The Risks of Marijuana Dabbing

Thursday, June 30, 2016
Michael Rass

Marijuana “dabbing” has become increasingly popular in recent years. Dabbing refers to the inhalation of a concentrated tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) product created through butane extraction. THC is the principal psychoactive agent in cannabis, the scientific name of the marijuana-yielding plant.

The THC is extracted and concentrated in a process known as “blasting.” Butane is passed through a steel or glass tube filled with dried cannabis. The THC and other compounds dissolve within the butane, the butane/THC solution is then run through a filter and collected in a dish or tray. The Butane evaporates quickly, leaving crystallized resins.

The clear amber is referred to as honeycomb, shatter, or wax, as well as BHO (butane hash oil). The dab is typically smoked in a water pipe known as a “rig.” The production process is fairly dangerous because butane is volatile and highly flammable. There have been numerous incidents across the nation in which homemade labs blew up and required the attention of the local fire department.

The substance produced by the chemical reaction can reach THC concentrations of 80-90 percent. This is dramatically more powerful than the “reefer” of the 60s and 70s. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the average THC content in 1978 was only 1.37 percent. Today’s cannabis can yield 3.20 percent THC, much more powerful than 40 years ago but not nearly as potent as BHO.

Unfortunately, the availability of increasingly potent cannabis products is accompanied by the widespread perception that using marijuana is mostly risk-free.

Large majorities of Americans now consider marijuana harmless. In 2014, 77.1 percent of teens and adolescents (children between the ages of 12 and 17) stated they perceived "no great risk" from smoking marijuana once a month, according to the Behavioral Health Barometer, which examines trends in substance use and mental health for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

This perceived harmlessness can backfire, especially on heavy users. Psychiatrist Kevin Hill is a marijuana use disorder expert. In his book Marijuana he describes the notion that marijuana is harmless as a “myth".

“Excellent scientific research shows that regular marijuana use affects the ability to think, can increase feelings of anxiety and depression, and increases the odds that one will develop psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.” (Marijuana p. 44)

Clearly, those dangers are not diminished if the potency of the substance is 4-8 times higher than a regular joint.

“Several research studies have shown that regular marijuana use hinders frontal-executive brain function, the ability to perform tasks that require complex thinking,” writes Hill. (Marijuana p. 45)

The impact on the frontal-executive brain is especially problematic for users under 25 since the adolescent brain is still developing. Heavy marijuana use tends to stifle motivation and to dull cognitive abilities, leading to poor academic performance.

In a recent study on the dangers of dabbing, John Stogner and Bryan Lee Miller recommended that “physicians and other healthcare professionals need to be prepared for discussions about the effects of dabbing to minimize potential harms, particularly because recent marijuana policy changes likely have facilitated youth access to dabs.”