The average marijuana bud one finds on the streets of Vancouver has a THC concentration in the neighbourhood of 25 percent. That’s a lot stronger than what people were smoking back in the ’60s, but it’s got nothing on the high that “dabbing” can deliver.
Dabbing, an old technique that’s seeing a surge in popularity, involves smoking cannabis products with THC concentrations above 90 percent.
“When you take it to that level, there can be heart palpitations—it’s very, very strong,” said Terry Roycroft, CEO of Medicinal Cannabis Resource Centre Inc. “It’s certainly not for everybody. When it comes to extractions, we’re talking about very heavy recreational use and, for very knowledgeable people, using it for medical reasons.”
Despite a need for caution, Roycroft noted that most dispensaries in Vancouver—of which the Vancouver Police Department reports there are now about 60—offer dab concentrates. He said they’re usually sold under the names budder, wax, sap (40 to 60 percent THC), shatter, and ultra shatter (94 percent or higher). (Other dispensary operators provided variations on these numbers.)
“I’ve seen the stuff around for two or three years, but it’s only been in the last year that we’ve seen it really explode, where everybody knows about it and where it’s mainstream,” Roycroft said. “The dried weed is still their [dispensaries’] main scenario, but all the extracts are coming up very, very quickly now.”
Adolfo Gonzalez is a senior consultant with Purely Medicinal, a supplier of cannabis products for Vancouver dispensaries. In a telephone interview, he explained the process that takes a cannabis bud to a THC concentration so high that only a dab is needed.
Cannabis is packed into a glass tube that then has liquid butane passed through it, he began. The butane pulls cannabinoid crystals off the buds. The butane is then boiled off the mixture and removed with a vacuum purging machine. What remains will be either a sappy or crystallized substance, depending on cannabinoid and terpene quantities as well as the skills of the cook. That substance is called budder (with a texture similar to lip balm), wax, sap, shatter (like brittle glass), or, if you’re in law enforcement, butane hash oil (BHO).
Butane’s role in the process has resulted in a few accidental explosions that have attracted negative media attention in the United States. In Vancouver, both the VPD and Providence Health Care (Saint Paul’s and Mount Saint Joseph hospitals) told the Straight they haven’t noticed dabbing-related incidents.
Another reason the practice is controversial is because the method of smoking it has more in common with crack or methamphetamine than it does with lighting a joint. A source of intense heat (such as a small blowtorch) is applied to a piece of glass or metal that is holding the drug. The user then inhales the vapour that results.
Stakeholders interviewed for this story attributed dabbing’s rise in popularity to a variety of factors: U.S. entrepreneurs are pushing every product they can after legalization; new tools designed for dabbing make the process easier than it once was; and it is simply a trendy thing to do.
Another possible reason, according to B.C. civil-liberties lawyer Kirk Tousaw, is that for medical-marijuana licence holders, it’s legal.
“In [April] 2012, we won a trial court decision allowing medical cannabis patients in British Columbia to possess concentrates,” he said. Tousaw noted that this ruling was appealed and the case is scheduled to enter the Supreme Court of Canada on March 20. But for the time being, Tousaw said, medical-marijuana licence holders are permitted to possess cannabis extracts.
Don Briere of Weeds Glass and Gifts—of which there are 14 franchised storefronts in Vancouver—described dabbing as “absolutely more popular”. But he emphasized that it’s nothing new, noting that his long-defunct Da Kine Smoke and Beverage Shop offered dabbing products to customers on Commercial Drive back in 2004.
Briere maintained that dabbing is appropriate for medical uses and, for many sick people, is preferable in that it does not involve inhaling the smoke, paper, and glue that come with a joint.
He compared the risks of overconsumption to doing the same with alcohol. “Who would be crazy enough to take an entire 40-pounder of Everclear or overproof rum and guzzle the whole thing?” Briere asked.
Gonzalez said that with higher THC concentrations there are valid concerns about addiction, though it remains unclear to what extent such risks differ from those of traditional marijuana consumption. “Approximately one out of 10 people that start using cannabis develops a habitual use of cannabis,” he said. “If we study dabbing, I suspect that number would be slightly higher.”
Gonzalez suggested the industry would benefit from a transition out of the legal grey area in which it presently resides in B.C.
“This, like any form of cannabis, should be regulated,” he said. “There should be standards and protocols and all of this in place.”