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.
Dabbing 101: What is cannabis dabbing and how do dabs work?
D abs are concentrated doses of cannabis that are made by extracting THC and other cannabinoids using a solvent like butane or carbon dioxide, resulting in sticky oils. Depending on their consistency, these marijuana concentrates are also commonly referred to as wax, shatter, budder, and butane hash oil (BHO). Marijuana wax and other dabs are typically heated on a hot surface, usually a nail, and then inhaled through a dab rig. Smoking dabs as a method of consumption has been around for at least a decade, but the advent of more advanced extraction methods have led to a flood of cannabis concentrates that have boosted dabbing’s popularity.
While it’s possible to extract non-intoxicating compounds like CBD, THC is what’s behind the potent effects of marijuana wax and other forms of dabs, making them the fastest and most efficient way to get really, really stoned. Terpenes, or the aromatic oils that give cannabis flavor, can also be extracted, although it can be difficult to preserve these volatile compounds in the extraction process.
What are the perceived dangers of dabbing?
Let’s start with the bad news first: dabbing can be dangerous. Mainly, it’s the extraction that can be dangerous. The process can be tricky, but thanks to online forums and videos, many amateur “scientists” think they have mastered the technique enough to try it on their own. Worst case scenario, a combination of flammable gases and poor ventilation can result in explosion. Even when home extraction goes well, there’s no way to know the quality or purity of your finished product. “Dirty” oil may contain chemical contaminants or excessive amounts of residual solvents that could present health hazards to consumers.
Eliminating these production issues typically requires:
- Lab testing (to measure the purity and potency of concentrates)
- High-grade solvents
- Closed loop extraction equipment (to prevent accidents)
- Trained extraction professionals
But is dabbing cannabis extracts dangerous from a consumer standpoint? It can be, but dabbing safely is easy with the proper precautions.
Many new dabbers investing in their first setup will take the inexpensive route and purchase the bare minimum: a nail attachment and a handheld blow torch. To the uninitiated, heating a metal or glass nail with a tiny flamethrower may look fundamentally dangerous. However, the demand for torch-less methods of dabbing marijuana has given rise to products like electronic nails (enails). These tools eliminate the torch and offer precise temperature control for consumers dabbing cannabis concentrates like marijuana wax, shatter, and oil.
Can you overdose on dabs?
One factor all unseasoned dabbers should consider is the potency of THC extracts. Cannabis extracts often test between 60-90% THC, which means it doesn’t take much to become profoundly high. Exceed your personal limit and you may find the effects to be uncomfortable and overwhelmingly intense. And while it’s impossible to die from a cannabis overdose, it’s never a bad idea to start with a small dab of cannabis concentrate to ensure a positive and comfortable experience.
Lastly, it’s important to note that the long-term effects of dabbing cannabis wax and other concentrates are not well-known. Until research thoroughly examines the long-term risks of dabbed extracts (with individual consideration of residual solvents, pesticides, and cannabinoids), it’s not possible to characterize any dangers associated with prolonged use.
What are the benefits of dabbing?
When done safely with clean, tested products, patients and adult consumers find several advantages to dabbing as a delivery method, primarily in its swift onset and powerful effects. Patients dealing with severe or chronic pain or extreme nausea report that dabbing cannabis concentrates can be one of the best ways to get immediate and effective relief. However, you’d likely be hard-pressed finding a doctor who recommends dabbing as the first course of action.
Cannabis extracts that have been properly manufactured can also present consumers with a clean, pure product that’s easier on the lungs. When smoking cannabis, burned plant matter produces resin and hot smoke, but extracts eliminate most of this unwanted material while still delivering essential cannabinoids and other compounds like terpenes.
Another commonly overlooked benefit of dabbing marijuana wax and similar cannabis concentrates is the scientific and technological curiosity it has helped spur in recent years. The rise of dabbing has coincided with a boom in extraction and consumption technologies: cannabis distillates, terpene infusion, hi-tech dabbing tools, oil cartridges, full-spectrum extraction–and the list goes on. While not everyone will come to embrace dabbing as a method of consumption, the enthusiasm around cannabis wax and other extracts that has cropped up recently has pushed the limits of innovation within the industry as a whole.
One of the more surprising side effects of the dabbing trend is that it has created an interest in activism in the community’s younger members. Most popular among consumers in their twenties, extracts are under the same legislative crackdown as other forms of cannabis, and more activists are starting to get involved.
While dabbing may still be experiencing some growing pains, overall, concentrates have much to offer patients and cannabis consumers in the future, and dabs are just one option among many.
Learn all about dabbing, including what cannabis dabs are and how they're made. Plus, find out how dabs might be good for the legalization movement.