No matter how you look at it, pot is hot. On TV, we see Justin Bieber hotboxing his private jet, Miley Cyrus performing in pot-leaf unitards and smoking joints onstage at the MTV Awards, and even respected figures like Dr. Sanjay Gupta coming out in favor of marijuana. Almost every month, some promising new medical study is released demonstrating this miracle plant’s many therapeutic uses. Meanwhile, public polls in favor of legalization are at an all-time high, and perhaps most importantly, state legislatures across the country -- eager to imitate Colorado’s record tax revenues -- are introducing their own decriminalization and legalization bills. For the first time since the Drug War began, marijuana’s legal future looks bright. But just as our beloved bud is finally poised to shed its social stigma and take center stage in our society and our economy, all that progress seems threatened by what CNBC has dubbed “marijuana’s explosive secret” -- dabs.
CNBC isn’t the only media outlet hurling the hyper- bole. New Hampshire’s Fosters.com called BHO a “new drug scourge,” and many other news outfits have taken to calling it “the crack of marijuana.” But that’s hardly a fair analogy -- crack has proven to have highly addictive effects for many of its users (both physiologically and psychologically), causing the erosion of health and ultimately destroying families and lives. Cannabis, on the other hand, even in its most concentrated form, fits none of those criteria: Just because you use a blowtorch to smoke it doesn’t make it a hard drug. In fact, I’d say the greatest similarity between dabs and crack seems to be the way in which ratings-hungry reporters are drumming up fear around it.
Most notably, a report on "ABC’s Nightline" featured an alleged DEA informant in a ski mask, who claimed that one dab was as strong as smoking 20 joints and that a single hit would keep someone high for over a day. A DEA agent from San Diego, also featured in the report, ominously intoned that “we have seen people have an onset of psychosis and even brain damage from that exposure to that high concentration of THC. Our concern is that this is going to spread before we get it under control.” Even worse, the Nightline producers went on to interview some idiotic amateur named Jay Hood, who was not only blasting indoors but proceeded to light up a cigarette immediately after warning viewers not to blast with an open flame nearby.
Broadcasting absurd, unsubstantiated claims and showcasing bottom-of-the-barrel examples to exaggerate a drug’s dangers are nothing new for mainstream media outlets. In reality, however, BHO is not some dangerous new drug -- it’s just a more modern form of hashish, which has been around for thousands of years. Yes, it’s more potent than your father’s (or grandfather’s) hash, but it’s still just hash. There’s nothing in a well-made dab that isn’t already in an old-fashioned joint -- including the residual butane (if any), which you would’ve inhaled when you flicked your Bic anyway.
In fact, since dabs contain only essential oils and none of the rest of the plant’s matter, they’re actually probably healthier for you. So no, BHO is not the crack of marijuana -- it’s more like ... the whiskey of weed. Most beer contains around 5 percent alcohol, while whiskey typically contains around 40 percent -- making it eight times more potent. With cannabis, most kind bud comes in around 15 percent THC, while extracts have up to 75 percent -- only around five times stronger.
“All we’re doing is taking shots of THC,” says Dougie Fresh, owner of Hitman Glass, a concentrate-oriented bong com- pany. “We can’t let the media twist our lifestyle and compare it with hard drugs. We have a responsibility to educate people and present this in a better light.”
It’s not just the blowtorches that invite comparisons to hard drugs, though.
While some fears over smoking BHO may be exaggerated or unfounded, those pertaining to the dangerous nature of its production are, unfortunately, all too real. With every new amateur extractor who blows up his apartment or garage in a quick-buck attempt to blast his own batch of BHO using shortcuts, schwag and jerry-rigged equipment, those concerns and comparisons will only grow. In Holland, where the possession and sale of cannabis are tolerated, the law draws no distinction between butane hash and hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Alarmingly, some US states seem headed in the same direc- tion. In Texas, you can get five to 99 years for making BHO. In Oklahoma, it’s two years to life. In California, the legal birthplace of medical marijuana and arguably the cultivation capital of America, there’s a minimum sentence of two to seven years if you profit from its manufacture or distribution. Even in Washington -- where recreational cannabis use is now legal and retail pot shops are beginning to open -- the state allows “infused” products like edibles but has prohibited concentrates.
