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Philly420: Marijuana refined

Hash oil, cannabis concentrates and dabbing

At the NORML conference in San Francisco, a Moroccan themed hash bar.
At the NORML conference in San Francisco, a Moroccan themed hash bar.Read more

Several reports from across the nation recently have breathlessly sounded the alarm about the growing trend of cannabis consumers using highly refined concentrates.

In Philadelphia, Thomas Drayton of Fox29 reported the sensationally headlined "Teens Cooking Up Dangerous Weed Oil To Get 'Honey' High."  Reading between the maximum foxiness, it seems that the harms Drayton 'uncovered' were associated with the preparation of the concentrates with butane and the terrifying danger of possibly getting dizzy.

Granted, doing chemistry at home with volatile solvents is never a good idea.

In February, FEMA issued an alert notifying fire departments that the discovery of strange glassware and cans of butane at the scene of a blaze doesn't mean somebody was Breaking Bad. The paraphernalia could have nothing to do with pipe bombs or methamphetamine labs. The onus was placed on would be hash oil refiners. From there it was off to the races. Cue the earnest journalists.

Teens have not been specifically implicated in manufacturing cannabis oils. But Wired magazine did collect two anecdotes – one in Oregon, the other in California - about would-be cannabis oil refiners starting fires after lit cigarettes ignited their butane.

But two incidents does not a trend make.

The question of the week is: Why do so many people have the impression that refined cannabis is something new? Maybe they haven't heard of hashish, a substance that has been a part of human culture for centuries?

Hash Heaven

About five years ago I attended an off-site party during the NORML Conference in San Francisco that featured a "Moroccan Hash Bar" as a centerpiece.

An outdoor concrete patio next to an art gallery was transformed into a magical scene: Lined with tall potted palms the area was surrounded by beanbag chairs (gold and maroon; covered in soft velvet) piled on top of Middle Eastern carpets.

A ten-foot long slab of granite countertop was laid out horizontally on tall sawhorses about chest-high with festive satin umbrellas at either end.  Women dressed as belly dancers  (the fabric matched the umbrellas) beckoned the mellow guests to the table.  On the countertop were small, perfectly shaped, red-hot charcoals.

I selected one of several different kinds of traditionally made hashish; some looked like dry chocolate bars and others like greenish fresh motor grease. I was in total amazement.

The barista quickly rolled up three small balls of fragrant brown stuff between her thumb and index fingers, laying them neatly in a row on a cool part of the granite. Then she picked up a glass tube about eighteen inches long - clear and hollow at both ends - gave it a practiced wipe with an alcohol sterilization pad and gracefully swung one end into my hands.

Watching some other guests at the table had prepared me for the next step: I raised one end of the tube to my mouth as the belly dancer/ barista held the other end. She expertly dropped one of the balls on top a hot coal. With a smooth motion she moved her end of the tube over the vapor and smoke instantly rose  from the fast bubbling ball of traditionally concentrated cannabis.

The next trick was to inhale steadily... not too quickly. There was a lot of smoke and the heat requires a slow and consistent draw to get some cool air along with the dancing vapor.  Inhale too fast and the result could be a long coughing fit, sending down rivers of tears.

I  carefully drew in from my diaphragm like a yoga inhale. The fragrance of good hash is quite a powerful, akin to a dank and pungent perfume. The brown hash had a strong but pleasantly heavy marijuana flavor (kind of like freshly cut, wet lawn grass) with an almost spicy aftertaste.

As soon as I exhaled there was a pat on my back from a conference buddy who said "Two more!" with a grin.

Indeed, the barista quickly began to serve me up the other two other little gems of refined marijuana. The lights became softer – the colors around me more vibrant – I noticed the glittering purple eye makeup on the barista and the live band that had seemed kind of so-so now totally seemed to rock.

Rick Steves, the globetrotting travel host on PBS. occupied the spot next to me at the table. Steves had delivered a keynote at the NORML conference earlier that day. One of the most articulate voices for full marijuana legalization, Steves put a tremendous personal effort into helping his home state of Washington legalize recreational cannabis in 2012.

