By Laura Stack
Around 2010, marijuana hash oil products appeared, and dispensaries began to carry early versions of budders, saps, and waxes. They weren’t common when voters voted to legalize recreational marijuana in Colorado in 2012. But by 2015, these new-fangled high-potency waxes and extracts started appearing in high schools. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment started tracking “dabbing” on its annual Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS). I’d never heard of concentrates and didn’t know a “dab” of marijuana from a dance move. In fact, it wasn’t for another two years until Johnny left for Colorado State University (CSU) that we found a “Nectar Collector” in his dorm room and said, “What is this stuff?”
However, the 2019 HKCS reported 10.2% of high school students are using dabs, and of those who admit to using marijuana, 52% report dabbing—a nearly 70% increase in only two years.
Have you ever heard of dabbing? No, not the hip-hop dance! “Dabs” are extracted concentrates of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the chemical (cannabinoid) in marijuana that makes users “high.” Here’s how dabs are made:
- Cannabis flowers are run through a solvent such as butane, ethanol, or propane.
- The THC leaves the plant material and dissolves into the solvent.
- The concentrated THC solution is filtered to remove (most of) the solvent and dried in a tray.
- The result is a sticky, bronze-colored oily substance that looks like beeswax or earwax.
- These can be additionally processed into distillates, which are more pure THC oils and extracts.
- Dabs are a chemical, not a plant, and they are highly potent, containing up to 99% THC.
- Dabs are typically heated on a hot surface with the vapors inhaled through a dab rig or dab pen.
Dabs are usually called by their consistency, such as shatter, wax, budder, crumble, live resin, or pull ’n snap. Many advocates, usually in states like Colorado and Nevada where recreational marijuana use is legal, defend dabbing as no worse than smoking pot. But they’re full of it. Dabbing carries a lot more risk for mental illness and addiction than smoking. And its levels of THC aren’t regulated or restricted.
Dabbing isn’t the only way high-potency marijuana is delivered. There’s also:
- Smoking – This refers to the dried flowers of the marijuana plant. In practice, it could include seeds, bits of stems, and shredded leaves as well. Users often refer to any cannabis plant matter by the catch-all terms flower, herb, bud, or grass. Until the 1990s, THC potency in herb averaged 3-5%; now, it varies between about 12-25%, depending on the cannabis strain, with an average of 15.6% in 2018.[i] Growers continually increase herb potency through selective breeding, and they boast strains from 30-40% THC. It’s usually smoked using a pipe or a bong or rolled into a joint or a blunt.
- Eating (edibles such as candy and brownies) – Edibles are made either directly with the dried flower or with THC concentrates, so potency varies widely. In Colorado, one serving in an edible is measured in milligrams (mg) rather than percentages and is 10 mg per serving, but not all states are regulated. Be aware that one package (such as a candy bar) could contain 1,000 mg or more, so the serving size consumed is extremely important.
- Vaping (such as oil and distillates) – Users vape high-THC oil in a pen. Distillates go through extra refinement processes to remove additional compounds. Once the THC has been distilled, it is re-condensed, and the finished product can be anywhere from 15% to 99% pure THC. Distillates like these are usually vaporized, but users also put them under the tongue, dab them, smoke them, ingest them in a capsule, or infuse them into an edible.
- Other products (such as THC-infused soda, tampons, suppositories, toothpicks, etc.) The pot industry has created countless ways to get THC into the body through any opening.
What you really need to know is this – even today’s more potent marijuana plants contain 28% THC[ii] or higher (with one grower boasting over 40%), while the weed we rolled in the ’70s and ’80s was 2-5% THC. Dabs, on the other hand, are more than three times more potent than the strongest marijuana plant. A dab is no longer a plant. Dabs aren’t natural; they are CHEMICALS.
Dab is to marijuana what crack is to cocaine. Depending on potency, one dab is like smoking three to five joints at once. So, for example, an edible brownie contains one serving of THC which is 10 milligrams. If you have a variant like shatter that is 65% THC, one gram is actually 650 milligrams of THC!
The write-up on a bag of “Scooby Snacks Shatter” reads, “There may be long term physical or mental health risks from use of marijuana including additional risks for women who are or may become pregnant or are breastfeeding. Use of marijuana may impair your ability to drive a car or operate machinery. This product was produced without regulatory oversight for health, safety or efficacy. This product complies with testing requirements. This packaging is child resistant. This product is intended to be inhaled.”
In addition to no regulatory oversight, here’s what’s worse – dabbing has become popular among young people. Many kids start dabbing by age 14. Most of the time, their parents don’t have a clue. You see, dab vapor doesn’t have the skunky smell most marijuana smoke has. It may not even have a scent at all, so kids can do it behind their parents’ backs at home and their teachers’ backs in school. Vaping THC doesn’t always make your breath stink in the same way tobacco and grass do, so they don’t have to be quite as sneaky. Vaping devices can look just like nicotine vaping devices, so check the cartridges. They may tell you they are “just vaping,” but be aware they could be vaping THC. “Vaping” can refer to nicotine or THC while dabbing is only marijuana.
Maybe you think young users are just being typical teens. Maybe you think marijuana is harmless because it’s legal. Maybe you think your child is getting straight As, so marijuana can’t be affecting him or that it’s not your kid because you go to church. Well, I used to think all of that, too.
However, until the mid-to-late 20s, a person’s brain is still developing,[iv] and intoxicants can damage brain development. Hence, one reason why 21 is the legal age for alcohol, pot, and cigarettes (except “medical” marijuana when the legal age is 18 and an oxymoron) is because people don’t actually get a prescription. It’s recommended “off label.” But numerous medical studies show dabbing can slow mental development and cause depression[v] as well as trigger schizophrenia.[vi] And these mental illnesses can lead to suicide.[vii]
Johnny only realized that connection weeks before his death. It was too late for him, but it’s not too late for the young people in your life.
[i] National Institute on Drug Abuse. Marijuana Potency. 8 July 2020, www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/marijuana/marijuana-potency.
[ii] Stuyt, Elizabeth. “The Problem with the Current High Potency THC Marijuana from the Perspective of an Addiction Psychiatrist.” Missouri Medicine, vol. 115,6 (2018): 482-486.
[iv] Gogtay, Nitin, et al. “Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through early adulthood.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 101,21 (2004): 8174-9. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0402680101.
[v] NIDA. “What are marijuana’s long-term effects on the brain?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 8 Apr. 2020, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/what-are-marijuanas-long-term-effects-brain. Accessed 13 Mar. 2021.
[vi] Di Forti, Marta, et al. “Daily use, especially of high-potency cannabis, drives the earlier onset of psychosis in cannabis users.” Schizophrenia bulletin vol. 40,6 (2014): 1509-17. DOI: 10.1093/schbul/sbt181.
[vii] Price, Ceri, et al. “Cannabis and suicide: longitudinal study.” The British Journal of Psychiatry: the Journal of Mental Science, vol. 195,6 (2009): 492-7. DOI: 10.1192/bjp.bp.109.065227.