Thankfully, Colorado has taken a very different approach. Rather than attempting to ban extracts, state officials have brought in cannabis industry experts to help them establish groundbreaking new regulations to ensure that concentrates are made safely. Among those experts is Matt VanBenschoten from TC Labs, whose new consulting company, Extract Outfitters, was created to help the industry bring its operations up to speed.
“The Department of Revenue for the State of Colorado approached me and basically said, ‘We don’t like concentrates,’” VanBenschoten says. “‘We understand why you do, but we don’t really know if we want to have them around. What do we do?’”
Looking at the standards that other comparable industries are held to, VanBenschoten’s team tried to formulate some of their own. Working in tandem with the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, they helped draft regulations for the cannabis extraction industry that adhere to standards already laid out by organizations like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Fire Protection Agency and the National Electric Code. These new regulations mandate that extractions be done in a mold- and spark-free environment using a professional-grade closed-loop system and only food-grade equipment. Extraction makers must use approved exhaust, fire-suppression, electrical and gas-monitoring systems as well as grounding mats, emergency shutdowns and an exterior storage tank designed to hold flammable material. Also, every facility must be certified by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene and a professional engineer to verify that it complies with all local and state laws and adequately protects anyone in or near the facility from harm. All of these new rules, which go into effect on July 1, will essentially end the practice of open blasting in the state of Colorado and present its numerous extraction companies with an ultimatum: Either step up your game or it’s game over.
“This is just about making sure it’s done safely, and that the products going out the door aren’t going to hurt the consumer,” VanBenschoten says. And he’s prepared to put his own -- and other people’s -- money where his mouth is.
For a fee, he and his partners will come in and appraise an extraction area and make whatever upgrades are necessary to be in compliance. Or, for the low price of $75,000, they’ll set up a regulation-ready, explosion-proof, pre-fab extraction lab of their own design for you. “It’s plug-and-play,” he explains. “We handle the plans, permits, installation, everything.” VanBenschoten and his team equip all of their rooms exclusively with an extraction unit that they claim is far superior to any other currently on the market: the Obe-Dos from Emotek, designed and developed by an expert extractor who calls himself Giddy Up.
“Giddy Up’s unit has bridged that gap between open blasting and a safe, closed- loop environment. There’s no other plug-and-play, closed-loop system that truly meets the commercial standards,” VanBenschoten assures me. “We bought two or three other units from different companies and ran compressed air and butane through them a few times, and it was terrifying. You’ve got shoddy welds and craftsmanship, leaks at your seals, ferrous metal shavings inside that you’re catching ... you can’t be having that. At the end of the day, this is a consumable medical product that you’re vaporizing into your lungs, and we need to treat it as such and be held to higher standards.”
Think about that for a second: While most other industries do everything in their power to avoid paying taxes and to fight any government regulation or oversight (including spending billion on lobbyists, setting up off-shore tax shelters, even bribing or intimidating inspectors and whistleblowers), the folks in the cannabis industry are doing the exact opposite. They’re not only volunteering to be taxed and regulated, they’re helping the government draft regulations that make sense. And while many major industries pollute our air and water and poison the public with virtual impunity for the sake of their bottom line, cannabis companies like Extract Outfitters are committed to environmentally conscious business practices.
“I got pulled into a meeting with this woman who was an air quality- control regulator for the Department of Public Health,” VanBenschoten recalls. “She heard about these volatile organic compounds [VOCs] that we’re all releas- ing—that’s basically what butane is -- and she was afraid of what they were doing to the environment. So we were able to figure out that, using an intense UV filter, we can break down the butane into CO2, water and oxygen right there on the spot, so that it’s completely inert and has no impact on the environment whatsoever. It’s no longer hazardous -- period.”
It makes you ask yourself: Who are the real criminals? Contrary to the outdated and derogatory stereotypes regurgitated by clueless commentators like Nancy Grace, most pot smokers are not dumb, irresponsible or unmotivated. In fact, for half a century now, marijuana growers have been outlaw pioneers in the field of botany, developing groundbreaking new breeding, cloning and trimming techniques. More recently, as concentrates have taken the spotlight, they’ve been tackling engineering and advanced chemistry. Basically, stoners are increasingly becoming scientists (which makes it doubly ironic, then, that pot’s most vocal opponents are often the very same people who deny the solid science behind climate change, evolution, and the age and origin of the universe).
