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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Sides to Dabbing

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Sides to Dabbing

If you’re involved with cannabis at all, whether recreationally, medically, or from a business standpoint, then you either know about or have probably heard of “dabbing.” This method of consumption has been around for at least a decade, but the advent of more advanced extraction methods have led to a flood of cannabis concentrates that have boosted dabbing’s popularity.

A dab usually refers to a dose of concentrate that is heated on a hot surface, usually a nail, and then inhaled. It doesn't sound so controversial in those terms, but “blasting dabs” has become a dividing point within the community both because of the intense high that it produces and for the image that it presents to outsiders.

While there are valid concerns to be addressed about the safety of the production and potency of popular concentrates, this new trend isn't all bad. Here’s the breakdown on the issues surrounding dabs and how it might actually be a good thing for the legalization movement.

The Basics

Dabs are doses of cannabis concentrates that used to mostly refer to butane hash oil (or BHO), but has grown to include a variety of other concentrates such as wax, shatter, budder, or even “errl,” which is a playful meme-derived way of saying oil. These concentrates can be up to 80% THC, the active psychoactive compound in cannabis, but usually range between 50 and 75%.

More research is needed to determine exactly how much, but other compounds in cannabis, including other cannabinoids and terpenes, are also extracted in the process. The high concentration of THC, though, is most likely what’s behind the potent effects of dabs, making them the fastest, most efficient way to get really, really medicated.


A dab of BHO, heated on top. 

The Bad and the Ugly

Let’s start with the bad news first: dabbing can be dangerous. Actually, it’s the extraction that can be dangerous.The process can be tricky, but thanks to online forums and videos, many amateur "scientists" think they have mastered the technique enough to try it on their own. In cases when things go well, the product is probably still pretty poor. When things go bad, houses blow up. A few explosions by ignorant DIYers and suddenly cannabis is being talked about in the same cautionary terms as meth. That’s not good.

Additionally, the actual process of dabbing can look quite scary. Glass bongs and oddly-named substances being heated with blow torches have led to the comparison that dabs are the “crack” of pot. It’s not that BHO has any similarity to these harsher drugs, but to the uninitiated, unless it’s a baked Alaska, lighting something with a torch never looks tasteful. While this is a matter of choice for most consumers, there are fears that dabbing’s ugly looks may hurt the legalization movement.

Another side effect of these home extraction experiments is “dirty” oil that may contain chemical contaminants that could present health hazards to consumers. If the concern is butane, the dangers are most likely minimal since it already occurs in everyday products such as scent and flavor extracts. Whether or not the equipment used in the extraction process is adding additional contaminants is a more viable issue. When done correctly, these extras can be avoided, so as is the case with growing cannabis, it’s best to leave it to those who know what they’re doing.

One of the most unsettling facts about dabs is that thanks to the super-concentrated power of BHO, for the first time it seems possible to “overdose” on cannabis. While still not lethal, taking more than your personal limit of dabs can lead to uncomfortable highs and, in some cases, passing out. After all of the chanting that “you can’t overdose on marijuana,” concentrates could be undermining advocates’ message of safety. There have also been reports of more intense withdrawal symptoms for dabbers, but again, the information is limited.


All oil is extracted from the tiny crystals on cannabis flowers such as this one. 

The Good

The biggest positive of concentrates are that they give a powerful dose of medicine to those who truly need it. Patients dealing with severe or chronic pain or extreme nausea report that dabbing can be one of the best ways to get immediate and effective relief. The amount of flowers that would have to be smoked or vaporized to get the same effect is just unfeasible for some patients who need potent medicine quickly.

Yes, the safety issues associated with making extracts are real, but they can be easily controlled in a professional environment. Professional extractors eschew the dangerous “open” extraction method that can be done at home and instead choose closed extraction, which is safer but requires more sophisticated equipment. Also, there are other extraction methods, such as CO2 or ice-water extraction, that are also safer and reduce or remove the possibility of explosions.

The relationship between concentrates and technology is symbiotic with the product in need of more research and testing that labs are excitedly advancing technology to meet. Because the industry is expanding and more and more producers are improving and upgrading their methods, it seems most likely that these homemade disasters will remain anomalies. As more places that can legally sell concentrates emerge, there will be less of a need to make your own (though intrepid home chemists will probably still exist).

Technology is also probably going to lead to less dabbing in the future, anyway. Improvements in vaporizers mean that more people are using these “no-torch necessary” products to heat their oils. Conveniently, this is the most publicity-friendly path for concentrates to go.

One of the more surprising side effects of the dabbing trend is that it has created an interest in activism in the community’s younger members. Industry events such as the Cannabis Cup, which used to focus on flowers, have also become proving grounds for the best concentrates and extraction experts. Most popular among consumers in their twenties, dabs are under the same legislative crackdown as other forms of cannabis, and more activists are starting to get involved.

While dabbing may be going through its awkward phase, overall, concentrates have much to offer patients and cannabis consumers in the future, and dabs are just one option among many.

photo credit: Symic via photopin cc