Across the country, from legal 21-and-over Denver dispensaries to black-market NYC delivery services, steeply priced strains of “killer bud”—so thick with trichome crystals they shimmer like snow-covered pine trees—are readily available. OG Ghost Train Haze, Headband, Blue Dream, Lemon Diesel, and Kosher Kush (and dozens of other similarly named varieties), pick your poison. Containing levels of THC up to 25%, a small toke of any one of these varieties will get you stoned.
But for some herb connoisseurs (and medical users in some states) these killer strains are not nearly strong enough. Especially on the west coast and in Colorado, where high-grade pot is much more prevalent due to relaxed laws, a few hits of chronic is strictly to get out of bed on a busy morning. For all other occasions and mind states there’s “dabs,” a type of solidified hash oil also known as “concentrates,” BHO (Butane Hash Oil) or more popularly, “wax”—so-named for its texture and glassy appearance. While no one person has taken credit for developing its extraction formula, the substance first started to appear out west about five years ago, but has since experienced galloping popularity. (Traditional hash oil has been around since at least the early 1970s.)
Most commonly created by a technique in which high quality pot is blasted with butane that is then extracted, these cannabis concentrates approach 70%-to-90% THC. Going on the basis of such super high purity alone, even the funkiest colored tricone crystal encased high-grade leaf start to look like steam technology in a fossil fuel world. Brad Gibbs, of Greenest Green, which has just opened a new state-approved lab in Denver Co., filled with $100,000 in equipment, specializing in BHO, says that the new product is so superior, buds will eventually disappear, at least among, “our generation,”—users under 40. “Dabs are the future of cannabis, both recreational and medicinal,” he adds.
Kyle Tracey, CEO of GrowLife Inc., a publically-traded growing supplies company and himself an enthusiastic evangelist for cannabis’ palliative effects, breaks down the price differential between “top end flowers” and “concentrates” where he lives in Southern California as follows: $15-$20 per gram for buds versus $70-$100 for the same amount of dabs (weight wise, 1/2 (g) dabs on average, is equal in strength to 3.5 (g) of high end weed.) Due in no small part to the higher price of having to do business illegally, cannabis prices are significantly higher on the East Coast in general and “wax” has yet to be seen here on anything but a limited scale. But Tracey, originally from Monmouth County, NJ says as East Coast dealers learn to formulate the product, and begin to gauge its rampant appeal, that situation is bound to change. “You’ll be seeing it out there soon,” he adds.
While dabs are hot in California, ground zero of the new fad is Colorado, one of two states (along with Washington) where pot is legal for recreational as well as medical use. A couple of Saturdays ago, on April 20th, between 40,000 and 50,000 potheads converged on Denver, in the largest celebration of 4/20 of all time, creating a massive marketing opportunity for hundreds of cannabis purveyors. Tracey, who has a promotion deal with High Times, says just like that magazine “marketed a lifestyle around pot, companies can brand a lifestyle around dabs for the next 10-15 years.” In other words, there’s lots of money to be made.
But not so fast: dabbing isn’t the new lifestyle choice for you if a hit of chronic sends you fleeing underneath the covers with paranoia. “If you don’t like smoking pot, ‘concentrates’ definitely aren’t for you,” Tracey says, allowing that the trend has sparked controversy within what he calls “the one billion dollar legal marijuana industry.” On one side are those, like Tracey, who celebrate the sheer knock-you-on-your-ass highs of BHO (Butane Hash Oil,) and similarly formulated concentrates. The opposing faction contains bud traditionalists and those worried about the effects blowtorches and wax-like substances will have on the industries’ image.
This conflict was aired by, of course, High Times, in a story titled “To Dab or Not to Dab.” While mostly positive in keeping with the magazine’s avowed pro-cannabis theme, the piece shed light on the negative consequences that have popped up from the burgeoning dabs trend. Among incidents related to its production and use were untrained cooks “blowing themselves up” blasting butane in jury-rigged home labs, and “overdoses,” which as with strong marijuana are not fatal but involve extreme discomfort to the point of freaking out for long periods of time.
Scariest was the case of a young woman who was hospitalized from a near-fatal allergic reaction in which her throat closed up after smoking dabs. Then there is the potential public relations blowback against the still nascent industry, currently waging a state-by-state battle for wider legalization, when the super-high purity, butane, blowtorches and waxy concentrate invariably lead middle-class observers to think of crack and crystal meth.
Nikka T, himself Colorado-based and a celebrated manufacturer of concentrates, takes such PR concerns seriously enough to be wary of butane in general. His method foregoes “blasting” with blowtorches altogether, relying instead on a solvent-free mechanical extraction technique, which he has gradually perfected over a decade. T, who has a beard and wears his long, thick black hair in a ponytail, was raised around the pot farms of Northern California. He started selling weed in high school and recalls being exposed to the dirty, mildewy-smelling, putty-textured “bubble hash” found in his hometown. “I knew there was something more out there,” he says. “So I started to play around [with concentrates.]”
Then, 8 years ago, T made a pilgrimage to Amsterdam and sat at the knee of noted cannabis developer Mila Jansen, who passed down to him the recipes, which he says have been kept alive in Europe for “200 years” (most sources date the invention of hash oil back more recently) by an “oral tradition,” even as the product remained unknown in the states. Now, on average, his Denver lab, Essential Extracts, processes from two to five pounds of marijuana into concentrates a day. His product sells from between $20 to $50 a half gram at nearby dispensaries. (Prices in Colorado skew low because of a flood of competition of cannabis suppliers in that state.)
Tracey, who is 28 years old and prescribed cannabis for Crohn’s disease, a painful stomach ailment, under California’s medicinal cannabis law, describes his CEO job as “mostly R and D.” Having smoked cannabis since high school, Tracey switched to “wax” in earnest three years ago and hasn’t looked back towards the leaf since. With the possible exception of a few early morning tokes off a “snappy sativa to vacuum the house,” he’s otherwise “switched to dabs almost totally.” To that end, he’ll fortify himself throughout the day with nail-sized hits from a small vaporizer that resembles an e-cigarette. This delivery-system has a built in advantage to weed: near invisibility to law-enforcement.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time I’ve ever taken it too far,” he adds.
Now 30, Nikka T, is more cautious with the powerful new cannabis formulas at his daily disposal. “After smoking concentrates for 8 years straight, it got too much. My tolerance got too high,” he says. So just as the concentrate fad started heating up among his consumer base, his personal preferences were moving in the opposite direction. “Now I produce concentrates for the masses and smoke flowers throughout the day,” he says. And dabs? They’re reserved exclusively for nighttime.