How Psychedelic Surf Smugglers Invented Dabs (With Help From the CIA?)

Published on July 9, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Who invented the dab?

All too often in the world of cannabis such monumental achievements end up lost to history, particularly those that date back to the bad old days of total prohibition. But in this case, we actually have a primary document to work off. Because on October 3, 1973, the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a rather unique hearing entitled Hashish Smuggling and Passport Control: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love.

We tend to think of dabs (a highly concentrated cannabis extract) as a fairly recent phenomenon, but as the hearing’s official transcript makes clear, the production and consumption of this product actually dates back at least to the early 1970s.

This particular airing of government grievances came at the end of a massive law enforcement campaign against The Brotherhood—a legendary network of cannabis smugglers and LSD evangelists that flooded the country with acid and hashish back in the late 60s and early 70s, before a wave of arrests and indictments took them down.

In the following exchange, J. G. Sourwine—chief counsel for the Senate Subcommittee on the Judiciary—is asking a couple of DEA agents to tell him the origin story of a highly concentrated cannabis extraction that The Brotherhood of Eternal Love dubbed “honey oil” and the cops called “hashish oil.”

J. G. Sourwine: “Was it The Brotherhood which invented or first developed hashish oil?” 

DEA agents: “Yes, I think that is right.”

J. G. Sourwine: “Who in The Brotherhood was responsible for the development of hashish oil?”

DEA agents: “According to our best intelligence sources it was Ronald Hadley Stark.”

So there you have it.

The Mysterious Mr. Stark

But wait! Before we start erecting a statue to the esteemed Mr. Stark in the center of Dab Square, we should probably note that even a cursory googling of his name reveals an acid-soaked past as checkered as any double-agent pulled from a spy novel.

According to various sources, at various times, Ronald Hadley Stark has been pegged as an undercover CIA asset sent to subvert the counterculture, a rogue KGB operative sent to foment a new American revolution, a ruthless career criminal disguised as a peace-and-love flower child, and a cunning snitch who transformed the Brotherhood of Eternal Love from idealistic hippies into international drug smugglers, then helped the government take them down, before walking away with all the loot.

The truth, as they say, probably lies somewhere in the middle, and is no doubt very complicated. It’s certainly difficult to ascertain, as author David Solomon acknowledged in his exhaustively researched book The Brotherhood of Eternal Love.

“Ronald Stark is an enigma. Many people can describe him and remember conversations or events, yet they cannot say who exactly he really was. With a clutch of different identities, he moved like a chameleon from communes and LSD laboratories to luxury hotels and exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. The major LSD producer who became [The Brotherhood’s] adviser and partner was also adviser and confidant of terrorists, walking with Arab princes and Sicilian Mafiosi.”

Seems like nobody can pin this butterfly down.

Here’s how one anonymous online researcher described the conundrum of trying to put a label on a guy whose real-life exploits were matched only by the outlandish backstories he invented.

The curse of doing research out here in Weirdoland is that the really fascinating people are nearly impossible to do research on. For instance, when you’re covertly running the world’s largest LSD manufacturing and smuggling operation for the CIA, you’re not going to be doing interviews in Newsweek or publishing an autobiography.”

If this all sounds a bit far fetched for your tastes, kindly hit pause right now and go familiarize yourself with Project MKUltra, a CIA mind control program which saw the US spy agency play a leading role in the proliferation of LSD, including testing the powerful psychedelic on unwitting prisoners, military personnel, fellow agents, and even an entire village in France.

Hashish Oil and Orange Sunshine

While the strange tale of Ronald Hadley Stark—apparent inventor of “hashish oil”—presents a rabbit hole with no bottom, the incredible story of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love itself has actually been very well documented in two books (The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, 1984 and Orange Sunshine, 2010) and in two documentaries (Orange Sunshine, 2016 and The Sunshine Makers, 2017).

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Naturally, trying to discern fact from myth from hallucination in a tale of free-love surfers turned social and political revolutionaries involves parsing through some wildly divergent accounts, but there is a central fact-based narrative on which all agree.

To catch you up to speed, here’s a few highlights from the Brotherhood’s entry in Leafly’s list of 5 Cannabis Smugglers Who Changed the Game:

“Sometimes called “the Hippie Mafia” and best remembered for distributing copious amounts of a particularly pure batch of LSD known as Orange Sunshine, The Brotherhood of Eternal Love were among the most prolific hashish smugglers of the 1970s.

Much of the LSD they distributed was given away for free as part of the Brotherhood’s mission to “turn on” the world, an altruistic consciousness raising program funded almost entirely by the organization’s extensive Afghan hashish smuggling operation, which involved stashing the product inside musical instruments, VW buses, and hollowed out surfboards. They were also early pioneers in making highly concentrated cannabis oil.

Before their wave crashed in 1972—when 57 members of the The Brotherhood were simultaneously arrested or indicted as part of a huge federal operation—they managed to produce and star in their own propaganda film (Rainbow Bridge featuring Jimi Hendrix), reportedly played a major role in the creation of legendary strain Maui Wowie, dropped 25,000 tabs of acid from an airplane onto one of their beach parties, and helped their spiritual and political inspiration Timothy Leary break out of prison.”

Any of the books or documentaries mentioned earlier can paint a much fuller picture of the Brotherhood’s wide-ranging operations, particularly their massive influence on LSD culture (see this Saturday Night Live video).

But let’s stay focused on how they invented dabs.

An Explosion in Kabul

The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s smuggling operations started up in Afghanistan at a time when the country was largely peaceful and the first influx of “hippie travelers” from the US and Europe were greeted with open arms.

The tradition of concentrating cannabis into hashish dates back more than a thousand years in the region, and The Brotherhood soon found that the cheap and plentiful hashish then available in Afghanistan fetched a premium once smuggled to Western markets, where high quality cannabis was still hard to find. But as the smuggling operation grew larger and more cumbersome, they came to the realization that further concentrating this hashish prior to export would make it a lot easier to move undetected across borders and overseas.

A People’s History of Cannabis Consumption

Here’s how that same Senate Committee described what happened next:

DEA agents: The brotherhood was not content merely to smuggle and market hashish. Under the guidance of one of its chief chemists [Ronald Hadley Stark], the brotherhood developed the manufacture of an even more potent product called marihuana or hashish oil. In the course of our investigation, six such hashish oil laboratories were seized…

The marihuana product resulting from their operation in some cases may have achieved a THC content of up to 90 percent.

J. G. Sourwine: Ninety percent purity is extremely high, is it not? 

DEA agents: That is right. In normal marihuana it would run 2 to 3 to 5 percent. . .

J. G. Sourwine: As an oil, you cannot get it much higher, can you?

DEA agents: I do not believe so. We have never seen it any higher.

The rest of the transcript offers a wealth of fascinating data. For example, the DEA estimated that a typical hashish oil lab run by the Brotherhood was relatively inexpensive to set up and could produce about three quarts of oil per day. Apparently the DEA didn’t catch wind of this new product until one of the Brotherhood’s facilities in Kabul exploded, attracting the attention of local authorities.

As part of the wide ranging investigation to follow, the US federal government eventually seized hashish oil labs located in the US, Afghanistan and Costa Rica, along with 30 gallons of hashish oil and approximately 6,000 pounds of solid hashish.

Of course, that’s only if you believe the official story.

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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