which BHO is extracted—some methods being purer than others with fewer residual by-products from the plant or the butane still present in the oil. 

But we quickly moved on from that subject as Julia outlined the myriad medical uses of the different strains of marijuana, most of which I had never even heard of. She provided me with a useful chart that can be found here. 

Julia explained that dabbing can deliver the dose necessary to a patient with chronic illness that has built up a tolerance without forcing her to smoke bowl after bowl of marijuana. Dabs serve a purpose similar to edibles - a medicine delivery system. 

At the end of our conversation she added, “I don't care about [marijuana] being legalized for recreational use because I honestly hate when people just want to be high and dumb all the time, but [expletive deleted] the medical uses are endless.” 

I started to understand why legalization advocates might get uneasy around the subject of dabs. The original take-away message or uncontextualized statement from the article I had read compared this form of concentrated THC to crack cocaine - one of the most destructive and dangerous drugs. Any line you draw from pot to coke is not a good one for marijuana advocates.


Then there are the occurrences of “THC overdoses” that have resulted from dabbing. People have been known to pass out or experience panic attacks as a result of smoking BHO. Technically these are “overdoses.” An overdose, after all, is taking a higher than intended dose of a drug and suffering the consequences. With THC this is one thing; with heroin it’s another.

This seems like another one of those times when language is used in a sloppy way to sensationalize the dangers of pot. The reports of deaths resulting from dabbing usually involve someone passing out then hitting his head on something. No nervous system suppression, no blue fingernails from insufficient oxygen, no seizures, no choking on one’s own vomit. I am not trying to say any such deaths are not significant and tragic. But other drugs including alcohol, which is perfectly legal, pose much more of a threat to life.

The dangers of addiction to marijuana (yes, there is such a thing) do exist. Although some disagree about whether one can be chemically dependent on pot, psychological addiction has been well-documented. And for those with a higher tolerance to THC, dabbing can offer a way to get a more potent high, like when they first started smoking. This leads eventually to an even higher tolerance.

According to an Australian medical study conducted by the University of Queensland, “There is evidence of psychiatric, respiratory, cardiovascular, and bone toxicity associated with chronic cannabis use. Cannabis has been linked in a dose-dependent manner with elevated rates of myocardial infarction and cardiac arrythmias.” In the case of dose-dependent effects, the increased concentration of THC in dabs could logically increase the severity of such symptoms.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of research concerning BHO specifically, and the results of research on cannabis in general vary wildly. Also, just because a substance can be abused doesn’t always categorically make it dangerous for everyone all of the time. Opioids are used effectively for pain management (I mean, sometimes). Amphetamines are used to treat ADD (if that even exists, right?). Drinking alcohol is an accepted part of American life (in moderation, I’m told).

Then there’s crack. Crack is always bad. Crack is the crack of crack.

In the beginning of January, I visited Florida again and decided to interview Laura about her experience with dabs. We sat on the back porch of my parent’s house in the unusually cold weather. It was January, but it was also South Florida. The rest of the country was preparing for an “arctic blast” while we shivered wearing jean shorts and hoodies in the 55 degree weather. There was a breeze, and my mother’s wind chimes tinkled in the background. It was very idyllic. Perfect weather to talk drugs: 

Laura: The first time I ever tried these dabs (air quotes used) was at Counterpoint Music Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. And it was my camping neighbors from New York that had introduced it to me. But ironically enough the same week when I went back to Florida, I hung out with one of my friends from work for the first time, and her and her boyfriend were doing it. Not only were they just smoking dabs, but they were making this hash oil as well. So then I took interest in it, and I learned how to make it. I started doing it myself. 

Meg: How is the high different?

Laura: Well, I can’t personally smoke that many dabs without getting overly paranoid. But you can just literally take one hit and be really high. And that’s it. 

Meg: I remember putting hash on top of weed. Is it like that?

Laura: No, not really because it’s like you have this kind of crazy ass kind of pipe where I feel like if people didn’t know what it was they might think you were smoking meth or something. The hash oil you get from butane extraction is almost like a waxy kind of consistency. It’s not like weed or hash. It’s like an actual wax or oil. It’s different. 

Meg: Is it like a different drug? Or is it definitely pot?

Laura: No, it’s definitely pot. It’s like the oil extracted from pot...

Meg: I mean the way it feels. Does it just feel like being really high? Like how many bowls in? 

Laura: I would say one dab would equal a bowl. After two it’s like you smoked two bowls and that’s usually enough for me. I don’t go into the three’s and four’s. 

Meg: And where do you get the equipment? 

Laura: You can get it at any commercial head shop, I would say. 

Meg: What do they market it as? How do you go up to the counter and ask for it? 

Laura: You call them “lavender oils” or... that’s the only thing I can remember that we called it. I just asked for an extractor, but I knew what it looked like so I just pointed and asked, “Um is that for oils?” I might have even said dabs. I’m not sure. I haven’t been too much into it lately. It can be expensive. It takes a lot of weed to do. 

Meg: I read one article that compared it to doing heroin or maybe it was crack. I mean, what do you think about that? 

Laura: Well, heroin is definitely one thing, and pot is another. They’re very, very, very different drugs. They’re very different extremes. I mean, someone doing crack compared with someone smoking dabs... like one is just a really big stoner. There are plenty of stoners around, and plenty of successful stoners, might I add. Like doctors and lawyers. In South Florida at least. It seems like everyone is always high [on pot] here. 

While I contemplated getting a tooth pulled by a doctor high on pot, Laura pulled out a mini-bong she had been hiding behind my mom’s flower pots and took a few hits. Then we went back inside to watch Investigation Discovery for another two hours (ends up you don’t need to be high to enjoy crime show watching binges). 

The next evening, I got a phone call from an inmate in the Miami Dade County jail. It was Laura. She had been arrested in Overtown for trying to cop heroin. I guess heroin is the heroin of heroin, after all.

Meg Williams is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last interviewed the author of Promise Land.

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