Sarah (not her real name) relaxes inside a beautifully restored brick row home in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia. Just over 50 years old, she has cropped reddish hair that is pulled back and highlights a pair of art-deco inspired glasses. The living room is tastefully filled with art, including two large-format canvases of the Philly skyline. On the coffee table are books about her favorite subject: Tibet. Next to them, on a small wooden tray, is a torch usually used to melt sugar onto creme brulee.
Sarah clicks on the torch and the flame heats up the nail on the end of a rather complex glass bong. When it is glowing red she uses a small glass rod to scoop up a dab of hash oil from a small plastic container. She touches it to the hot metal and inhales. Vapor moves through the curves in the clear glass pipe, through the water and into her lungs.
She exhales in a steady, deliberate manner. A cloud of vapor surrounds the couch and she smiles.
"I got tired of smoking an entire joint to get this same sensation," she says, "and then smelling like that joint all day."
Sarah is a "dabber."
Three years ago on a business trip to New York, a colleague introduced Sarah to the method of consuming intensely concentrated cannabis.
Dabbing isn't new, but recently has come in to vogue. Piggy-backing on the trend have been substance prevention organizations and law enforcement, which have stepped up their scare warnings. Still, this form of cannabis has been around for centuries and its new incarnation is most likely here to stay.
There is no such thing as a lethal overdose from inhaling marijuana or cannabis concentrates. Period. You could dab all day and the greatest consequence would be a long nap.
However, it is important to note, that the potency of hash oil is stronger than regular marijuana. The high might be a bit more intense. So driving, operating heavy machinery or sending emails to coworkers should not be done immediately following a dab session.
Medical patients often appreciate the quick uptake and instant relief of inhaling concentrates. They are as safe and effective as dried cannabis flowers.
Sarah is an event planner who works night and day. She doesn't drink alcohol.
"I have business meetings with clients constantly and smelling like pot is worse than having a martini on your breath," she said. "People won't take you seriously."
Indeed, the sweet vapor that filled the room had only a hint of the classic marijuana scent and it quickly dissipated.
The optics of the torch and the special pipe, called a dab rig, make it a very private method.
"I would not be taking all this out during a party or a wedding reception," she laughs, "People would think I started smoking crack or meth!"
There is another way.
"That's why I have my little pen."
She is referring to a special kind of e-cigarette more commonly known as a "vape pen." These are specially designed to work with cannabis concentrates. It is dabbing on the go and without the torch. Hundreds of models -- in every size, shape a color -- range in price from just $30 up to almost $500.
The pens deliver smaller doses. Just a few puffs is enough, though. Because many oils don't have the telltale odor of dank weed, they can even be used in public without smelling like the stage of a Cypress Hill show.
A stroll through the "novelty" shops that line South Street offer a dizzying array of dab rigs and pens.
"Now this," she holds up her sleek, black vape pen, "I take everywhere."
Hashish has been around for thousands of years. When you look at a bud of carefully grown cannabis, there is a frosty encrustation. This is natural. Those tiny crystals, called trichomes, are resinous glands that contain cannabinoids like THC.
Careful breeding has resulted in strains that produce more and larger trichomes.
Traditional hash making in countries like Morocco and India has changed little over the centuries. Workers take dried plants and shake the trichomes off, sifting them through cheesecloth. The separated piles of dust-like trichomes is called "kief."
Kief is then lightly heated and pressed into cakes to make hash. The result can be very hard and green or more pliable and brown or dark green.
Modern processing evolved into motorized separators that look like clothes dryers.
Another, old-school method makes what's called "bubble-hash" using ice water. Shaking plant material in very cold water breaks the trichomes off the plants and also separates some of the resins. The water is filtered and the hash collected. This is stickier, more gooey.
Hash can be smoked alone, added to smokeable buds or tobacco. It can also be easily infused into foods. In the 1800s, eating it raw was also a thing.
Smoking a few ounces of weed isn't usually too trippy. But eating even moderate amounts of well-infused edibles can be mildly psychedelic for some consumers.
It is also important to note that although American cannabis is considered top quality, there have been very potent, high-THC strains available throughout history. Modern prohibitionists who claim that today's weed is stronger than the 1960s might have just had a toke of some crappy schwag weed in college.
Clearly there was some top-notch hash around in the 1860s when people were rocking out to Franz Liszt not Jimi Hendrix.
Dabbing was also popular too back in the day ... way back, say in the 1500s. Instead of heating a nail with a torch, consumers would drop small balls of hash onto red-hot charcoals. The rising vapor would then be quickly inhaled through tubes or straws. Another old-world technique that mirrors modern rigs was the "hot knife," where two knives would be heated up and a ball of hash pressed between.
In this century the modern forms of hash-making have honed in on much more efficient methods. Gas solvents like butane or super-critical carbon dioxide are passed through the plant material. The resulting extracts are then put into vacuum ovens to get rid of any residual solvents and also change the physical makeup.
