Dabbing is an increasingly popular way to consume marijuana, with studies showing as many as 24% of youth in grades 10-12 have tried or regularly use the drug. Dabs, also known as wax, shatter, amber, honeycomb, and budder, are concentrated cannabis, typically made to concentrate high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. And while the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime shows that cannabis typically contains an average of 6% THC but as low as 1.5% and as high as 20%, cannabis extract used for dabbing contains 23.7-75.9% TCH. This means that a single dab could have the same THC concentration as 20+ joints, except condensed into a single dose and consumed all at once.
While dabbing is increasing in popularity, especially as the legal cannabis community promotes it as a safer way to consume cannabis without plant matter, some shops sell dabs with controlled THC content, and some sell CBD dabs, dabbing retains its risks. These relate to the quality of the drug, levels of THC, possible contaminants, and the present risk of developing chemical dependence and drug addiction.
What Are Dabs?
Dabs are a cannabis extract, typically made with butane or C02 extraction, concentrating THC or CBD into a thick waxy or gummy substance. In most cases, the result hardens over time, creating a crystalline, sticky substance commonly referred to as shatter or wax. This substance is broken off into tiny amounts, inserted into a pipe known as a “rig” or “nail” and heated to extreme temperatures. This process vaporizes the shatter, allowing the user to simply inhale it.
Proponents of dabbing claim that this process is better for the lungs because it contains less plant matter. And, it could be. Or not. There are very few clinical studies into dabbing, let alone testing the amount and/or quantity of plant matter inhaled.
Types of Dabs
Most dabs are made of cannabis extract, typically with THC. Some are made to extract CBD. Others attempt to extract and retain aromatic oils known as Terpenes, but these rarely survive the high-heat and high chemical process. There are 3 primary types of dabs:
Butane Hash Oil – Extracted using butane and high heat as a solvent to remove the plant matter. The THC binds to the butane to create a sticky mass.
Rosin – The THC is extracted using heat alone. This is the safest and likely the most chemical-free process, but also the least efficient.
C02 Oil – C02 is used as a solvent to remove plant matter. THC is leftover as a sticky mass.
Final products are available as a liquid oil, as a wax-like substance, or as a hard, breakable substance. There is no noticeable difference in quality or tested THC content between different types.
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How Dabbing Works
Dabs are placed into either a pipe or a special pipe known as a nail. These pipes are traditionally heated using a blowtorch, applying vast quantities of heat to vaporize the shatter. Today, some suppliers offer electric versions, typically sold as e-nails, to make the process safer. E-nails still heat to extreme temperatures, meaning that handling them without protection can still result in burns.
The vapor from the nail is inhaled directly, typically with about 40% efficiency in THC utilization. So, if a dab is 60% THC, the person inhaling gets about 40% of that all at once, in one massive dose. This is a stark contrast to smoking cannabis, where a dose of that size would be spread out over many hours at minimum.
Ideally, dabs are manufactured in a lab, with heat, ingredient, and quality control. This ensures that experts can control the THC quality and quantity, prevent most pollutants, and prevent issues such as contaminants in the oil, or residual pesticides. Unfortunately, the vast majority of dabs are made at home, typically by amateurs and are poorly quality controlled. The result is that many users experience toxicity and even poison symptoms after using dabs without quality control. One study showed that 80% of cannabis concentrates tested included pesticide solvents. Of course, these same pesticides would be present when smoking the same product before extraction.
Dabs are also inhaled at extremely high temperatures, resulting in potential for irritation and lung damage.
High Doses of THC
THC is a hallucinogenic compound. At small doses, like when smoking, most people rarely notice. Many people do experience hallucinations, extreme highs, rapid heartbeat, and extreme paranoia when dabbing. Most people are recommended to “titrate” the dose, so they only get about the same amount of THC as they would when smoking. Many people don’t use dabs in this way. Very high doses of THC can result in cardio and neuro problems, including heart attack, arrythmia, and symptoms resembling a stroke. Increased quantities of THC also mean increased psychotic effects, and more buildup in the system, which could result in increased psychotic issues and faster addiction. Unfortunately, the long term side effects of cannabis are not very well studied, and most studies rely on a few patients with symptoms.
Dabbing is most dangerous during manufacturing, because it involves using volatile chemicals and high heat. During butane extraction, the gas escapes from the extraction, meaning that even a tiny spark could result in an explosion. Similarly, C02 extraction is dangerous for amateurs.
Home-manufactured dabs are also poorer quality, with no control over THC content, no real way to test for contaminants, and no real way to gauge a dose. If you do use dabs, make sure you source them from a manufacturer with a lab and quality control in place.
Potential for Substance Dependence
Cannabis has a relatively low profile for abuse and addiction, but with millions of users, many people still become addicted. In most cases, 10-20% of daily users (smokers) will end up with a chemical dependency and an addiction. These rates are likely considerably higher for dabbing, because of the higher THC content. However, dabbing has largely been an underground and not very popular way to use cannabis up until the last few years. Therefore, there are very limited studies looking into addiction and dependence over consuming regular cannabis. If you or someone you know is using dabs, pay attention to usage patterns, behavior, whether or not substance use is harming any aspect social or work life, and control over that substance use. If someone isn’t in control, they likely have an addiction.
Dabbing is a relatively new way to consume cannabis. It has been around since the 1960s but has only recently reached mainstream popularity. While it offers potential to cut smoke from the product, dabbing greatly concentrates the dose of THC and, without extreme care, most users will consume significantly more than they would with smoking or vaping. This can exacerbate risks and make long-term control over substance intake more difficult. Dabbing also comes with its own risks, which are many, meaning it may not be a good idea to switch to dabbing because you’re concerned about vaping or smoking.
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, it’s important to get help. Dabbing delivers extremely high doses of THC making it more likely that chemical dependency and addiction will eventually occur. If so, there is help. Drug rehab offers behavioral therapy designed to help you recognize and solve the underlying problems behind addiction, to create new behaviors and patterns to replace addiction, and to resolve instances of stress and trauma. It also includes counseling, group therapy, and ongoing support and aftercare, designed to give you tools to rebuild a better life, where you don’t need drugs to live or be happy.