Dabbing made headlines this week when the journal Pediatrics published an article entitled “Assessing the Dangers of ‘Dabbing’: Mere Marijuana or Harmful New Trend?” (Stogner, et al. Pediatrics peds.2015-0454). Almost every news outlet has picked up the story and made hay of it. Unfortunately, what started out as a mere cautionary tale to pediatricians, albeit with a rather sensational title, has become another instance of Cannabis-related bogeymen. When the media uses sensational reporting and creates medical marijuana myths, it’s better to understand facts versus fiction.
What are “Dabs” or Concentrates?
Like any other slang term, dabs are used by people “in the know” within the marijuana user circles. And, like any other slang term, it gets picked up by those opposed to marijuana and used to suggest there’s something wrong.
Dabbing is just using marijuana concentrates, that’s all. As you know, the active ingredients of marijuana are lipophilic oils that are secreted in glands on the outside of the flower. Using organic solvents, like Butane, or CO2 or even ice water, these ingredients can be removed from the plant material. The solvent can then be removed and what’s left is highly concentrated extract. Depending on the purity of the concentrate the final product can be a gooey resin, a buttery semi-solid, or a brittle crystal (like sugar candy). It can be suspended in oil to be used in an e-cig like device as well.
Using dabs is easy. You heat up the element at the end of a pipe (bong) called a Nail (often made of ceramic or titanium because they’re inert) and a small amount (a dab) of concentrate is placed on the nail. It then vaporizes and is inhaled through the pipe. Heating the nail is done with the aforementioned torch, posing a similar level of risk of burns to smoking a cigarette. For the super-clumsy, there are now e-nails that use electronics to heat to just the right temperature, and avoid torches altogether.
Of course, with a highly concentrated form of marijuana you can use “too much” which, as many including Maureen Downey can attest, is no longer fun. You could “overdo it” with marijuana itself of course, and over doing it is not really a cause for concern, particularly since there’s no lethal level.
Why Use Concentrates Over Medical Marijuana? Are There Any Health Issues?
In many ways concentrates are the way of the future. In many of my articles you’ve read that I’m a big fan of inhalation of Cannabis medicine via vaporization. Vaporization uses lower heat to extract the medicinal agents from the plant without burning the plant material and exposing you to potentially harmful products of combustion.
Using concentrates is another way in which we can refine the product to avoid exposure to unintended agents in the plants, make the product easier to use and to transport, etc.
I do have some concerns about concentrates at this time in history, however. These concerns aren’t about concentrates themselves, but rather about the people and processes making them.
Unless you’re buying concentrates that are a professionally made and tested product, concentrates are largely home-brew. As I mentioned above, this is dangerous for the brewer as the solvents, particularly butane, can blow up and are toxic to breathe. I certainly don’t recommend that patients take on these processes at home!
For the patient, the issue with homebrewed concentrates is that the solvents used to manufacture them, particularly Butane, can have non-volatile contaminants like lead and arsenic. Because they’re non-volatile, these harmful contaminants will remain with and taint the concentrate, and aren’t safe to ingest. Both of these two particular elements will accumulate in the body over time and can cause medical problems and even death. While toxicity from these elements can be treated, let’s just not go there.
To recap: dabs are the same as concentrates and while concentrates do require some adjustment to a user’s approach, there is nothing inherently wrong with concentrates. In fact, when produced with appropriate quality control, concentrates provide significant advantage over whole flower marijuana. The risk is primarily from toxic contamination during manufacturing, which can be avoided by buying professionally made, and carefully tested products. If you have further questions about using Cannabis, it’s important to talk to your doctor about medical marijuana as well, before trying any untested methods or products. (If you’re just getting started, you should also take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with your legal rights as a Cannabis patient.)
To recap, dabbing is nothing special and nothing to worry about, but does contain some minor added element of danger. However, that danger comes to the user in the form of using a torch to heat a pipe. Likely if you can use a lighter, you can handle a kitchen torch.
There is also danger for the manufacturer in the form of risk of explosion while handling volatile solvents. While dabs can be made at home, and currently much of the supply is “homebrew,” it’s actually a complex industrial process that’s best left to professionals in a lab with the right equipment.
That’s it. That’s the take home message.
If you’re living with a serious medical condition, medical Cannabis may be able to help provide additional relief in conjunction with traditional treatment. To talk about whether you qualify for medical marijuana, call Dr. Tishler at (617) 477-8886.