What You Need to Know About Dabbing
John C. Umhau, MD, MPH, CPE is board-certified in addiction medicine and preventative medicine. He is the medical director at Alcohol Recovery Medicine. For over 20 years Dr. Umhau was a senior clinical investigator at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
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.
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.Dabbing releases dangerous levels of THC into the body producing an extreme high, but the process is very dangerous. Find out why.
6 Health Risks Of Doing Dabs
Other than the traditional act of smoking marijuana, these days, users can vape, bake edibles, and use topicals or tonics to get high in states where THC consumption is legal. Body lotion and chapstick with cannabidiol (CBD) exist, too, to deliver purported relaxing effects without the high. But not all methods of getting stoned are as good as others. In fact, there are some that might be outright dangerous. Ever heard of dabbing?
Dabs are highly concentrated doses of cannabis, and they’re often made at home by by placing marijuana trimmings into a glass or metal pipe and blasting them with butane to extract THC from the plant. The result is a thick, sticky substance that resembles hardened candle wax. This substance, also called butane hash oil (BHO), is then smoked using a bong or pipe, giving an extremely potent high. Because of this high and the possible danger of extracting it, experts urge caution when creating and using dabs.
“The number one reason amongst users of dabs of why they prefer to regular marijuana inhalation is because it gives them a faster more intense euphoria or ‘high,'” Dr. Niket Sonpal, an internist, gastroenterologist, and adjunct assistant professor of clinical medicine at Touro College, tells Bustle. “It carries the same risks as smoking, only more pronounced, and the effects can happen quicker.”
Basically, dabbing carries a lot of health risks that potential users should know about before considering it.
1. You Could Severely Burn Yourself During The Extraction Process
The extraction process requires everyday folks to use butane, which is a highly volatile, unpredictable, and dangerous gas. A 2015 study about the health risks of dabbing published in the journal Pediatrics, found that it’s all too easy to obtain severe burns and injuries in the creation process. Butane can heat up the metal or glass used to extract THC so high that any body parts that come into contact with the materials can be burned in the blink of an eye.
“This can lead to other concerns besides the increased THC exposure, namely intense burns and even fires,” Dr. Sonpal says.
2. It Could Harm Other People As Well
Not only is the primary user subject to getting injured by using butane to turn marijuana into dabs, but they also run the risk of starting a fire. In November 2013, a man caused an explosion in his apartment building while using butane to extract dabs, and was ultimately sentenced to nine years in prison.
3. The High Is Extremely Powerful
To give you a sense of how strong dabs are, two nicknames for dabs are “shatter” and “pot on steroids.” Dr. Dustin Sulak, a licensed osteopathic physician in Maine who legally dispenses marijuana, told Healthline, “A single inhalation of concentrate delivers the THC and other cannabinoids equivalent to three to 10 inhalations of herbal cannabis, depending on the potency.” The danger lies in the fact that doing dabs slams your system with this concentrated high in one fell swoop.
4. It May Increase Your Tolerance To Marijuana
Dr. Sulak actually thinks that the potency of dabs is more of a concern than potentially blowing up your house during the extraction process. Dabs have such a strong dose of THC, administered so suddenly, that your body becomes accustomed to high levels of THC and your tolerance increases rapidly.
“This is because the cannabinoid receptors are saturated by the increased concentrations and thus your next intake will be more difficult to achieve the same high,” Dr. Sonpal says. “In other words, patients will need large amounts to feel any high at all and, even worse, they may fail to get high from herbal cannabis at all after your body gets used to dabs.”
5. You Might Experience Side Effects
You might also experience more of the potential side effects that come with THC and frequently getting high.
“Paranoia, psychosis, anxiety, and hallucinations are well-known side effects of inhaling weed,” Dr. Sonpal says. “Symptoms of vomiting can also occur and I have seen patients with cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS). It can occur with chronic marijuana use, and more specifically, after someone has quit. However, with dabs I have had patients who develop the withdrawal-like symptoms of CHS only after a short exposure.”
6. You May Be Unknowingly Ingesting Other Hazardous Chemicals
The equipment used for the extraction process may contain nasty ingredients that will eventually make their way into your system. For example, the metal in the rig utilized to make dabs could have rust and solder in it, which will inevitably end up in your BHO and into your body. Smoking these unknown chemical contaminants could cause health hazards, such as respiratory issues, in the future.
At the end of the day, dabbing can be risky. “The only true way to mitigate these effects is the avoidance of dabs,” Dr. Sonpal says, adding that more research needs to be done to full understand the effects of THC and other cannabinoids on the body. “When it comes to dabs, it is just simply too hard to moderate as the concentrations are very very high.” Moderation and safety is key, Dr. Sonpal says, which is sound advice no matter the activity.
Readers should note that the regulations and data surrounding marijuana, CBD, and other related products are still developing. As such, the information contained in this post should not be construed as medical or legal advice. Always consult with your doctor before trying any substance or supplement.
This post was originally published on August 3, 2016. It was updated on June 11, 2019.
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