When people hear the term “dabbing,” they might initially think of the dance move that is believed to have originated in the Atlanta rap scene and was later popularized by football star, Cam Newton, who made “the dab” his signature touchdown celebration. But the word dabbing also has a darker side.
In marijuana culture, dabbing refers to the dangerous process of consuming high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana. And yet despite the dangers associated with the practice, it is growing in popularity, especially among teens.
What Are Dabs?
Dabs—also referred to as wax, shatter, amber, honeycomb, or budder—are concentrated versions of butane hash oil (BHO) which contains highly-concentrated levels of THC. This concentrated substance is produced through a chemical process using butane oil to extract the oils from the cannabis.
Research suggests that dabs or BHO can have a THC concentration of 80% in comparison to traditional cannabis, which has a concentration of about 10-15% THC. In fact, at a minimum dabs are as much as four times as strong as a joint. Plus, people who dab experience an intense high all at once rather than it gradually building over time.
Dabs are made by pouring butane over marijuana. This process allows the THC to leave the marijuana plant and dissolve into the butane leaving a gummy, somewhat solid product that contains high amounts of THC.
Why Dabbing Is Dangerous
Although some people believe that dabbing is a safer method of ingesting cannabis because it is so highly concentrated and the user only has to take one hit to get high, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Simply put, there is no safe level of drug use. Any drug—regardless of its purpose—carries some risk. And, dabs are no exception.
Dabbing Is Not the Same as Smoking
In fact, one study found that dabbing can lead to higher tolerance and worse withdrawal symptoms. What’s more, it is dangerous for users to assume that dabbing carries the same risks as smoking marijuana. Instead, most researchers say that dabbing is to marijuana what crack is to cocaine. There is simply no comparison between dabbing and smoking joints.
Harmful Side Effects
Dabbing also includes a number of dangerous side effects like a rapid heartbeat, blackouts, crawling sensations on the skin, loss of consciousness, and psychotic symptoms such as paranoia and hallucinations.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by researchers at Portland State University, found that dabbing also may expose users to elevated levels of toxins including carcinogenic compounds. What the scientists found is that the higher the temperature the substance is exposed to, the more carcinogens, toxins, and potential irritants that are produced.
This fact, in turn, puts users at a greater risk than other methods of getting high because there is a challenge in controlling the nail temperature. As a result, people who dab are being exposed to harmful chemicals including methacrolein and benzene. Likewise, another study found that more than 80% of marijuana extracts are contaminated with poisonous solvents and pesticides.
Dangers of Production
Another danger with dabbing is the fact that making hash oil is one of the riskiest aspects of dabbing. Keep in mind that dabs are made by blasting butane (or lighter fluid) through the marijuana plant. It is highly flammable and unstable. So, adding heat to a substance like this is extremely dangerous.
What’s more, after the process has been completed, any remaining butane is now in the form of gas in the room. As a result, the smallest spark—even one produced by static electricity—can cause an explosion. The risks are similar to that of a meth lab.
Consequently, there have been increasing reports of houses, apartment buildings, and other structures exploding during the extraction process. When this happens, the people involved are either killed or become burn victims with broken bones who need skin grafts and reconstructive surgery.
A Word From Verywell
The bottom line is that dabbing is a potentially dangerous process that comes with real risks to a person’s health and overall well-being. It also is very appealing to teens and young adults.
For this reason, parents and educators need to talk to young people about the risks associated with dabbing while stressing that just one hit can not only put them at risk for lifelong addiction but also can kill them if they take in too much.
The Future of Cannabis
Circanna, a cannabis processor in one of the many unassuming warehouses in Sodo, feels like a mix between a craft brewery and the research department of a pharmaceutical company. A friendly pit bull mutt wanders around the front half of the building, where young office workers type away at desks. Behind a keypad-locked door sits Circanna’s lab, where technicians in blue jeans and lab coats quietly work next to humming stainless-steel lab equipment.
Andrew Sorkin, the owner of Circanna, gave me a tour of the facility and tried to convince me to stop asking questions about THC.
“THC is the least interesting part of the plant, and it contributes the least to your experience being unique,” Sorkin said. “The difference between an exhilarating and uplifting experience or a sedating and relaxing experience is the stuff besides the THC.”
Sorkin was speaking about the hundreds of other active chemicals in cannabis, including cannabinoids and terpenes. Cannabinoids, like THC, interact with receptors in our brains that can give them psychoactive properties. Terpenes are aromatic compounds created by all plants, and the ones in cannabis are thought to have a profound effect on how our brain’s cannabinoid receptors process THC.
Growers have been breeding cannabis to increase specific cannabinoids and terpenes for decades. Think of the high-CBD medical strains that won’t really get you high, or strains like Lemon Skunk, a heavy sativa bud that has such high limonene terpene content that it could easily be mistaken for smelling like fresh lemon zest. But it’s the world of concentrates that offers a future of manipulating what cannabinoids and terpenes we consume.
Labs like Sorkin’s—there are 75 across the state, according to 502 Data—use machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to extract and then refine all of those active chemicals, allowing them to separate specific compounds and make new ratios and combinations to create certain types of recreational highs or specific medical uses. The techniques behind these concentrates are still in the early stages—extraction specialists have been able to work legally for only the last two years—but the concentrate market is already being differentiated based on quality. Unfortunately, there’s little standardization of names or labels in the concentrate industry, making it harder for newer consumers to know which concentrates are better.
Go dab shopping and you’ll hear words like honeycomb, shatter, pull ‘n’ snap, Rick Simpson Oil, butane oil, CO2 wax, water hash, live resin, rosin, the clear, and hash oil, to name a few. An experienced budtender will be able to walk you through what is going on with each concentrate, but not all budtenders know the products they’re selling.
Concentrates, by definition, are heavily processed goods, so you should be shopping with as much knowledge as possible. Ask your budtender these basic questions to navigate through their selection. If they can’t answer them confidently, don’t buy their products.