The legalization of medical and even recreational marijuana in some states has given rise to a sort of “I told you so” attitude among some users.
It comes from the long-held view of many marijuana smokers that pot is neither deadly nor addictive.
But now, the emergence of “dabbers” — people who smoke a highly concentrated form of marijuana culled during a sometimes explosive production process — is giving marijuana a bad name.
From coast to coast, homes are bursting into flames during the manufacture of butane hash oil, or BHO, used in dabbing. And while some people say dabbing provides medicinal relief, stories of users ending up so high they land in emergency rooms have become viral internet fodder.
High schoolers have found ways to conceal the waxy BHO by placing it in Carmex lip balm containers and taking it to school. After placing a dab into an e-cigarette, teens take a puff, hallucinate, and sometimes even pass out. Videos of young adults having strange trips while dabbing abound on YouTube.
“This is pot on steroids,” said Kevin Winslow, director of the Quad-City Metropolitan Enforcement Group (MEG), in an interview with Healthline.
MEG is a bi-state drug enforcement agency comprised of law enforcement officers from Rock Island County in Illinois and Scott County in Iowa. Even in this community of less than half a million people, dabbing stories have become increasingly commonplace and are very much on MEG’s radar, Winslow said.
Soon, BHO may be manufactured and obtained legally in Illinois under its medical cannabis law, Winslow said. This is despite the fact that Illinois has adopted one of the more restrictive medicinal marijuana laws in the United States.
“It’s all going to go eventually into the wrong hands,” Winslow said. “Sick people are not smoking dabs.”
From Smoking Ditchweed To Dabbing
The idea of pot as a harmless plant with side effects no more dangerous than the munchies is dated, Winslow said. Today’s marijuana isn’t the ditchweed that Cheech and Chong used to talk about.
With the advent of medicinal marijuana, today’s users demand a better strain of bud. The Mexican drug cartels are replacing their marijuana fields with poppies because they can’t compete with the powerful marijuana strains made in modern U.S. laboratories.
THC is the part of marijuana that makes people “high,” although it is also considered to have some medicinal uses. While people smoking standard marijuana may inhale THC levels of about 10 to 15 percent, those concentrations can skyrocket to 90 percent when dabbing.
Even Tommy Chong has commented on the hazards of dabbing, comparing it to “freebasing” marijuana. “When you have Cheech or Chong telling you it’s too intense…” Winslow said with a chuckle. “It’s not hippies doing this. They just wanted to mellow out, just chill.”
And while marijuana advocates hate seeing dabs compared to meth — exploding homes and all — it has become a big problem for law enforcement.
Winslow explained the dab-making process like this: A tube resembling a turkey baster is filled with cannabis, and butane is jammed inside. The crystals on the high-quality buds freeze and drop off, essentially creating tiny teardrops packed with highly potent THC.
It all has to be cooked down to remove the butane. In the process, gas pools. A spark from an outlet, or even an amateur manufacturer lighting up, can have explosive consequences.
Through several additional steps, the end result is the oil or waxy substance BHO, called dabs. Just as the name implies, “a little dab will do you.” It can also quickly get a person hooked.
Is This Evidence Pot Is a ‘Gateway Drug?’
Dr. Dustin Sulak is a licensed osteopathic physician in Maine who legally dispenses marijuana. He is a diplomat of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine.
In an interview with Healthline, he described the dabbing culture as becoming more popular “amongst illicit cannabis users in all walks of life.”
He described the power of dabs in plain talk.
“A single inhalation of concentrate delivers the THC and other cannabinoids equivalent to three to 10 inhalations of herbal cannabis, depending on the potency,” he said. “This increased dosage delivered with rapid onset produces a stronger euphoric feeling than, for example, taking the time to smoke an entire joint.”
So while dabbing may blow up a kitchen here and there, Sulak says potency is a bigger problem.
“The higher dose is also more likely to cause users to develop tolerance, quickly requiring a larger dose to get the same effects,” he said. “For many dab users, smoking herbal cannabis will no longer produce the desired effect.”
Is this more proof that pot is a so-called ‘gateway drug?’ Not really.
Sulak and others interviewed for this story said kids often try cannabis first because among their peers it is considered safe, socially acceptable, and available. Sulak cited a comprehensive 2002 review by the RAND Drug Policy and Research Center that showed data suggesting the gateway theory could be readily explained by non-gateway models.
“A more recent 2008 study in Development and Psychopathology that looked at 510 pairs of twins found that genetics were more responsible than a gateway effect for progressing from cannabis on to harder drugs,” Sulak said. “We’ll never answer this questions using a controlled study because that would be unethical, but the large volumes of epidemiological data do not strongly support the gateway theory.”
As the legalization of cannabis dries up the illegal drug trade, there will be fewer dealers to sell the drug to those under age. Therefore, the availability of marijuana to teens should also diminish, Sulak said. Any gateway effect that exists now would likewise begin to disappear.
The same goes for exploding houses. Those who medically need the THC and cannabinoid levels that dabbing provides will be able to get it in states where it is produced in controlled environments.
“In my practice, I have occasionally seen dabbing provide better relief to patients,” Sulak said. “For example, migraine patients often find that taking a large dose of rapid onset cannabis at the earliest signs of a headache will enable them to prevent the whole episode.”
The Takeaway? Be Honest With Kids About Pot
Joe Schrank founded TheFix.com, a popular website for alcoholics and drug addicts, recovering and otherwise. Its slogan is “Addiction and Recovery, Straight Up.”
Schrank is no longer involved with the site. He works as a social worker and founded Loft 107, a sober living facility in the heart of Brooklyn that does not turn anyone away.
Approaching two decades sober, he maintains honesty is always the way to go when educating people about drugs and alcohol.
“The correct level of intoxication is zero, dabbing, vaping, drinking … There is no safe level, there should be no intoxication of anything,” Schrank said in an interview with Healthline. “[Kids’] brains are like Jell-O that hasn’t set yet.”
But in the process of conveying that important message, demonizing one substance over another is a bad idea.
“Teens always are going to find a way to intoxicate themselves regardless,” he said, ticking off recent fads that included eating gummi bears doused in vodka.
Dr. Walter Thomas, medical director of The Discovery House residential inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center in Los Angeles, told Healthline that any time someone gets swept up in the drug culture, the chances of substance abuse increase, especially for those genetically inclined to addiction.
Thomas stressed that dabbing is far more dangerous than smoking marijuana.
“The intense high can make people actually lose consciousness, with all the unintended consequences that presents,” he said.
With children, it can be especially hazardous.
Sulak told Healthline that as America begins to get to know marijuana, children must be introduced to it carefully and in the proper context.
“In my practice I treat children with cancer, autism, seizures, spasticity, and other serious conditions, and cannabis has been a lifesaver for many of them,” said Sulak. “Recreational cannabis use should ideally be postponed until 18 years of age, in my opinion, and should be introduced in the context of a good role model able to demonstrate responsible use.”