Steves took his turn at the table and then we all peeled away, diving into the party. Our conversation was focused for many minutes pointing out the different details around us: A projector on a wall was rotating glamour photos of marijuana plants; delectable middle-eastern themed desserts were laid out along the perimeter; dancers with glowing hula-hoops and fire-sticks performed with the music, surrounded by circles of delighted party guests.

The revelry continued into the wee hours with many profound, productive and bonding conversations taking place among the politicos of pot.

Dawn of The Dab

Fast forward to the 2011 NORML Conference in Denver, Colorado. The new party favor among super-stoners: The Dab.

"Dabbing" generally refers to the use of ultra-concentrated hash oils extracted from natural cannabis plants.

The term derives from the most common method used today: a piece of metal resembling a large nail is held at the end of a curved glass pipe then heated until glowing with a lighter or kitchen torch; a small 'dab' of the thick hash oil (greasy and thicker than cold honey) is placed the end of a thin glass rod and then touched to the hot nail. The smoker inhales the instantly vaporized concentrate through the glass pipe -- and gets seriously stoned.

On the 16th floor the Denver Grand Hyatt in a splendid corner suite overlooking the looking mountains of the Front Range some local aficionados had set up a temporary dabbing lounge.  On a simple table with a white cloth were six large and complex dabbing pipes. These twists of glass and metal looked like confusing modern art; I had no idea how to operate many of them. Several butane torches (the kind used to create a hard crust for crème Brule) were placed on the table along with two briefcases filled with small petri dishes of various concentrates, all neatly labeled with strain names and even THC levels.

After the first evening's welcome cocktail party in the hotel ballroom some of the guests sought out the 16th floor. Many had never had a dab.

Sitting down this group of regular cannabis consumers was an insight into this new style of inhaling the product.

Some reggae music slowly ground out of a cd player and the mile-high city below us coursed with the shifting lights of the urban organism.

One of the concentrate makers was sitting at the table, he was an affable and heavyset guy, scruffy and with somewhat Elvis-like hair and wearing his company's logo sweatshirt. His hands looked like those of a pizza dough tosser, yet they deftly worked to prepare the dabs as he waxed scientific on his personal creations. Three rods tipped with concentrated oil stuck out of one of his fists and the other gently heated a nail.

I was the first up and took a healthy but not monstrous hit from the pipe.

It was like a THC freight train passing between the ears. There was an instant rush, akin to nitrous oxide, accompanied by very fast, very obvious marijuana intoxication.

There was a definite marijuana flavor – but it was lighter and very different from traditional hash. The tremendous rush subsided in moments and I felt good; but I also felt like there was absolutely no need for me to take another hit -- of anything-- until the next day.

The newbies didn't do so well. Determined and full of machismo, they inhaled far too much vapor. They struggled to catch their breath. They all coughed in a particular way to dabbing: not roughly but with long quiet exhales with fast hiccups.

One friend "Kate" stood up from the table and wandered over to a window, leaning her hand against the frame, as if holding it in place. She was pale and slightly clammy (both signs of someone about to pass out). She turned to me and managed a sheepish grin, her crystal green eyes a quarter open, "I'm going to be ok. But, wow…"

I stood with Kate by that window, hovering over the Mile High City, for almost 20-minutes before her color came back and it felt safe for me to go downstairs for a cigarette. Several others in the group were also propping up other pieces of the suite. They quickly revived during the next hour with the assistance of  coffee and chocolate.

Yet the Colorado concentrate maker sat alone at the table, taking dab after dab after voluminous dab while chatting with his girlfriend casually on a cellphone. He was certainly goofy but also seemed immune to the most powerful effects.

Super High Me

The psychoactive and euphoric impact of marijuana at very high doses brings the experience into the realm of an ever-so mild hallucinogen. The experience is not at all akin to LSD, psilocybin mushrooms or MDMA (ecstasy) – but is more like a lightly enhanced reality with possibilities of big laughter.