It’s through scientific research that the healing powers of cannabis are finally being proven and unfounded myths of its harmfulness dispelled, and it’s only through respect for legitimate scientific study and pragmatic problem-solving that we’ll be able to effectively address any societal challenges that may arise as a result of marijuana’s legalization -- and that includes concentrates. In fact, I would argue that the best way to tackle the serious public concerns posed by the rise of concentrates -- namely, curtailing the dangers of “bathtub BHO” and dirty dabs, and keeping wax out of the hands of kids -- is through legalization and regulation rather than prohibition.
Under a legalized system (such as the one being developed in Colorado), legal pot shops would be able to offer safely made, professionally tested and reasonably priced concentrates to any adult who wants them. This would eliminate the profit margin and motivation for BHO bootleggers, and thus the need for a black market and the dangers it entails. Will some motivated teenagers still get their hands on dabs? Of course -- just as they’ve always managed to get their hands on beer if they really wanted to.
For better or worse, rebellion is a defining characteristic of youth, and curiosity and pleasure seeking are hard-wired into human nature. No amount of legislation or propaganda can change that. What a new system of legalization and regulation can do, however, is mitigate the damage caused by those behaviors. Which means that the sooner more states begin to adopt pragmatic solutions like the ones being implemented in Colorado, the sooner we’ll see a decrease in bootleg BHO explosions.
Thankfully, that prospect may not be too far off. According to VanBenschoten, other states on deck to possibly overhaul their policy towards concentrates (and cannabis in general) in the near future include Oregon, Illinois and Nevada, which he predicts will someday soon have budtenders in Las Vegas casinos bringing joints to patrons right at the gambling tables. “I have to give some of these regulators credit here -- in the past two years or so, instead of having their thumbs up their asses, they’re really willing to look at the situation,” VanBenschoten notes. “The tides are starting to change.”
Indeed they are. According to an article on SeattleTimes.com, Mark Kleiman -- author of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know -- predicts that concentrates will most likely eclipse marijuana as Colorado’s recreational drug of choice in the near future. As the competition coordinator for our Cannabis Cup events, I can attest to that. In our past two Cups (SoCal and Denver), we’ve had to expand our category cap for concentrates from 40 to 60 to accommodate the overwhelming amount of extract entries. It won’t be long before we start seeing paparazzi shots of Justin and Miley carrying blowtorches and wearing “Dab-Star” T-shirts. Like it or not, dabs are the new reality. So the question then becomes: How will we as a society handle that fact?
Sure, we can do what we’ve always done before. News organizations can declare dabs a scourge that is endangering youth, playing on parents’ paranoia with sensationalized accounts designed to boost their ratings. Parents, in turn, can fill their kids’ heads with D.A.R.E.-style propaganda and misinformation, desperate to prevent them
from getting high at any cost (and by declaring it taboo, make it all the more desirable). And our government can continue to ignore science, reason, civil liberties and the needs of the suffering to engage in a militarized and misguided crusade to eradicate this “dangerous new threat,” drafting draconian laws that will only drive the quality of concentrates down and their cost up.
Or we can try something totally different: We can take a wiser, more mature approach. We can admit to ourselves that those tactics have never worked and never will, and approach the situation from a harm-reduction perspective instead. We can educate our- selves and our kids about the legitimate dangers and work together to institute common-sense laws and regulations (like the ones in Colorado) that address those issues responsibly rather wage a brand-new Drug War based on overreaction and falsely inflated fears.
Cannabis, in all of its forms, can improve one’s quality of life immensely -- enhancing creativity, enabling relaxation and engendering euphoria. It can relieve pain and help regulate and heal the body’s systems. But like any other medicine or intoxicant, it has some potential for abuse. The only way to convince others in society to respect our right to use concentrates is to make and use concentrates in a way that respects those around us. If we don’t, dabs may be doomed to remain on the DEA’s most wanted list.