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What is Dabbing and Should You Try It?

Dabbing is not just a move popularized by Panthers QB Cam Newton.

Cam Newton Dabbing
Cam Newton: Dabbing. Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY

Dabs are one of the newest, most high tech and highly potent forms of cannabis concentrates available today. As more states move to legalize cannabis, these new extracts are becoming more widely available and are rapidly gaining popularity with medical and recreational users alike. The following is an intro guide to dabbing for anyone who may be wondering what a dab is and is trying to find some basic information about cannabis extracts, dab rigs and the health effects of dabbing.

What is a Dab?

A dab is concentrated plant matter, specifically, THC and terpenes extracted from cannabis buds by using a solvent, usually butane, that results in a sticky potent oil. This concentrate cannabis oil is called butane hash oil (or BHO) and comes in different consistencies based on the process used to make it.

Each type of extract has its own characteristics and use. For instance, thicker concentrates called wax or budder work well in certain vape pens and vaporizer setups, while more translucent and candy like concentrates called shatter are what you will use in a typical dab rig.

shatter and budder example

Sometimes this concentrate oil has no THC at all and instead contains Cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD. CBD has no psychoactive properties so you won’t be impressing many friends at parties with CBD dabs. Treatment of chronic pain, seizures and muscle spasms are some common uses for CBD oil and if you live in a state with legal cannabis–especially medical marijuana, chances are you can find a CBD product to help with those issues.

What is a Dab Rig

Say you’ve decided to ditch the disposable vape pen and instead picked up some shatter from a dispensary, but how do you actually use it? BHO isn’t like smoking flower buds; it bubbles, melts and vaporizes when heated. So you’ll need some specialized equipment–a dab rig–to get started dabbing.

Dab eRig
Dab eRig. Source: VaporVanity.com

The basic idea behind a dab rig is to use a flame to heat up a small platform, called a nail, that is hooked up to a water pipe or bong. Using a long thin stick called a dabber, take a small amount of BHO (just a dab!) and drop it onto the hot nail where it will bubble and release the THC and terpenes as a vapor that you can inhale through the bong.

From here you have many choices. What kind of nail should you get? Will any bong work? What kind of heat source should you use? How hot should you get the nail and how much hash oil should you drop per dab? If budget is not an issue, what’s the “best” rig you can possibly get?

Many people already own a bong or “scientific” glass piece (with modular pieces resembling glass lab equipment that are easily interchangeable) and want to use their existing glass as the base for a dab rig. This is probably the most common solution and many smoke shops these days carry a wide variety of add-ons to convert your existing bong into a dab rig. Some older style bongs and headie glass may need an extra adapter or two for use as a dab rig or otherwise may not be able to accept nail add-ons at all. Most newer glass pieces have a universal connector that makes changing glass bowl types easy without any adapters needed.

You may have a lot of choices when it comes to the type of nail to add to your rig. These could include simple, cup-shaped bangers made of quartz, ceramic or titanium that replace your bong’s usual glass bowl, or highly elaborate art pieces with moving steampunk gears and other decorative, non functional bits.

Just keep a few things in mind when selecting your nail:

  • you want a piece that fits your existing bong
  • you want a material that doesn’t melt or release toxins at high heat and you want a setup that’s easy to clean

For these reasons many people choose the simple quartz banger type bowls over more elaborate designs, and some even insist that quartz yields cleaner, better tasting vapor than metal or ceramic options. This comes down to your own personal preference and taste.

Another common option is to buy a purpose made dab rig that’s ready to go right off the shelf. From here your price points go up when compared to a simple banger type add-on. Artisans who make scientific glass have a dedicated following of collectors eager to assemble massive rigs festooned with percolators, tubes and spouts to cool and condition their dab hits. You can also buy more simple, traditional looking bongs that have a built in glass or quartz nail instead of the classic bowl. For medical users and serious dab enthusiasts there are electronic rigs with highly precise heating elements to get your dabs bubbling at the temp that’s just right for you.

Another option is skipping the bong and nail altogether and going for a portable vape pen instead. There are many options for vaporizing BHO extracts these days and some of the most popular are discrete, reusable, rechargeable pen type vapes. Some of these pens accept disposable oil cartridges already loaded with several hundred hits worth of liquid extract. Some vapes have a reusable heating chamber where you can add dabs of your favorite wax or budder extract.

Besides portability, the main differences between these vape options and the traditional dab rig are the size and temperature of the hits that you’re taking. With a vape pen, the device effectively limits the size of the hit you can take by only allowing a small amount of the oil to be vaporized at a time at a temperature that is usually preset. If you want a bigger dose of medicine you’ll have to hit the pen multiple times. With a full on dab rig you’re in control of the amount of BHO per hit and the temperature at which it vaporizes, enabling you to take truly heroic, billowing cloud hits if that’s your thing.

