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The Trouble with Dabbing

Solvent-extracted concentrates with previously unheard-of THC levels are blowing cannabis users’ minds.

But mishaps during extraction are also blowing up houses.

And not only is the manufacture of concentrates unregulated by government or third party inspectors, there is also no requirement to test the end product sold at dispensaries or via delivery services — which means smokers could be ingesting unsafe levels of chemical solvent.

The dab craze is also causing discord within the cannabis industry and creating problems for cannabis’ image at a crucial time. Similar to unscrupulous growers dumping rat poison in rural watersheds, there are now reports of piles of discarded butane canisters found alongside roads.

The Now Product

Concentrates are undoubtedly growing in popularity with cannabis patients. About 45 percent of the products sold at Bay Area dispensaries today are high-potency offerings like wax and shatter, according to veteran cannabis activist Debby Goldsberry. But that means that “there [are] no safety regulations for up to 45% of the medical cannabis products being consumed,” she says.

With no public access to dispensaries’ sales figures, these numbers are impossible to verify but easy to believe.

What used to be an exotic novelty or supplement for low-grade flowers now dominates dispensary menus.

Dab culture is ubiquitous, from college campuses to cannabis cups. Meanwhile, the butane hash oil process has gained attraction from mainstream media and law enforcement across the country.

Most of the powerful concentrates currently dominating the billion-dollar cannabis market in California are created using solvents like butane to separate psychoactive THC from cannabis flowers and leaves. The primary ways of achieving this are closed loop extractor systems — which can costs thousands of dollars — or butane “blasting,” which can easily be done for $50 or less.

All it takes is a tube packed with weed, a can of butane, and a willingness to risk felony arrest and serious bodily injury to get high.

Legal to own, illegal to make

Butane hash oil is covered by a legal catch-22 in California: it’s perfectly legal to sell, possess and use under Prop. 215, but it’s illegal to manufacture — under the same laws created to crack down on methamphetamine production.

Defense attorney Bart Kaspero specializes in California drug law. He said the legality of BHO for card-carrying cannabis patients is neatly summed up by a paraphrased line of dialogue from Pulp Fiction.

“What did [John] Travolta say to Samuel L. Jackson? ‘It’s legal to buy it, it’s legal to own it and it’s legal to sell it,’ only you can’t make it,” Kaspero said.

The explosive potential of BHO extraction has also made it a lightning rod for prohibitionists and a target of law enforcement. A new law allowing judges to punish concentrate manufacture as an aggravated felony is moving through the state Legislature.

Bracken McKey, a senior deputy district attorney in Washington County, Oregon, where three major BHO explosions have been documented since 2012, summed up the general sentiment of law enforcement in an interview with the Oregonian.

“It’s no safer than manufacturing methamphetamine,” he said.

Blowing up, or overblown?

Though explosions are very rare, concern is not all reefer madness. BHO explosions are happening in California and across the nation. The New York Times reported that Colorado had 32 major explosions in 2014.

Numbers like that are alarming, but for context, the National Fire Protection Association says that 900 homes are destroyed every year by people trying to deep-fry their Thanksgiving turkey — and no cops are calling for a ban on birds.

Regardless, BHO’s controversial reputation hasn’t reduced consumer demand or inspired any clear regulation from the state of California.

There are also safety concerns about the potential for residual solvents in BHO, which many patient advocates say makes mandatory laboratory testing critical.

The best a California consumer can hope for currently is a dispensary testing residual solvent levels voluntarily.

When they do, the results are a good indication of what many patients are consuming. And the indication is that chemical-laden, unsafe concentrate is on the market.

“We test every product offered by vendors, and what we find in some of those samples is frankly shocking,” Goldsberry says.

Many samples are so obviously tainted they don’t even make it to lab testing, she says. Those that do are required to contain less than 50 parts-per-million residual butane, the same limit dictated by Colorado’s recently adopted BHO regulations — and far below the accepted standards in a typical cigarette lighter, which is 800 million-parts-per-million.

Other industry experts, like Daniel “Big D” de Sailles, a partner at Top Shelf Extracts in Denver, Colo., believe the health concerns about residual solvents are overstated.

“BHO has been around since the year 2000,” he told High Times in a 2012 interview. “So people have been dabbing for a decade now and there haven’t been any real problems reported yet.”

Many extract producers say solvent-based extraction is the only way to reliably produce high-end “next level” concentrates. And the popularity of those concentrates suggests dabbing isn’t going away anytime soon.

But California will have to wait for regulations. For the first time, a medical cannabis regulation bill — AB 266 — appears passable in the state Legislature. Only it doesn’t address cannabis concentrates production and neither do any local laws.

“We’re going to figure out how to regulate this in some way,” Assemblyman Jim Wood, who represents the Emerald Triangle in Sacramento, told SF Evergreen recently. “But it really isn’t part of the conversation right now. And it should be.”

Photo by Brennan Linsley/AP