The Danger of Dabs
This really isn’t your father’s Woodstock Weed
By Russ Belville
The space shuttle is taking off inside my head.
At least, that’s what it sounds like in my headphones. I’m maintaining my gaze on Camera One and reading the script as best as I can. In my peripheral vision I can make out the familiar blue flame from the crème brûlée torch and the orange glow of the titanium nail. It almost matches the Boise State-colored windscreens on my microphone.
To my right my guest has used a dentist’s pick to roll up a dark brown dollop of resiny goo from a thimble-sized plastic container. He’s deftly holding that between the ring and middle fingers of his left hand while his left thumb and forefinger grasp a small rounded piece of glass. His right hand is wielding the torch, steadily directing the blue tip of the flame on the nail, which is a small piece of titanium shaped a bit like a golf tee. That nail is the mounted on an elaborate yet elegant water pipe by glass artist Sheldon Black.
As we go to commercial I mute the mics and the space shuttle in my head is silenced. I turn to give my guest the “hold off until commercial” speech but pause as I watch him effortlessly stop and set down the torch, drop the piece of glass over the nail, bring the Sheldon Black to his lips, drop the resin ball onto the nail, and inhale a deep percolating hit of silver-gray hash oil smoke evaporating off the orange-hot titanium.
“Want a dab, mate?” he finally manages to ask after a paroxysm of coughing. “A little dab’ll do ya!” I still have one hundred minutes left of the show to do, I explain while politely declining his offer. I wonder if my Limey friend was even alive to see those Brylcreem commercials or if they ever aired in England? (No and no. Thanks, Wikipedia! And marvel at the power of advertising when a 24-year-old Brit knows the tag line to a 1960’s American hair gel jingle.)
Dabs are exploding in popularity… literally!
‘Dabs’ is a term popular in the Western medical marijuana states to refer to the smoking of butane hash oil, also known as butane honey oil, or simply ‘BHO’. Medical marijuana patients like my British friend swear by it. “I can take a dab of oil in the morning and it will mediate my Crohn’s symptoms until the evening. If I had to get by on flowers I’d be puffing cones all day!”
‘Flowers’, by the way, is what the hash oil aficionados are now calling good old fashioned cannabis buds, also known as finely manicured sinsemilla, or simply ‘pot’. In my area, the price of those flowers has crashed to $5-$10 per gram, but the BHO prices are rising from $20-$30, even up to $40 per gram.
The ‘butane’ part of BHO refers to the solvent used to extract the cannabis resin from the plant. A large glass tube is packed with cannabis, usually the discarded ‘shake’ left from trimming the buds but, increasingly, actual bud is used, and liquid butane is forced through the tube. The butane strips the resins from the plant to collect in a container and then the butane evaporates away. What’s left is a very potent form of hash oil.
If you remember anything from chemistry about things that end in ‘-ane’ or have even refilled a lighter, you know that butane is an extremely flammable gas which can be stored as a liquid under great pressure. Those are the cans of lighter fluid refill you can buy in many stores. And if you’ve deduced that combining very stoned people with combustible materials is a recipe for disaster, I’m way ahead of you. On my show I’ve had to cover numerous headlines involving some explosion set off by an ignorant hash maker who works behind closed doors in unventilated spaces, blissfully unaware that butane is a heavier-than-air gas that likes to pool on the floor near pilot lights, switches, and discarded cigarette butts.
“I love my dabs and I love making BHO, but I’m getting tired of defending it,” says my show’s young co-host, evoking Chris Rock’s routine on misogynistic rap music. We’d just reported a story from Oregon about what the local media mistakenly called ‘cooking hashish’ (there is no flame or cooking involved in BHO.) “Just because some idiot blows up a motel room with his girlfriend and two-year-old inside because the dumbass doesn’t get the concept of ventilation, now everybody wants to hate on BHO. I don’t even use flowers anymore; they don’t touch my pain at all. And when I make BHO, it’s outside in the country and it’s safe and I know what the fuck I’m doing!”
Grabba Dabba Goo!