This method has been used for years to make essential oils from plants for foods or for perfume (think almond essence or lavender extract). These more industrial techniques also get the most cannabinoids out of the plants.
Some consumers have been making it at home. Dried marijuana is packed into a glass tube about 18 inches long. It has a large opening on one end and a small hole on the other. A big can of butane used to refill cigarette lighters is emptied into the small hole. The result is a splat of concentrate that is then lightly heated on a hot plate or an oven in a glass dish.
Of course, filling a confined space with butane and adding an open flame like a stove or lit cigarette can have explosive results. Reports of such accidents have increased. But underground concentrate production has become rather common. Meaning that most people are doing it without setting their hair or houses on fire.
Here are the most regularly found forms of extracts available underground or in regulated retail stores in more evolved states today:
A recent issue of Freedom Leaf magazine featured a primer on concentrates.
Dru West, the author of West Coast Masters a marijuana growing guide, explained how the different forms are achieved.
After the concentrate has been introduced into the vacuum oven, a number of different methods can be used to manipulate the final texture of the concentrate. Different combinations of temperatures and pressures will produce an array of finished products. For example, regularly flipping the slab at low temperatures will result in a more glass-like shatter, while agitating the oil at higher temperatures will produce waxes and crumbles. Whatever the method, the ultimate goal should always be to produce the cleanest medicine with the least residual solvent. Currently, the "crumble" texture has been shown to consistently contain the lowest residual solvent count.
It used to be that gardens, expensive lights, and some steady hands to trim dried flowers were the mainstays of a marijuana business. Now the variety and increased popularity of concentrates has spawned a cottage industry of processing facilities for medical and recreational cannabis products. Laboratories that test cannabinoid levels and potency have also become a fast-growing realm of opportunity.
"What was once just a secret of a few master growers has now become one of the biggest developments in the history of the cannabis industry," writes West.
Hash and the new extracts are often treated much more severely under state laws. In some states mere possession can be a felony.
Pennsylvania criminal code treats up to eight grams of hash or hash oil the same way as simple marijuana possession; a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and up to a $500 fine. However, if an offender has more than eight grams, they face up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
Manufacturing any amount of hash or concentrate is an immediate felony in Pennsylvania, punishable by up to 5 years in prison and up to a $25,000 fine. That would be the same as the maximum sentence for growing or selling between 10 pounds and 50 pounds of marijuana.
In New Jersey, possession of less than five grams of hash is considered a disorderly person's offense punishable by up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. More than five grams gets a more serious criminal misdemeanor that that could bring six months and a fine of up to $25,000.
The Garden State also dispenses serious penalties for manufacturing hash or other cannabis extracts. For those making between five grams and a pound, the penalty is a mandatory minimum of three-to-five years in prison and up to a $25,000 fine.
Both states have so called "Drug Free School Zone" laws. Fines and jail time increase significantly for hash or concentrates in these zones.
Police, courts and prosecutors have been softening their position on regular marijuana. But they tend to be far less understanding about other forms. The rise in popularity of extracts among consumers could see a new wave of clogged criminal justice because of prohibition laws.
There is also some serious cognitive dissonance among lawmakers when it comes to these products. Extracts containing high levels of CBD or cannabidiol, are being heralded by legislators across the country. On a basic level, this is just another variety of hash oil.
The Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill earlier this year that would only allow medical patients access to cannabis extracts. Smoking raw cannabis plant material is specifically prohibited in the bill. Patients with just three conditions - PTSD, cancer or seizure disorders - will be allowed to vaporize oils.
SB3, sponsored by Sens. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) and Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery), also makes specific provisions to license processing facilities and testing labs.
So while the so-called "dangers of dabbing" are being rehashed in some news reports, politicians are under the impression that they are offering restrictive laws by only legalizing cannabis concentrates.
What is downright disturbing is that underground patients in Pennsylvania already know the benefits of cannabis oils and could get railroaded. Some are acquiring them from other states or making small batches at home to treat family members, even children. They face the toughest penalties if caught.
A group called the East Coast Cannabis Coalition along with local comedy troupe The Panic Hour are looking to put a spotlight this conflict. They are reviving the marijuana prohibition protests that took place in 2013.
On July 10th the group will hold the "Smoke Down Prohibition 2.0" rally at LOVE Park then a march through Center City. It will culminate in a "710" party at the One Art Community Center. More than 1,000 people have signed up for the event on Facebook.
710 is the new term for cannabis concentrates - it spells "oil" backwards and upside down.
We now live in an era where marijuana extracts are good business in Colorado and more than a dozen states allow only hash oil for medical patients. But here in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, residents face the full weight of the criminal justice system and years in prison for the using the same substance.
Backwards and upside down; now that is certainly a good analogy for marijuana prohibition.