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
How Dabbing Works
Although marijuana is usually consumed by smoking joints and sometimes through vape pens, dabs are heated to an extremely high temperature and then inhaled. A specifically-designed glass bong commonly called an “oil rig” is used.
The dab is placed on an attached “nail” and a blow torch is used to heat the wax, which produces a vapor that can be inhaled. This type of ingestion means the effects of dabbing are felt immediately.
Many times people will dab by placing hash oil in vaping devices. Teens especially, use this method because it allows them to use hash oil with a very low chance that they will be caught because there is no smoke or distinct smell. Consequently, they often dab in public places, including at school.
Although the process of dabbing is not new, it is growing in popularity in the United States. Scientists attribute this growth to the commercial production of medical marijuana and the legalization of it in numerous states. Both of these factors have led to an increase in instructional videos online as well as a greater social media presence. Consequently, it is becoming more and more popular.
Is dabbing safe for medical marijuana patients?
There is evidence that dabbing may be harmful to one’s health. A 2017 study published by Portland State University found that dabbing at high temperatures clearly exposes the user to significant amounts of toxic byproducts, namely methacrolein and benzene, which are known human carcinogens and neurotoxins. This same study also points out that natural and artificial terpenes, which are often added to cannabis extracts for aromatic effect, have been shown to similarly become toxic at high temperatures.
Although more research is needed on the safety of cannabis extracts and dabbing, all dabs contain large amounts of THC and other cannabinoids, and due to the highly concentrated nature of these extracts, it is difficult to accurately measure how much THC one is consuming at a single time. When dabbing, it is also very easy for one to consume too much THC, which may result in an unpleasant or even overwhelming experience.
Excessive doses of cannabis will lead to development of tolerance which leads to further increased dose and can spiral into an expensive habit and physical dependence. Interestingly, we don’t see those sort of problems develop in patients who are on carefully controlled, low-dose (and yet effective) regimens.
Furthermore, since dabbing generally involves heating cannabis extracts with a blowtorch and a “nail” (the metal or glass platform that gets heated), there is always the risk of starting a fire or hurting oneself. Those who use cannabis extracts must exercise extreme caution so as not to accidentally burn themselves while dabbing or afterwards, when the surface of the nail is still hot.
Turning towards safer methods of cannabis consumption
Vaporizing cannabis flower is a far safer and more straightforward option than dabbing. Unlike dabs, it is safe and easy to vaporize cannabis flower: high-quality vaporizer devices are designed to efficiently heat cannabis flower, and many even automatically turn off to avoid injury or fire. Therefore, I generally do not recommend cannabis extracts to my patients. Instead, I would urge these patients to use a high-quality vaporizer device to safely and effectively consume cannabis flower.
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.