One talking point I’ve heard from opponents of marijuana legalization for years now is “This is Not Your Father’s Woodstock Weed!” The story varies, but basically they say the weed the Baby Boomers fondly remember was only 2% THC and the ‘chronic’ of today (or ‘skunk’ in the UK) is a bazillion percent stronger. It’s a bullshit story, since (a) ability to test for THC potency didn’t exist until the 1970’s, (b) 2% THC weed is what we call ‘hemp’, and (c) really potent weed has always been around and a lot of those Boomers smoked it. Just open their photo albums and listen to their music. Those fashions and tunes were not worn and sung by people stoned on 2% THC ditchweed.
But with the BHO, we do have something that is objectively much more potent than even the strongest Panama Red or Thai Stick from back in the day. As part of my job I have the privilege of reporting from backstage at the biggest pro-marijuana festivals on the West Coast. At every one at which there has been dabs of hash or hash oil, there has been at least one person (even experienced pot smokers) wilting like Scarlett O’Hara with a case of the vapors. And rarely do I see dabs not followed by intense coughing fits.
“It’s not that the hashish preparations are any more dangerous – it is the same non-toxic cannabis, after all,” says one marijuana researcher I interviewed. “But it is more potent, so bottom line, you don’t need to take these big lung-buster hits like you’re trying to win the ‘clear the bong’ contest.” I’m a bit confused – I understand BHO is as non-toxic as regular old pot, but pot doesn’t usually make me pass out and potentially smash my head on something. Doesn’t hacking cough and occasional fainting count as ‘more dangerous’?
A Nation of Dabbers
One segment of the new Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition” was entitled “A Nation of Drunkards”. It detailed how the second half of the 19th century saw a country of beer and cider drinkers increasingly turning to hard liquor. Drinkers still drank as much as often as culturally dictated, but they swapped 3%-10% alcohol for 30%-60% alcohol. The resulting public drunkenness and rise of saloon culture led to a few ‘temperance movements’ fueled by angry mothers and religious leaders. This moral crusade that tarnished all the responsible users of alcohol with the deplorable excesses of the few alcohol abusers culminated in national Prohibition that took thirteen corrupt violent hypocritical years to undo.
In the late 1970’s, acceptance of marijuana use was rising fast. From Nixon’s proclamation of the “War on Drugs” in 1971 to President Jimmy Carter calling for decriminalization of one ounce of marijuana for personal use before Congress in 1977, Gallup poll responses approving of legalization rose from 12% to 30%. But marijuana was linked with cocaine with the idea that both were just fun harmless party drugs. Covers and centerfolds of counterculture magazines featured lines of cocaine as well as purple crystalline cannabis buds. When cocaine lit up headlines with the tragic accidents of Richard Pryor, John Belushi, and Len Bias, along with the new super-potent (to the media) crack cocaine, support for marijuana legalization dropped back down to 16%.
Now we have a nation that has increasingly accepted cannabis. One third of national jurisdictions (16 states plus District of Columbia) have enacted medical cannabis laws. There is a good chance of more than one state placing a marijuana legalization initiative on the 2012 ballot. Will the BHO be the new whiskey driving an angry mothers’ temperance movement? Will dabs be the new crack cocaine that scares the hell out of Main Street?
One thing is for certain: dabs are tailor-made for scary news footage b-roll. Shortly after the exploding motel room incident here in Oregon there was another news story about the proliferation of ‘patient clubs’ (our word for ‘dispensary’, ‘co-op’, ‘MCC’, ‘collective’, whatever euphemism they call ‘money walks in and weed walks out’ in your state). In the story an activist on camera heats up a ‘skillet’ (flat piece of metal that does the same job as the titanium nail) using a Coleman-campstove-sized propane bottle with a torch attachment. With dabs your local action news team gets to do a marijuana story that shows crack pipe torches used on black sticky heroin-looking goo made from a process that blows up like meth labs.
The danger of dabs isn’t so much physical as it is a public relations nightmare. It’s only getting more popular, so reformers better begin strategizing on how to deal with the issue. It’s only a matter of time before “It’s Not Your Father’s Woodstock Weed” comes back with a vengeance.