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Cannabis Extracts: Just the Basics, Please

“Dabbing” may get a bad rap as a pastime for partiers and pop stars, but smoking dabs —aka extracts, concentrates, shatter, and many other names—can be an especially useful tool for medical purposes, with the potential to deliver potent, highly refined, and clean doses of cannabis. Here’s what you need to know about this relatively new way to imbibe cannabis.

A Little Cannabis History

Because cannabis has such a long history as medicine—dating back at least 4,000 years—it’s no surprise that extracts have equally deep roots, largely in the form of hashish, which consists of purified resin glands called trichomes.

Although hashish is still popular in many parts of the world, modern-day extracts use high-tech processes to further refine the product. Although different extraction methods deliver slightly different results, at their best, extracts are clean-burning, flavorful, and extremely potent distillations of the cannabis plant.

This potency, sometimes as high as 90% THC—as opposed to a typical cannabis flower potency around 15 – 20% THC—can be overwhelming for newcomers accustomed to smoking flower. We strongly advise that with smoking dabs, as with any cannabis product, going slow and staying low is a good rule of thumb.

Smoking Dabs: Party Drug or Effective Medicine?

This high potency has obvious advantages for recreational cannabis users, but we’re more interested in clinical applications here. On that front, extracts—including high-CBD strains with little to no psychoactivity—are every bit as effective at providing relief from symptoms such as chronic pain, sleeplessness, anxiety, and the many other qualifying conditions for cannabis treatment in Maryland. The questions then become: What kind of concentrate should I get, and what’s the best way to take it?

The supercritical CO2 method of extraction is known for producing especially clean and high-potency concentrates; other methods, such as butane extraction, can be similarly pure but should be independently verified for purity. We don’t recommend alcohol-based extracts, especially for those administration methods involving heat.

We always recommend you engage with the budtenders at your dispensary to verify the purity of the extract you’re using; a reputable dispensary should have the manufacturer’s testing data on hand, and may even back that up with further testing of their own.

The Process of Smoking Dabs

Some cannabis extracts, especially those labeled “cannabis oil,” are designed to be taken sublingually (under the tongue) but we’ll focus here on the types that are vaporized.

The equipment required for smoking dabs isn’t significantly more involved than that needed for smoking flower, but it is somewhat specialized. In addition to the cannabis concentrate (remember, no alcohol-based extracts please), a more-or-less standard setup would include:

  • A water pipe (known in some forms as a “bong”
  • A nail (not the variety used for carpentry, but a specialized element specifically for this use)
  • A dome (again, purpose made) to trap the vapor before inhalation
  • A torch, such as those used for browning food like crème brûlée.
  • A utensil—“the dabber”—with which to apply the dab

The process is straightforward:

  • The torch is used to heat the nail until starts to glow red-hot.
  • The dome is placed over the nail to allow it to cool somewhat (you’ll want to ask your budtender about specific times for specific materials).
  • Lift the dome and, using the dabber, apply a tiny—as in crumb-sized—speck of concentrate to the nail. Inhale slowly as the oil vaporizes.
  • Exhale and evaluate the experience. (We recommend you stay seated during this entire experience as the rush of THC, especially for new users, can be intense.)

Of course, there are many variations: There are electronic and domeless nails, for a start. But the principle remains the same.

“Smoking dabs” may sound like an illicit or disreputable activity, but it’s also an effective and trusted method of accessing all the medical benefits of cannabis in a clean, concentrated form.

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