What Are Dabs?
The umbrella term “dabs” (also “marijuana dabs” or “dab weed”) refers to various preparations of highly concentrated marijuana extract. Once the cannabinoid-rich base oil has been extracted from marijuana plant material, it can then be further processed into other forms, all of which can be called dabs. Quite appropriately, the method used to smoke dabs is known as “dabbing,” the details of which we’ll discuss in a later section.
The use of marijuana concentrate may not be new, but dabs are currently exploding in popularity—especially among teens and young adults.¹
What Is the Dab Drug Relation to Marijuana?
Although dabs are produced from marijuana plant matter, dabs are quite different from what we know as “weed.” In addition to the fact that they look nothing alike (weed looks like plant material, dabs look like processed resins and oils), the concentrated result of extraction gives dabs a significantly higher THC content than that of weed. The average THC content of marijuana plant matter is roughly 12-13%. In stark contrast, the average dab THC content can range anywhere from 50-80%.¹
As marijuana concentrates, dabs do have similar effects and risks to those of weed. For young users especially, marijuana and its derivatives can have lasting negative effects on their still-developing brains.
Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that heavy marijuana use during one’s teen years can lead to a major drop in mental ability. On average, those who used marijuana a lot in their teens saw a drop of 8 IQ points over time.² Although this study focused on smoking marijuana, dabbing may well have the same effects.
Types of Dabs
Different processes can produce different types of dabs. Five of the most common forms are shatter, budder, oil, live resin, and wax. Despite their differences, all of them are high risk in terms of production accidents and health effects. Because all of these forms involve the use of heat and solvents like butane, production always poses a very real possibility of explosion and severe burns.
- What it is: The oily base extract of marijuana, often referred to as Butane Hash Oil (BHO) or Honey Oil. Usually yellow/amber in color, it sometimes develops crystals for a chunky appearance.
- How it’s usually made:Solvent extraction is performed by adding liquid butane gas as a solvent to dried or cured marijuana plant matter. Heat and vacuum pressure are then carefully applied to remove the remaining butane without changing the liquid consistency of the extract.
- What it is: A glassy, solid concentrate with an amber or honey color. As the name implies, it is often brittle and shatters easily.
- How it’s usually made: Solvent extraction is performed on dried or cured marijuana and the resulting oil is heated at temperatures around 90–100° F in a vacuum oven to purge excess butane.³ The temperature at which this purging occurs is the key to its glassy, solid appearance.
- What it is: A smooth, usually golden-colored substance with the consistency of very soft butter.
- How it’s usually made: Solvent extraction is performed on dried or cured marijuana and the resulting oil is whipped during heating to create a creamy, fluffy texture.
- What it is: A yellowish, semi-solid substance with the consistency of wax.
- How it’s usually made: Solvent extraction is performed on dried or cured marijuana and the resulting oil is purged of butane using a vacuum pump and little to no heat. Heat is kept low, and the product may be whipped to produce a thicker consistency without it turning into shatter or budder.
- What it is: A viscous, honey-colored substance that is considered to be more aromatic than other types of dabs.
- How it’s usually made: Extraction is performed on fresh, frozen marijuana plant matter using either butane or carbon dioxide as a solvent. The resulting extract is similar to BHO, but is more sap-like and can be especially concentrated.
Dabbing Methods and Equipment
Unlike traditional means of smoking marijuana, smoking dabs involves inhaling vapor produced by heating the dab substance. This is generally done using a dabbing “rig” or vaporizer.
A rig is a specialized water pipe in which dabs are heated, producing a vapor that can be inhaled through a mouthpiece. An oil rig is a simple pipe that uses a heated nail (usually made from glass, titanium, or quartz) to press into and heat the dab substance. An atom bomb rig, on the other hand, uses a battery-powered heating element.
Hand-held vape pens or “dab pens” are battery-powered products that contain an atomizing chamber in which the vapor is produced. Some vaporizers are limited to commercial vape oils, but others allow users to dab with any substance.
Dab Drug Risks: Explosions, Burns, Health Damage, and More
The idea that inhaling vapor through dabbing is risk-free due to a lack of smoke is a major misconception; in fact, both the production process and the inhalation of vapors can pose significant risks to users.
Making Dabs at Home Is Extremely Dangerous
One of the greatest risks of dabbing lies in trying to make dabs at home. Many young people especially fail to realize how dangerous the process and materials really are. If improperly handled, transported, or stored, liquid butane poses risks like an explosion, fire, severe burns, and asphyxiation. Errors in the chemistry of the process can also lead to unexpected reactions and injuries.
There have been numerous reported cases of people (and pets) being seriously hurt during marijuana processing, including the following:
- In 2013, two New York teenagers were attempting to make wax dabs when one of them lit a cigarette and the butane exploded. Their upper bodies and hands were left with second- and third-degree burns. On top of their injuries, the two also faced several criminal charges as a result, including reckless endangerment due to the explosion’s potential risk to others.⁴
- In 2016, a number of people were injured and two animals were killed in a marijuana lab explosion in Glasgow, Scotland. A man was attempting to make shatter when the gas ignited, possibly from simply turning on a light.⁵
Serious Health Risks
If the butane is not purged sufficiently from the dab material during production, users are at risk of inhaling significant amounts of butane gas while dabbing, exposing them to additional health risks like irregular heartbeat, confusion, headaches, nausea, muscle weakness, abdominal pain and disturbing hallucinations.⁶
Any chemical used during processing could contaminate the final product, especially when people are producing dabs at home and are not able to ensure a “clean” result. Research published in the Journal of Toxicological Science found that as many as 80% of cannabis concentrate samples showed contamination from remaining solvents or pesticides used in production.⁷ These other chemicals can pose their own additional health risks.
The dangers of dabs themselves are varied but serious, including paranoia, hallucinations, psychosis, rapid heart rate, blackouts, and more.⁸ Tolerance builds quickly with these concentrated substances, leading users to higher and more dangerous doses at a much faster rate than other types of cannabis use. The fast, powerful high of dabs can also lead highly intoxicated individuals to make life-threatening decisions or behave recklessly.
It’s difficult to define how much is “too much” because the actual content and concentration of a given dab can vary so much. So many factors are involved—your personal tolerance limits, the concentration of the dab, the identity and concentration of any unknown chemicals in the dab, etc.—that it’s like playing Russian Roulette every time.
Learn More About Addiction and Explore Recovery Options
An addiction to dabs or other illicit substances can have a devastating impact on all areas of your life. As the drug becomes the all-important center of your life, your goals, relationships, physical health, and psychological stability are all at risk of serious, sometimes irreversible harm. At Yellowstone Recovery in Southern California, we can help you avoid or reverse these risks before it’s too late.
If you’re struggling with an addiction or are concerned that a loved one might be using dabs, call Yellowstone Recovery at (888) 418-4188 to discuss your options.
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