Demand for 'dabs,' a controversial and potent form of marijuana, spikes in Sacramento

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013 - 6:20 pm
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 - 7:26 am

It’s become a daily occurrence. Customers visit Hugs Alternative Care, a medical marijuana dispensary on Stockton Boulevard, and ask for “dabs.”

They are referring to butane hash oil, an especially potent form of marijuana, also known as “honey,” “honey oil,” “wax” or “earwax” because of its sticky, amber-colored appearance.

“We don’t carry oils or waxes,” Hugs manager Cathy Romer tells them.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the demand for dabs has hit Sacramento.

The marijuana industry’s latest “it product,” dabs has been moving from the fringe into mainstream consciousness for years, although many card-carrying medicinal marijuana users and even some law enforcement officials know little about it.

High Times magazine featured dabs on its July cover, teasing it as “pot’s most powerful high.” Vice – the media company that recently accompanied Dennis Rodman on a diplomatic trip to North Korea to meet Kim Jong-un Kim Jong Un – has released a mini-documentary on the subject. And local TV news outlets nationwide have issued reports on it, mostly informing viewers about the dangers of its production.

Demand for dabs spiked six months ago at Sacramento’s Hugs, Romer said.

What makes dabs unique is the concentration of THC, the chemical that gives pot users a high. Donald Davies, former manager of Sacramento dispensary Canna Care, said dabs can be 70 percent THC, compared with high -end cannabis plants, which register between 15 percent and 25 percent.

Dab makers soak cannabis in butane or alcohol to extract THC from the plant. After collecting a liquid, they boil off the butane and the remains solidify into what looks like tree sap. Users then “dab” or prick the waxy substance with a needle to pick it up, place it on the tip of a special pipe, and ignite it with a small blowtorch to release fumes.

Products loaded with THC have been available for decades, carrying the name hash oil or honey oil. But even “regular, old-school hash” was often limited to 50 percent THC, Davies said. The use of butane makes the difference.

“Nothing has ever come over the cannabis industry like this,” said Addison DeMoura, a co-founder of cannabis analysis lab Steep Hill Halentv in Oakland.

Many collectives are selling more butane hash oil than weed, he added.

DeMoura said dabs’ potency benefits many of the sickest patients who cannot smoke cannabis to manage pain and help with appetite.

“If a patient cannot smoke and needs to get the medicine, they can simply put BHO into a cup of tea and consume it that way,” he wrote in an email. “The fact that the product is a concentrate makes it easy to infuse and consume. Dabs are part of the progress and the future of consumption.”

However, Davies said dabs are rarely used for medicinal purposes.

“For the most part, 99 percent of the market for dabs is recreational. … It’s definitely for the younger crowd,” he said.

DeMoura disagreed that dabs is largely for recreational users. “Can you say this kid has this disease or that disease?” he asked. “I’ve run a dispensary. I’ve had healthy-looking 19-year-old AIDS patients.”

While some Sacramento dispensaries carry hash, four contacted by The Bee declined to say if they sold butane hash oil.

Hash oil may sell for $20 to $35 per gram in Sacramento, Davies said, and can reach up to $70 per gram in the Bay Area.

Major studies on dabs are lacking, but evidence suggests the drug is addictive, said Dr. Itai Danovitch, president-elect of the California Society of Addiction Medicine.

“People have basically developed dependence on cannabis waxes much in the same way that people can become dependent on marijuana, but the intensity of their withdrawal symptoms can be much greater,” Danovitch said.

Danovitch, who frequently treats patients with marijuana addictions, said those withdrawing from waxes tend to experience more nausea, vomiting and insomnia than patients ending traditional cannabis use. He added that people can overdose on marijuana: They can suffer from panic attacks or develop paranoia, he said.

However, the greatest danger from dabs lies in its production. A Feb. 7 news bulletin from the U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said THC extraction had caused an increasing number of fires, explosions and reported burn injuries in “states with legalized use and availability of medical marijuana,” particularly on the West Coast.

“Butane is highly explosive, colorless, odorless and heavier than air and therefore can travel along the floor until it encounters an ignition source,” the bulletin said.

The Associated Press reported a January BHO explosion that ripped the skin off a 22-year-old man in a San Diego hotel. That same month, an explosion burned more than 80 percent of the bodies of three men making hash in Monrovia.

On Friday, a 2-year-old boy in Eureka was burned and his parents arrested after a blast in an apartment where hashish was being produced, the Eureka Times-Standard reported.

Sgt. Jason Ramos of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department said in an email that he “did not recall anything in recent years specific to hashish oil.”

However, he said, officials responded to a home fire in Rio Linda on Aug. 3, 2011, which left a 36-year-old man injured. A bomb team discovered items in the garage typically used to make hash; the man was not arrested.

DeMoura said authorities should regulate BHO to ensure safe production. He also said he knew of officials failing to identify the newer, concentrated wax.

“I have seen law enforcement handle and return concentrates on many occasions simply because they were told it is ‘lip balm,’” he said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in San Francisco, Karl Nichols, said, “We’re not particularly seeing (hash oil use) in the area.”

The lab for his division extends through 10 western states.

“Any type of action that somebody might do with marijuana is illegal – whether that’s selling it, or possessing it, or distributing it,” Nichols said.

That hasn’t stopped how-to articles and videos about dabs from proliferating on websites and on social media. And it hasn’t stopped customers from entering Hugs Alternative Care asking for the drug.

“We could probably make a lot of money on it,” Romer said. “But we are not willing to put our patients in jeopardy.”

Read more articles by Jeffrey Dastin

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