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There’s been a lot of hype in the popular press lately about the use of butane hash oil (BHO), also referred to as “dabs.” Reports suggesting that dabs can lead to wild and immediate addiction or that the process of extracting the oil is going to blow up your house, AND YOUR ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOOD!!! are rampant in the news.
But how dangerous are dabs really? Is this the new reefer madness? Or do we legitimately have need to take pause when discussing this new, highly concentrated form of cannabis?
It was these questions that prompted my adviser and I to conduct a survey-based study on the dangers of dabs. We received responses from over 500 cannabis users across the country who had experience with this new process of inhalation.
The paper is currently under review for publication. But, my intrigue with analyzing the results wasn’t just to curb an intellectual enthusiasm. I had personal experience with the potential for negative consequences from dabs use. I wanted to know if those experiences generalized.
My experience with dabs wasn’t, per se, my own. It was actually that of my father.
My dad is a character to say the least. He’s also a long time “medicinal” marijuana user. Medicinal is in quotations here because, while dad uses marijuana to naturally alleviate all sorts of symptoms, his primary motive for use probably falls outside of the realm of complaints most medicinal states require for a legitimate diagnosis.
But those of you from the West Coast understand that the distinction in terms of getting your medical card is a moot one.
About two years ago I heard my father first talk about dabs. His dispensary had made it available and he was having a great time experimenting with his new hash oil pipe. Knowing what his daughter studies, he was eager to show me how it works.
Wait, dad, you use a fucking blowtorch? Are you serious? You know you’re gonna light the house on fire? I was laughing. It was just so classically my father. Combining his two favorite interests, his nightly chief with pyrotechnics.
I know what I’m doing, he said.
And honestly, he did seem to know what he was doing. This was obviously not his first rodeo.
To be fair, it’s actually kind of a neat practice to watch. You use the blowtorch to heat a sort of small metal pan (my survey work suggests some use other metal objects like the end of a nail, etc), which slides underneath what looks like the shaft of a bong. A dab of the thick, honey-like hash oil (hence, the name “dabs”) is placed on the heated pan releasing vapors. You immediately inhale the vapors as they rise through the mouthpiece, and voila! A single hit and my dad was fifty-thousand-feet-high-and-climbing.
Cool, huh? dad asked, more out of pride than actual inquiry.
My father later explained that his preference for dabs was due to its ability to quickly deliver his “medicine” in a fast, efficient, and effective way. One hit and you’re done. Back to business. And others seem to share this view.
Results from our study suggest that those who prefer dabs to traditionally smoked flower cannabis, do so because it’s faster, stronger, and less hits are necessary to feel the desired effects. Makes sense why it’s gaining in popularity, no?
After my father demonstrated his new find we went back in the house to watch a movie together. I went upstairs to make a cup of tea. And that’s when things went awry. When I came back in the TV room my dad’s demeanor had completely changed. He had a lopsided half-smile on his face and his eyes had glossed over.
Dad, is everything okay?
He didn’t respond.
Dad! I shouted.
I ran over to where he was sitting and shouted again. He didn’t respond. My father then mumbled a few garbled sounds, and closed his eyes as he went unconscious and vomited.
All of my emergency training went out the window and my only reaction was to dive for my cell and call 911. My dad was unconscious and wasn’t responding as I tried to jar him awake. I was terrified. For 30 excruciatingly long seconds I truly believed that my father was dead.
When he came to, the emergency technicians instructed me as I ran through a couple of standard verbal tests to check for stroke. What day of the week is it? Can you smile for me (to check that both sides of his face are working), etc. He wasn’t faring too well. But, I was at least relieved he was now semi-conscious.
After a few minutes, my father started to realize what was going on and insisted he was fine and didn’t need an ambulance. Somehow he managed to convince me I should tell them not to come. I acquiesced.
Dad, I’m driving you to the hospital myself.
I’m fine. I’m fine. He was still garbled and slow.
Please dad. I was crying now. I really need you to go to the hospital with me. Please, I’m really scared.
I don’t need to go to the hospital baby, I’m fine.
I begged. My face tear stained. Please daddy.
The lopsided smile came back and he said “I’m so sorry I scared you honey. If it’ll make you feel better then we can go. Anything you want.”
He was grinning like a little kid. I could tell he didn’t fully understand the situation in his current state but knew enough to recognize how frightened I was.
The whole car ride I was shaking. I’d lived in the area my entire life but somehow couldn’t remember exactly where the hospital was. Dad was being less than helpful. At least some of his verve was starting to return though.
Shit. I’m thirsty. Are you as thirsty as I am? I’m really thirsty honey. Can you stop at the store so I can get a bottle of water?
