Dabbing 101: What Are Dabs and How Are They Made?

BHO dab, also known as a concentrated dose of cannabis extract
A large dab of BHO.

Dabs are concentrated doses of cannabis that are made by extracting THC and other cannabinoids using a solvent like butane or carbon dioxide, resulting in sticky oils also commonly referred to as wax, shatter, budder, and butane hash oil (BHO). They’re heated on a hot surface, usually a nail, and then inhaled through a dab rig. Smoking dabs as a 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.

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While it’s possible to extract non-psychoactive compounds like CBD, THC is what’s behind the potent effects of dabs, making them the fastest and most efficient way to get really, really stoned. Terpenes, or the aromatic oils that give cannabis flavor, can also be extracted, although it can be difficult to preserve these volatile compounds in the extraction process.

What Are the Perceived Dangers of Dabbing?

Dried cannabis flower
Oil is extracted from the tiny crystals on cannabis flowers such as this one.

Let’s start with the bad news first: dabbing can be dangerous. Mainly, 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. Worst case scenario, a combination of flammable gases and poor ventilation can result in explosion. Even when home extraction goes well, there’s no way to know the quality or purity of your finished product. “Dirty” oil may contain chemical contaminants or excessive amounts of residual solvents that could present health hazards to consumers.

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Eliminating these production issues typically requires:

  • Lab testing (to measure the purity and potency of concentrates)
  • High-grade solvents
  • Closed loop extraction equipment (to prevent accidents)
  • Trained extraction professionals

But is dabbing extracts dangerous from a consumer standpoint? It can be, but dabbing safely is easy with the proper precautions.

Many new dabbers investing in their first setup will take the inexpensive route and purchase the bare minimum: a nail attachment and a handheld blow torch. To the uninitiated, heating a metal or glass nail with a tiny flamethrower may look fundamentally dangerous. However, the demand for torch-less methods of dabbing has given rise to products like electronic nails (enails), which eliminate the torch and offer precise temperature control.

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One other safety factor all unseasoned dabbers should consider is the potency of THC extracts. Cannabis extracts often test between 60-90% THC, which means it doesn’t take much to become profoundly high. Exceed your personal limit and you may find the effects to be uncomfortable and overwhelmingly intense. And while it’s impossible to die from a cannabis overdose, it’s never a bad idea to start with a small dab to ensure a positive and comfortable experience.

Lastly, it’s important to note that the long-term effects of dabbing are not well-known. Until research thoroughly examines the long-term risks of dabbed extracts (with individual consideration of residual solvents, pesticides, and cannabinoids), it’s not possible to characterize any dangers associated with prolonged use.

What Are the Benefits of Dabbing?

When done safely with clean, tested products, patients and adult consumers find several advantages to dabbing as a delivery method, primarily in its swift onset and powerful effects. 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. However, you’d likely be hard-pressed finding a doctor who recommends dabbing as the first course of action.

Cannabis extracts that have been properly manufactured can also present consumers with a clean, pure product that’s easier on the lungs. When smoking cannabis, burned plant matter produces resin and hot smoke, but extracts eliminate most of this unwanted material while still delivering essential cannabinoids.

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Another benefit of dabbing commonly overlooked is the scientific and technological curiosity it has helped spur in recent years. The rise of dabbing has coincided with a boom in extraction and consumption technologies: cannabis distillates, terpene infusion, hi-tech dabbing tools, oil cartridges, full-spectrum extraction–and the list goes on. While not everyone will come to embrace dabbing as a method of consumption, the enthusiasm of extracts that’s stemmed from it has no doubt pushed the limits of innovation within the industry as a whole.

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. Most popular among consumers in their twenties, extracts are under the same legislative crackdown as other forms of cannabis, and more activists are starting to get involved.

While dabbing may still be experiencing some growing pains, overall, concentrates have much to offer patients and cannabis consumers in the future, and dabs are just one option among many.

Photo Credit (Curves Adjusted): Symic via Photopin CC