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Cannabinoids on Steroids
A highly concentrated form of marijuana challenges the drug’s benign reputation.


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Betsy Woodruff

The organizers of this summer’s Hempfest in Seattle had to ban something that you might not expect to be a common item at a marijuana-themed festival: blowtorches. And despite that effort, people still showed up with them. Blowtorches are used for dabbing, which is a newish way of getting high that’s becoming increasingly popular, especially in states with some degree of marijuana legalization. It has some parents and doctors concerned, and it puts advocates of legal marijuana in a rather uncomfortable position. That’s because it gets you really high really fast, and sometimes people doing it blow up their houses.

If you’re not from Colorado, Washington, California, or Oregon, odds are you’re not familiar with dabbing. That’s because it’s most popular in the states with the loosest marijuana laws. Producing dabs — the technical term is “butane hash oil” — is a fairly complex process. The short version is that you extract resins from marijuana with liquid butane, then evaporate the butane to leave behind a highly concentrated form of THC. The residue usually weighs 10 to 20 percent of what the original marijuana did.

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You consume the resultant product, called dabs or BHO, by using a blowtorch and what’s called an oil rig to heat the concentrate until it smokes. Then you breathe the smoke in and get extremely high. (Here’s a YouTube video that gives a pretty straightforward explanation of how to do it. Thanks, Internet!)

“Isaac,” a black-market dealer based in a Denver suburb, tells National Review Online that people should use extreme caution when first dabbing: “Most people I know who try it for the first time don’t say much for about an hour and a half, two hours,” he says. “They just sit there — ‘Oh sh*t.’”

He adds that he’s seen people throw up and pass out when trying it, and that dabbing once is like smoking an entire eighth (1/8 ounce, or 3.5 grams) of marijuana. In general, he’s not a huge fan of the process.

“It’s less of a social thing,” he says. “It’s like you’re chewing on coca leaves or you’re doing cocaine. It’s kind of the same. You’re smoking a joint and you’re passing it around to your friends and having a good time, or you’re sitting in the corner with a torch.”

But from the perspective of those in the cannabis industry, the increasing popularity of dabbing is good news. If you’re in the black market, it’s a boon because BHO is much more compact, and thus easier to transport, than marijuana flowers (the usual form in which the drug is consumed). Isaac says he can mail the BHO derived from a quarter pound of marijuana — worth up to $1,500 — for about five bucks. Flowers are much more fragrant and take up more space, which makes them a lot more likely than concentrate to be noticed by postal workers. And if you get pulled over with ten grams or so in your car, Isaac says, you can just eat it without getting especially high. Problem solved!

Dabbing is also making a splash in the legal marijuana industry. Kayvan Khalatbari, who works as a consultant for marijuana businesses and owns a dispensary in Denver, tells National Review Online that concentrates are becoming a much bigger part of his market share than they were a few years ago: “It’s definitely a huge part of where this industry’s headed.”

And it’s lucrative. Producing the concentrates isn’t very expensive, and as demand has gone up, so have prices. Khalatbari says concentrates were selling for $5 to $15 a gram wholesale six months ago but now go for about $30. Retail prices of concentrates have gotten as high as $90 in the state. And naturally, it’s even pricier in places like Atlanta that are far outside the perimeter of states with lax marijuana laws. So a mail-order dabbing business can be very profitable. Isaac thinks that in ten years, half the marijuana consumed in this country will be through dabbing.

From a PR perspective, though, dabbing isn’t great for advocates of looser cannabis laws. For starters, some of the implements you can use to dab look a lot like crack pipes. There’s also the risk that you’ll inhale butane, which isn’t fantastic for your lungs. On top of that, there can be flashy accidents when the steps involved in producing and consuming dabs aren’t followed properly (houses blow up, people get third-degree burns all over their bodies, etc.). But Khalatbari argues that ugly accidents and health concerns make the case for a legal, highly regulated cannabis industry even more compelling. And Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project agrees.

“Ultimately, this underscores the benefits of regulating marijuana, because we can ensure people know how potent the product is that they’re getting,” he says. “If you walked into a liquor store and there was tequila and beer on the same shelf with no labels on them, it would be a problem.”

Not that that will comfort the folks who are already sounding the alarm about dabs. An organization called notMYkid has issued a “Parent Alert” on the subject, and news stories detailing doctors’ concerns are starting to crop up.

The bottom line? Regardless of varying state laws, dabbing is probably here to stay. And don’t expect those blowtorch prohibitions to go away anytime soon.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.



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