Smoking Concentrated Marijuana, Known as Dabbing, Is All the Rage

Smoking concentrated marijuana oil is exploding in popularity, with many cases nationwide of amateur chemists experiencing explosions in their homes. Manufacturing and use of the substance comes with risks not seen with "normal" pot: Scorched skin when using the red-hot smoking apparatus is inevitable, aficionados say.

Longtime marijuana advocates and High Times magazine have expressed concern, noting that contaminants in the product are hazardous and that some smokers — especially novices — may pass out after taking a hit.

Explosions, blowtorches, super-intense highs, interstate smuggling: The negatives have been adding up, and pro-legalization activists fear a backlash that could damage their cause.

Yet dabbing, the current name for the activity that became widespread only in the past few years, isn't a fad that will pass anytime soon. It's replacing typical marijuana smoking for an increasing number of medical and recreational users.

In Colorado, where marijuana is legal under state law for adults 21 and older, concentrates have skyrocketed in popularity at state-regulated stores. Extracts can account for about 40 percent of sales at California dispensaries, New Times' sister paper the LA Weekly reported this month.

The sale of concentrates at state-authorized dispensaries in Arizona seems poised for exponential growth because of a recent ruling by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper. County Attorney Bill Montgomery and other prosecutors have warned that Arizona law prohibits extracts even when sold or used under 2010's voter-approved Medical Marijuana Act, but Cooper declared in a March 21 ruling that the act "authorizes qualifying patients to use extracts, including CBD oil, prepared from the marijuana plant."

The court case in question was a lawsuit by the family of Zander Welton, an East Valley boy whose seizures have been lessened by the use of marijuana concentrates, which he takes orally. Cooper's lawsuit, however, affects all the state's 45,000 registered medical-marijuana patients, and certainly a portion of them prefer concentrates if given a choice. Some state-authorized dispensaries already sell such concentrates as hash oil, sources say. Others may do so in the aftermath of Cooper's ruling, although some businesses are waiting to see whether authorities appeal.

Learning about dabbing requires a new vocabulary: The substance to be dabbed simply may be called "dabs." Or it may go by "earwax," "shatter," or "BHO (butane hash oil)," depending on how it's made. A bong becomes a "dabbing rig," the flat bowl a "skillet." A drop of gooey oil or chunky solid matter is vaporized by placing it onto the red-hot skillet with a "nail," a small rod sometimes made of glass or titanium.

Like in regular marijuana, the active ingredient in dabbing is THC, although oil is much more potent. Users say the effect is a familiar THC buzz, but one that's much more intense.

"I hate to be slang about it, but it's the good stuff," says Dr. Jeff Hergenrather, a physician and president of California-based Society of Cannabis Clinicians.

It'll cost extra money to upgrade to marijuana 2.0, though. Users will need to buy new paraphernalia and a mini-blowtorch or heating element, and they'll pay a premium price for the new product. Hergenrather and two dabbers interviewed by New Times say users quickly build up a tolerance to the extra THC, making it tougher for "frequent fliers" (a.k.a. addicts) to switch back to the cheaper option of smoking plain pot.

Yet because dabbing requires less matter, users don't need as much to achieve the desired result. Bona fide patients may be better-served by concentrates, including those used in dabbing, because higher doses of THC and supposedly therapeutic compounds, like cannabidiol, enter the bloodstream rapidly.

"Medicinally, somebody with severe pain might find that a nice way to administer cannabis," Hergenrather says, adding that some drug addicts find it a good substitute for opiates.

Phoenix's Christina Anderson-Roedel swears by dabbing as a way to treat her multiple ailments. The registered medical-marijuana patient and unemployed single mother of three children says she has been diagnosed with several maladies, including bladder and breast cancer.

She began dabbing a couple of years ago, and in just the first week, she says, "I quit 14 prescriptions I was taking on a daily basis after six straight years."

One aspect of her use of dabs was undeniable: After two large hits of what she said was butane hash oil obtained from a friend who had grown and made the stuff himself, the young mother coughed a few times but did not appear to suffer from an intense head rush or seem to be extremely buzzed. That is, she continued to answer questions in roughly the same manner as before smoking, albeit with a few more giggles.

In some of the most dramatic dabbing reports, users have fainted and struck their heads after taking a hit. Anderson-Roedel, a believer in the healing qualities of marijuana, says her first few dabs were very intense but that the effect is minimized with regular use.

She bought a one-gram chunk of blond, hash-like material for $45 the afternoon of New Times' visit. It was made from several ounces of "trim," the "crappy part of the plant," she says.

Her friend used an extraction method in which the plant material is placed in a canister and flooded with butane. A viscous fluid is pumped out onto a hot plate. The butane evaporates, leaving a residue that is then strained and processed further. It can remain a pasty oil or be hardened to resemble hashish.

A similar process is used by the kitchens of commercial dispensaries to make hash oil, as described in New Times' October 10 article about edible concentrates ("Half-Baked"). Carbon dioxide can be used instead of butane.

The process is similar to making olive oil. But amateurs and even some commercial operations may put out unclean dabs.

Hergenrather, an emergency-medicine doctor for 26 years before moving into cannabis consulting 15 years ago, says dabbers may take in more contaminants than they realize. Butane, benzene, and other harmful chemicals may remain in hash oil after processing, and those could be especially harmful to patients with sensitive medical conditions. This problem could outweigh the benefits, although Hergenrather is hesitant to criticize dabbing too much, saying it "is just pot, in the end, and not a scary drug to experience in small doses."

Still, dabbing is reminiscent of cocaine freebasing, with its specialized equipment and recurring news stories about fires. Usually, fires occur during the oil-making process when highly flammable butane is ignited, sometimes by someone lighting a cigarette nearby. But careless dabbers can burn themselves badly, too.

In early January, a 29-year-old man trying to light a dab near gas pumps at a Tempe QuikTrip caused an explosion in his SUV. Police theorize that Bradly Brennan, a heroin addict who once served time for burglary, had several leaking cans of butane in his messy vehicle when he lit up. He suffered second- and third-degree burns to his neck, hands, and arms.

A police report doesn't say what happened to his dog, who ran away after a fireball blew out the SUV's back window. Brennan, who isn't a medicinal user, was charged with possession of narcotics.

A portable vaporizer would have been a better option for Brennan. Then again, igniting oil in a vehicle — with a dog in the car at a gas station — was never a good idea.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.