Some feel a very strong sedative effect, depending on the type of oil and individual body chemistry.  Marinol is a legally prescribed pill that is filled with synthetic THC and some users report the same effects.

Hash oil concentrates have been around for a long time and have been widely available in the mainstream medical marijuana community for over a decade. Seriously ill patients – the ones with large brain tumors or racked by full body burning sensations from neuropathic pain – have found great relief from hash oils. The fast uptake of THC, Cannabidiol (CBD) and all of the other cannabinoids is preferred over trying to get the same amount of the effective ingredient by smoking ounces of raw plant material.

The concentrates are also used in candies and baked goods known as "medibles." Some patients also make specific hash oil concentrates, put them into gel-caps and swallow them like a pill.

Many patients around the country state that hash oil specifically has helped them (along with chemo and radiation therapies) to overcome cancer.

How it’s made

There are a number of methods to extracting cannabinoids from the plant material. The resinous oils are removed by quickly changing the temperature. Indeed, regular hash can be extracted by shaking the plants in special ice-filled bags.

But the fast-and-dirty technique for modern hash oils is the following: Stuff two to four ounces of raw cannabis into a specialized, heavy glass tube then take a large can of butane (commonly used to re-fill cigarette lighters) and empty it across the marijuana. The result is a splat of hash oil on a plate below the tube. Sometimes the mixture is then heated on a hotplate.

Not the safest bit of chemistry for complete amateurs but given the massive increase over the last few years of home-made and professional concentrates  there have been remarkably few accidents.

As with traditional hashish the one thing required to make the oils is simply a massive amount of marijuana. In the saturated medical and underground markets of Colorado, California, Washington and Oregon there are untold thousands of tons of domestically cultivated cannabis.

This steady refinement has turned into a convenient method for cannabis producers (along with the marijuana retailers) to compact the bulky, raw plants into a more transportable and potent item.

Sticky situations

It is odd that traditional hashish remains the staple across all of Europe and northern Africa. But it has never taken hold among mainstream consumers in America; dried flowers of the plants have been most prized in the USA.

Part of the reason for the American obsession with buds is the prohibition laws: Hash and hash oils have always been treated much more seriously by law enforcement and courts. For instance, in Pennsylvania manufacturing any amount of hash, even a few grams, is an instant felony.

The concept of hash oil being a teen fad is completely farfetched but dabbing has definitely gone mainstream among cannabis consumers.

It is important to note that the effects of hash oil are certainly strong, especially to the uninitiated, but they do not represent anything close to the danger of drinking alcohol the way Americans do every day in bars, homes and on campuses.

Alcohol consumers in Pennsylvania purchase liquor ranging from 5% to 60% in state-run stores. Aside from predicable dizziness, rampant alcoholism and traffic accidents, alcohol gets people so "schmacked" on a regular basis in the Philly area that they overturn cars at suburban colleges and spark wedding brawls in Society Hill.

Still, there are a growing number of sticky issues for cannabis consumers who dab.

  1. The cleanest method for extraction is super-critical carbon dioxide; however, it is seldom used. Butane is not the only solvent that can be used to extract cannabis, benzene is another.

  2. Hash oil concentrates in their final form are almost impossible to identify by specific plant strain. Underground makers often mix several different cannabis strains in one batch, making it less useful for medical patients.

  3. There have been numerous studies on people who have used burnt or even vaporized whole-plant marijuana, but nothing yet on people who chronically dab.

  4. Getting caught with concentrates and hash oil will certainly earn more legal trouble with more serious sentencing.

In many ways this growing stoner style has added a pressing new reason for legalizing marijuana. The courts could see an increasing glut of serious felonies prosecuted over people trying to extract a few grams of hash oil at home.

In a free, above ground market, there would be a wonderful selection for consumers with hash oil makers always competing for purity and consistency not just potency.

Thankfully, even with the most potent concentrates, there is still no possibility of a lethal overdose from cannabis. The best science about blood-THC levels has proven an old stoner saying: "You're not gonna get any higher; you're just gonna get lower on weed.

Contact Chris Goldstein at