For thousands of years, humans have been smoking the dried and cured flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant for medicinal therapy and lifestyle enhancement. Very recently in the history of cannabis consumption, within the past 20 years, vaporization became affordable and practical for the masses. Suddenly, marijuana users could indulge the kind herb without torching or eating it — avoiding some of the potentially negative health effects and fire hazard concerns of combustion.
Then, only a few years ago, full legalization began sweeping through the United States, creating commercial processing and manufacturing markets. Companies began to focus on creating concentrates, which are special extracts of cannabis that eliminate the plant matter to create a power-packed gooey oil, rigid “shatter,” or crumbly “wax.” Concentrates, as their name implies, deliver a large dose of THC or CBD (cannabidiol), depending on the particular cannabis strain and process used to extract and process them.
Concentrates are not only uber-potent, but also sometimes dauntingly expensive — as in $60-100 per gram. However, based on how far a properly vaporized or dabbed gram of good, high-quality concentrate can go, the face price of these exotic cannabis concoctions shouldn’t necessarily give consumers sticker shock. Given that a single vaped toke of a concentrate can deliver roughly the same amount of THC and other cannabinoids as an entire joint of midgrade or even top shelf cannabis, good concentrates certainly deliver on their promise, typically providing value.
Dabbing is simply the process of vaporizing a very small quantity — about one-third the size of a pea — of a concentrate (this is an actual “dab”), typically by using a specialized bong-cum-vaporizer called a dab rig. A dab rig features a special bowl, or surface, that is heated to 600-700 degrees F (315-371 C) to quickly vaporize the small spot of concentrate, such as BHO (Butane Hash Oil, also known as “Honey Oil”), CO2 oil, or something truly exotic like live resin or rosin.
Because high-quality concentrates can contain up to 95 percent THC, dabbing isn’t necessarily for newbies or those who easily become disoriented or confused when smoking high-potency cannabis. While the exact high type (based on cannabinoid and terpene profiles) delivered by a particular sample of concentrate depends on the strain(s) of cannabis used to create it, the pure potency of dabbing concentrates may put this consumption avenue out of the league of patients and rec users who dislike an extremely potent psychoactive effect or who become easily spun out.
Dabbing is especially efficient for patients seeking quick pain or nausea relief or lifestyle users who desire rapid onset of a powerful euphoria after a hard day at the office. It is, in theory, safer than smoking flowers because users are no longer torching, or combusting, plant matter (leaf, stem), which offers very little in the form of resinous trichomes containing cannabinoids and terpenes. Critics can be countered by the fact that dabbing concentrates is safer than use of alcohol or opiates — especially on a daily basis.
Most dab rigs aren’t for the faint of heart. Why? Casual consumers of the culture aren’t necessarily willing to play with a blow torch in order to get their high on or medicate during the day. That’s right, most dab rigs require at least a small blow torch to get the heating surface of the unit to temperature and allow for proper, rapid vaporization of the concentrate. There are a wide variety of dab rigs available, both from small craftspeople (like glass blowers) and also larger companies striving to forge regional or even national brands in the green rush.
The first generation of dab rigs were called skillets, which feature a flat plate or pad that is heated and on which the concentrate dab is placed for vaporization and inhalation (sometimes with a glass straw; a milkshake throwaway is definitely an etiquette violation). The least popular form of dab rig, skillets have been replaced by more modern interpretations on the theme, including nails and bangers. Both are just specialized bowls that can be super-heated that efficiently and thoroughly vaporize the dab. The proper heat level of the skillet, nail, or banger is critical; temps that are too high can damage terpenes and cannabinoids.
Nails and bangers are made of materials that can be repeatedly and rapidly heated to a high temperature and then cooled to room temp without cracking or shattering. They are typically made of titanium, glass, ceramic, or quartz. Glass, ceramic, and quartz, while significantly less expensive than titanium, are prone to breaking if dropped on a hard surface, such as a tile floor or granite countertop. Among the three types, quartz is the best, being extremely resilient to temperature changes, while glass is the least expensive but cheapest. Pricey titanium nails and bangers, while gorgeous and impervious to breaking if dropped, may have the opposite effect, putting a divot in one’s kitchen floor or coffee table.
Dabbing fanboys and aficionados battle back and forth regarding which is superior, titanium or quartz. In the end, the best option is highly subjective and depends on how much one is willing to spend and their preferences in terms of design aesthetics and function. Not to mention the material from which their floor is made.
Some curious cannabis consumers have begun using a Healthstone to dab their concentrates. This is basically a disc-like inert rock, sometimes called a vape slab, that can endure the brutal, rapid onset of heat necessary for dabbing. Such stones actually absorb the concentrate, which melts almost immediately after the application of heat. Then, as the stone slab becomes hotter, the concentrate vaporizes from within the porous rock, easily released by a user’s inhale. Healthstones are typically available in 14 and 18 mm sizes to accommodate different dab rigs. An obvious downside of this approach is the potential difficulty of cleaning the inside of the rock to remove any residual concentrate.
Luckily, for those who don’t want to play with torches, special (and often expensive) dab rigs are available that employ a coiled electronic heating element called an e-nail. Many concentrate dabbers prefer e-nails for their convenience and, specifically, because one can dial in an exact temperature for the nail with a simple adjustment. While more costly, e-nails are also safer and prevent one from overheating their dab, potentially harming its medicinal value or recreational potency. If a reader’s parent or grandparent wants to treat their arthritis or cancer and is curious about dabbing, an e-nail is the gear to get.
One company has even developed a vape pen attachment that is basically a mobile dabbing device. The tip is designed to achieve a high enough temperature to be applied to a dab of concentrate to create a vapor, which is then inhaled through the vape pen. This offers the advantage of positioning the dab on a non-heated surface, albeit one that can tolerate the high temps of the vape pen’s dabbing element.
A Word About Concentrates
Readers can learn much more about concentrates here. However, seriously ill patients or those who live an organic or vegan lifestyle may prefer to choose solventless concentrates. Such extracts involve no butane or CO2 (arguably safer than butane if industrial laboratory equipment operated by trained techs is involved), two things one doesn’t want in their body in more than the smallest possible quantities. The green rush has caused several companies to appear that are focused on proprietary methods by which very pure, highly potent cannabis concentrates can be extracted and packaged for distribution through dispensaries and retail outlets in legal states.
Many of these concentrates, such as live resin, employ novel methods of extraction designed to preserve the terpene profile of whole plant cannabis. Unfortunately, terpenes are highly volatile molecules that are easily destroyed by heat and oxidation. Approaches like live resin, which cryogenically freezes the entire cannabis plant at harvest, actually involves butane or CO2 as an extraction solvent, but can be performed only in professional laboratories employing the most efficient industrial equipment that minimizes any residual solvent.
Dabbing can be a great way for patients to quickly medicate and gain relief with a very potent cannabis extract or an approach for busy recreational users to gain the THC equivalent of many bowls of herb in a single toke (especially helpful for those, like pain patients and college students, who have developed a high tolerance from frequent use). Social consumers who enjoy throwing parties often use of e-nails to literally dial in everything just right and deliver perfect dab tokes to their guests. The increasing popularity of solventless concentrates, with many new products and brands entering the market in legal states, will surely only increase the appeal of this alluring form of marijuana consumption.
While conservatives and prohibitionists will continue to demonize cannabis and, by extension, any concentrated form of the kind herb, enlightened patients and lifestyle enhancers now have an additional avenue of consumption to plug cannabinoids and terpenes into the CB1 and CB2 receptors found throughout their brains and immune systems.