Can Dabbing Be Dangerous?

Dabbing is a recent marijuana craze that’s creating new highs — and new dangers, according to experts both inside and outside California’s growing pot industry.

Dabbing is the "flash vaporization” of a marijuana concentrate — an oil that is between 50 and 90 percent pure THC. Dabbers generally smear the oil onto a flame-proof glass surface that's been heated red hot with a small blowtorch. The flame produces a large volume of smoke, which the dabber inhales. The amber substance that is dabbed is sold under the names "shatter," "wax" or "crumble."

Dabbing produces a kind of euphoric high that is more intense than other methods of ingesting THC. Its intensity can be compared to cocaine users who shifted from snorting the substance to smoking it. 

While the high lasts just a few minutes, dabbing can cause extreme paranoia, listlessness, despondency and anxiety. And some say it can fuel an addiction, too.

For years, marijuana advocates have stressed that weed is not physically addictive. But Dr. Michael Miller, medical director for Herrington Recovery Center at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, says dabbing has a different effect.

"Addiction is a bio-psycho-social-spiritual disease," says Miller, the past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. "If you have a predisposition for addiction, the more potent rewards are more likely to kick in the addictive process in the brain. Very strong exposures to very intense rewards triggers a preoccupation and craving and cues to use again. That results in addiction."

Patient consultant Jason McDaniel at Sticky Medz in Mid-City says the solvent used to extract THC from the leafy flowers will determine whether the substance comes out in its purest form, called “shatter." The next purest dab substances are “wax” and “crumble.”

Some users start dabbing because of its purity, according to McDaniel.

“Concentrates are the biggest thing that’s happening in the industry,” he says. “I think people like the ritual, the torch, the nail, the glass pipe. You get a real quick rush, and then it’s over. My advice is to stick with flowers [marijuana buds and leaves].”

Yet dabbing has its proponents.

Aunt Zelda's in Bodega Bay makes concentrates and oils specifically designed to help cancer patients. Justin Kander, Aunt Zelda’s research and development coordinator, says there are benefits to dabbing. Kander says that instead of smoking four or five joints and "putting all that smoke in your lungs” to relieve pain or stimulate appetite, patients can get a high dose in a small amount.

Part of Kander’s job involves partnering with an Aunt Zelda’s doctor to decide the optimal dose each patient needs to take.

All of Aunt Zelda’s concentrates are meant to be taken orally. Kander knows that’s not how they're always used. He says many people throughout California buy Aunt Zelda’s products because of the purity, and that they smoke it.

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“Like anything, it needs to be taken properly,” Kander says. “Concentrates are not like crack or heroin, because you’re not going to die and it doesn’t damage your organs, but there are drawbacks.”

According to what he’s seen, Kander says that continued use over a long period of time can cause permanent paranoia and anxiety. He adds that longtime dabbers can develop a psychological dependence and increased tolerance.

Dr. Miller says he has seen a few cases where dabbing led to permanent brain damage. But those cases are rare.

What really concerns Miller are the synthetic drugs people smoke, such as K-2 and Spice, "where psychosis can manifest itself." He also says the method of administration of any drug can make a difference. "Injecting or smoking instead of a patch or ingesting is more likely to lead to an addiction."

Kander echoes the sentiment, saying that patients need to be careful how they take their medicine.

“A lot of people abuse it. Dabbing all the time is no good,” Kander says. “If you’re satisfied with flowers, there’s no need to go with [concentrates].”

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a source who says her quote was taken out of context. The quote has been removed, and the story's headline has been changed. 

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