No dad, you can get some water when we get to the hospital. I’m not stopping.
One minute later.
I really am thirsty. I’ve never been this thirsty in my life. Please stop, please?
No, I’m not stopping. I was still terrified and convinced he’d had a stroke; I wasn’t making detours.
Another minute later.
It’s the Gobi Desert in here! Awww, my tongue is stuck to the rough of my mouth. Please. It feels like glue. Please stop baby, please. Pleeeeeaaaaassseeee.
I hate to admit it, but I struggled a little to contain my smile as I watched my 62-year-old father flying in the doors of the 7-eleven to alleviate his world’s-worst case of cotton mouth. I wasn’t laughing though. No, this wasn’t funny.
When we got to the emergency room the receptionist asked for his reason for admittance and my father pulled out his medical card and said “I think I got too high.” Needless to say, we were going to be waiting for a while.
Sitting in the waiting room as my father’s giggles started (I will admit, dad can be pretty funny and he was on a roll with the emergency patrons) the irony of the situation didn’t escape me. I’ve spent my graduate school tenure focused on why the risks of cannabis use are largely socially constructed.
The plant itself doesn’t hold the same kinds of dangers as other substances of abuse. And yet here I sat. My father was exhibiting signs of stroke, and for a few moments I’d thought he’d be the first person to ever die of a cannabis overdose.
In self-report studies I often ask participants if they’ve ever been hospitalized for their cannabis use. We do this to see if someone is either erratically responding on the survey or faking bad, because the likelihood that someone would truthfully answer yes is slim to none. My father now met one of my exclusionary research criteria!
Five hours later the medical staff finally saw him.
I explained to the doctor my concerns and let her conduct her tests.
Doc: Sir, can you tell me what happened?
Dad: Well, I’d just done some hash oil and went inside to sit down. That’s when I started seeing the black and reds. And then I guess I blacked out. I don’t remember much after that.
Doc: The black and reds? Have you ever experienced anything like that before?
Dad: <10 second delay> Yeah, actually I have. 1970, the first time I tried acid.
Doc: Um, okay. So, I see you have a medicinal marijuana card. What do you use cannabis for?
Dad: Uhhhh, well, back pain, uhhhh, I enjoy it, it relaxes me…
Doc: Right. Well, sir. I think you’re going to be fine. You look healthy as can be, and I don’t see any indication of stroke or other cognitive impairment at this stage. But, I highly recommend you follow up with your proscribing doctor to discuss your cannabis dose.
The doctor was totally cool, and better yet, dad was gonna be fine. It was just a scare.
When we got home, after a brief detour through the Jack-In-The-Box drive through (dad was insistent), me exhausted—both physically and emotionally drained—my father turned to me: “Honey, I’m really, really sorry that I scared you tonight. I never want to see that horror-stricken face you gave me when I woke up ever again, it will haunt my dreams. I feel absolutely terrible about what I put you through. But ya know what? I had a really nice time with you tonight.”
Everything turned out okay in the end. There were no actual problems experienced other than an obscenely expensive emergency room bill (sorry dad, but I’m not sorry). Dad just got too high.
And yet, the situation was scary. My dad still feels the guilt of knowing that he made his daughter think for a few moments that her father was dead. And I still get nervous when I think about that first hour, where I really didn’t think he was going to be okay. This pretty much sums up the conundrum we face with dabs.
Our survey found that dabs users did not experience any more problems or accidents related to their cannabis use than those who use traditional flower cannabis. But what we did find was that users viewed dabs as significantly more dangerous than flower cannabis.
They might not have actually experienced more problems, but they at least believed that they would. Considering my overall platform is that expectancies (what you expect to happen to you when you use drugs) are what predict problematic use, I’d say we might be in trouble with this one.
So what does my dad’s dabble with dabs tell us? Well, it’s hard to say, because nothing all that bad actually happened, physically anyway. His guilt, my fear, and my stepmom’s wrath are a different story. He left the hospital with no actual harm done.
So the risk with dabs seems to be that it does what it promises to do—stronger, faster, with less hits necessary to reach peak effects.
It does get you very, very intoxicated. Great if you want to get high efficiently, but the increased concentration makes regulating your exact dose difficult. And when moderation is key when you’re trying not to scare the living shit out of your daughter, then dabs probably aren’t the safest bet.
But, are the dangers consistent with all the propaganda in the popular press? Probably not. In fact, that propaganda might actually be making things worse by adding to people’s beliefs that dabs can lead to problems, as cannabis users do seem to believe that dabs are more dangerous than flower cannabis despite new evidence to the contrary.
And again, we have this regulation of dose problem. At the very least you most likely won’t be burning down the neighbor’s house.