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Dabs are a popular way of consuming marijuana concentrates, but are they good or bad for your health?

The practice of smoking marijuana concentrates known as “dabs” or “dabbing” has been around since the early 2000s. In recent years, it has seen a significant rise in popularity. Today you can find dabbing equipment at any headshop, and dispensaries also carry a variety of concentrates as demand for them increases.

While marijuana flowers typically contain 10-20% THC, dabs can have as much as 70-90% THC depending on how they were made. This intense potency has raised a few safety concerns, such as the possibility of overdosing, developing a high tolerance, and experiencing withdrawal.

The process of making dabs is also a source of controversy. There are many stories of house explosions caused by people trying to make concentrates in homemade labs.

While there are certain dangers with dabs, there are benefits as well. Some people find dabbing to be a better way of consuming high doses of marijuana, while others prefer it because the effects are different and last longer.

In this guide we look at the science behind dabbing, and determine how safe it really is.

What is Dabbing?

Dabbing is a method of smoking marijuana concentrates that involves the use of special equipment, also known as a dab rig. A dab rig resembles a glass bong, only instead of a bowl it has a nail which must be heated up, usually with a handheld torch.

Once the nail is hot enough, a dab tool is used to pick up a small piece of concentrate. The concentrate is then placed on the nail, and the user inhales as it burns.

There are many different types of marijuana concentrates that can be used for dabbing. Shatter, wax, crumble, butane hash oil (BHO) and budder are some of the most common concentrates found on the market today.

How are Dabs Made?

(Photo: symic/Flickr)

Concentrates used for dabbing are made through a solvent extraction process. Dried marijuana flowers are packed into a glass tube and exposed to a hydrocarbon, usually butane, to extract the active ingredients from the plant. The extract is then purged and sent to a drip tray where it solidifies and any excess butane is evaporated.

Professional vendors make their extracts in a laboratory using closed-loop extraction. In a closed-loop system the entire process is sealed and contained, so no volatile gases can escape. This method is safe and produces high-quality concentrates.

The method that most people use at home is called open-loop extraction. This process of making dabs is very dangerous. In an open-loop system, the extraction rig is not completely sealed so volatile gases can leak out and accumulate in the air, which can lead to accidental explosions.

Benefits of Dabbing

There are many reasons why someone might prefer dabs over other methods of consuming marijuana.

A study published in Addictive Behaviors surveyed 357 people about why they prefer dabs and revealed the following benefits:

  • Takes fewer hits to achieve the desired effect
  • The effects are stronger
  • The high is different
  • Faster than rolling a joint
  • Better taste
  • Leaves behind no ash byproducts

Compared to other methods of consumption, dabs provide a much smoother and cleaner taste. It takes effect immediately and lasts much longer than traditional smoking methods.

For medicinal users, dabbing can provide the correct dosage of cannabinoids quickly and effectively. In the same study, some people also reported that dabs were more effective for pain relief.

Dabbing Risks and Side Effects

(Photo: symic/Flickr)

Dabbing is still relatively new, so there isn’t a lot of science out there regarding its safety and long term effects. But thanks to its rising popularity, a few studies have come out in recent years and have brought up several risks and concerns.

Overdosing is possible

There is a real possibility of overdosing on dabs because of their extreme potency. While no one has ever died from dabbing or marijuana in general, it is very easy to consume too much at once when dabbing.

Common symptoms of an overdose include vomiting, paranoia, confusion, panic attacks, accelerated heart rate, and passing out. There is also a risk of accidental injury if an overdose occurs.

Marijuana psychosis

In extreme cases, dabbing can lead to psychosis. A study published in Schizophrenia Research describes the experiences of two people who developed marijuana-induced psychosis after consuming dabs.

Both of them required two-week hospital stays and psychiatric medication to wean them back to normal. It’s interesting to note that one of them had only used dabs a couple times, while the other had been using concentrates regularly for 18 months.

Tolerance and withdrawal symptoms

Like any drug, people who dab can build up a tolerance to its effects and may experience withdrawal symptoms after quitting. Since dabs are much stronger than your typical marijuana flower, experts believe that the risk of tolerance and withdrawal may be greater.

Marijuana withdrawal might not be as serious as withdrawal from other drugs, but it can still be unpleasant. Symptoms of withdrawal include insomnia, depression, headaches, mood swings, vivid dreams, and night sweats.

Excess chemical contaminants

A common concern is that dabs may contain traces of chemicals left over from the extraction process. If the solvent is not completely purged during extraction, you could end up inhaling traces of butane and other chemicals used when making dabs.

In Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, any concentrate with less than 500ppm residual hydrocarbons is considered safe to consume. Thankfully, commercial-grade extracts usually fall below that level due to rigorous quality control and testing procedures.

The fear of inhaling chemical contaminants when dabbing is generally overblown. If inhaled, butane can be a minor lung irritant but is not a serious health threat. What’s more, any residual butane is usually burned off during the dabbing process and should pose no risk to the user.

Still, if you take a dab and the extract sizzles a lot, that’s a sign there is a lot of excess butane left over and you might want to consider buying your dabs from a different source.

Home extraction is unsafe

There have been several cases where homemade extraction labs have exploded. Many of these stories have been covered by the media and have led to a widespread fear of dabbing in general.

It’s easy to understand why dab enthusiasts might want to make extracts at home: the extraction process isn’t overly complicated, and all the necessary equipment can be bought at a hardware store for a relatively low price.

However, people usually rely on open-loop extraction at home because they don’t have access to the more expensive closed-loop equipment used in professional labs. With an open loop, volatile butane gas can easily escape and accumulate in the room and all it takes is one small spark to cause an explosion.

Don’t under any circumstances attempt to make your own extracts at home! Leave it to the professionals and don’t put your safety and the safety of people around you at risk. If you want to make an extract, try making cold water hash, or bubble hash. It’s much safer since the only chemical you need is water.

How to Use Dabs Safely

(Photo: Max Pixel)

If you want to get into dabbing, there are several things to keep in mind to help minimize any risks.

First off, be sure to buy your concentrates from a licensed vendor. Making it yourself is unsafe, and homemade products aren’t quality controlled. Buying from a licensed supplier will ensure that you’re getting a product that has passed rigorous quality control procedures and is safe to consume.

You’ll also need a dab rig, so visit your local headshop and take a look at what options are available. They should be happy to answer whatever questions you may have and set you up with the proper dabbing equipment. There are several items to purchase, so be prepared to spend a few hundred dollars for a complete rig.

Last of all, be very careful with how much you consume. Concentrates should not be taken lightly and you don’t want to make the mistake of consuming too much. Start small and work your way up to a dose that’s comfortable for you. If you don’t have a scale, you should definitely invest in one because even a fraction of a gram can be too much.

Dabbing can be safe as long as it’s done with the right gear and you carefully monitor your dosage.