Heat: What to Use, and How Hot is too Hot?

What kind of heat source should you use and what’s the “best” temperature to blaze your dabs? With traditional dab rigs you first heat the nail, typically with either a butane torch lighter or a propane kitchen torch (the kind you’d use for creme brûlée). Knowing how long to heat the nail this way is usually guess work reinforced by trial and error. Some folks use instant read laser thermometers (found with cooking or candy-making tools) to check the surface temp of their nail before dabbing and eliminate any guesswork, but many use their experience and intuition to find what works for them.

heating and dabbing shatterCommon concerns when choosing a heat source are the size of the flame it produces, cost of the torch itself and the cost of the fuel. A typical disposable butane lighter is nearly useless in this scenario because it simply doesn’t produce enough heat for the job. The next step up is a butane pencil torch or torch-style cigar lighter. These are probably the most commonly used tools for the job and often are sold in glass shops along side the bangers. The main downside to butane torches is the amount of fuel they consume and the cost of the fuel compared to propane. A larger propane kitchen torch is a more economical option for dedicated dabbers and foodies who may already have one lying around. These kind of torches output more heat and the fuel is cheaper, but the torch itself is larger, more unwieldy and makes quite an eyesore sitting out on a coffee table when not being used.

When heating your nail keep in mind that lower temperatures may leave behind some unvaporized oil but often yield better flavors and a “cleaner” high. While higher temps leave behind less resin and give an experience closer to smoking flower, dabbing at temperatures higher than about 600* F releases carcinogens such as benzene and methacrolein and degrades the overall quality of the medicine.

Terpenes and Health

Terpenes are the oils that give plants–including cannabis–characteristic smells, tastes and certain medicinal properties. Terpenes are why some buds smell like berries or an angry skunk. Terpenes are also why some buds give you the munchies, make you energetic or immediately make you sleepy and lock you to the couch.

One criticism of dabbing in the beginning was that you lose some of the terpenes in the extraction process that give individual strains their character and healing properties. Cannabis extractors have since found ways to add terpenes back into their oils. Some cannabis users add terpenes to their dabs by terp dipping, immersing the dab in liquid terpenes right before blazing it.

So far there are few studies into the healthful effects of dabs over smoking cannabis flower, or in any context. At the time of writing there has been one widely known study on this topic performed by the Department of Chemistry at Portland State University, published in the ACS Omega journal in 2017 entitled “Toxicant Formation in Dabbing: The Terpene Story”.

The scientists in this study focused on the chemical degradation by heat of the common terpene Myrcene, found in nearly all strains of cannabis. The tests measured carcinogens released by this chemical reaction as dabs were burned at higher and higher temperatures, showing that little to no carcinogens were produced at temperatures below 600* F. Temperatures higher than 600* F began yielding benzene and other carcinogens, and the hotter the temperature the more of these carcinogens were produced.

This reinforces the ideas that combustion (i.e. smoking buds) releases more carcinogens than vaping or dabbing at reasonable temperatures, and that dabbing at lower temperatures preserves the medicinal effects of the terpenes.

Question and Answers About Dabbing

Question: Can I eat wax/budder/shatter?

Answer: The short answer is no. Because BHO is extracted using no heat the THC doesn’t decarboxylate, or heat up to the point of “activating”. It would be like eating a cannabis bud straight off the plant; it will taste terrible and won’t have any other remarkable effects.

Question: Can I extract cannabis for dabs at home?

Answer: No, because it is super dangerous and you might die. People trying to make wax/budder/shatter for dabs has notoriously resulted in house fires and many other unfortunate accidents. Leave it to the extraction professionals with training and actual lab equipment.

Question: How much THC is in a dab?

Answer: This varies greatly from extract to extract depending on the strain and extraction techniques used. Typically shatter type BHO oil is somewhere between 20% and 80% THC. This information is often printed on the labels of professionally extracted BHO.

Question: Does dabbing get you higher than smoking buds?

Answer: Yes and no. Yes, right now dabs are possibly the most effective way to ingest a lot of THC in a short amount of time and you will certainly get high. This comes at the expense of terpenes and cannabinoids that are lost during the extraction process and would be felt if you smoked the plant’s flower. For some people the soaring head high of dabs is preferable to the smoke experience so it’s a matter of what works for you personally.

Question: Are there any long term effects of dabbing?

Answer: No studies have been conducted on the long term effects of dabbing. Common reports from people who dab frequently include a drastic increase in tolerance to THC and more pronounced withdrawal symptoms when daily use is stopped. Like anything good in life; moderation is the key!

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