THE NEW WAR ON DRUGS
The week of February 15, 2015
An illustration depicted the evolution of the hippie to a business man

The movement to completely change the way you get high

By Cece Lederer

“I’ve got something special for us,” A.J. said as I cued up my recording device. “Have you ever done dabs?”

A.J. is about as close to weed royalty as you can get. If you’ve heard of Sour Diesel, you’ve heard of him. He’s cultivated some of the most potent strains of marijuana and has large-scale grow facilities clamoring for his advice.

Careful to keep it horizontal, he unzipped a rolling suitcase and took out a blowtorch. Then came the “rig.” At first it looked like a regular water pipe, but instead of a slide, there was a ceramic “nail” that resembled a bird bath for a dollhouse.

Then came the jars. “The flavor is in the liquid,” he said as he put a jar of brown oil on my coffee table. “This is what’s known as pure THC A.” Out came a jar of crystals that looked like the spice from Dune. “I mean probably not 100 percent pure, but it’s probably at least 88 to 89. It’s pretty pure.”

The blowtorch heated the ceramic until it glowed. A.J. dipped the dab tool (a wand that looked like tweezers someone gave the wishbone treatment) in the oil, then the crystals.

“Be careful,” he warned. “It’s really hot.” He touched the wand to the nail. It sizzled, and I inhaled until both nail and tool were clean again.

I have never been so stoned so immediately. It was like doing a line of pot. I was smacked in the face with a high I haven’t felt since high school, when I tried to impress a tattooed boy at a cast party.

THC (or tetrahydrocannabinol) consumption and sales are moving away from dry herb and toward dabs and other refined cannabis products. Why? Convenience, for both smoker and producer. These products are easier to produce and easier to consume discreetly, and they get you crazy-baked.

Information about concentrated THC products is spreading rapidly, fueling popularity; legalization is gaining exponential momentum. The 1970s saw decriminalization of marijuana in several states (starting with Oregon in 1973), meaning fines and confiscation often replaced jail time, with the added bonus of pot arrests becoming low priority for cops.

Lately, slow and steady decriminalization has picked up steam. In 1995, California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana. It was joined by four more states in the ’90s, three in 2000, a couple in ’04, and 14 in the last decade, bringing us just two states short of 50 percent. (D.C. is in the medical mix, gumming up my numbers.) A lot of these states still make it hard for you to get your hands on good medical-grade weed, but as the cause picks up steam, they’re likely to join the recreational ranks of Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska.

The more accepted cannabis becomes, the more sweeping change will be.

Almost as important as what passes is what fails to pass. Fourteen states tried to pass pro-cannabis amendments last year, leaving just 13 tightly wound states to drink themselves to death. The attempts show desire for market expansion. Marijuana is still a Schedule 1 substance at the federal level, but these days that’s only really a problem if you want to take it on a plane.

The more accepted cannabis becomes, the more sweeping change will be. With the capital to set up safe and efficient factory-style marijuana processing, investors have already begun to bankroll large scale grows.

“But their weed sucks,” A.J. told me, “so now they’re looking for people like me to improve the quality.”

The investment is likely to pay off. Like in any other industry, wholesalers will get a foothold and the market will become boundless. While refining marijuana requires skill, caution, and an elaborate setup, concentrates will likely prevail. They’re simply a more economic THC-delivery system.

An illustrated GIF depicting the transition of weed smokers from hippies to businessmen

What did I just do?

Cannabis is joining the coca leaf in the ranks of drugs improved by technology.

Concentrates are made from the entire plant, while the smokable flower is only a part. To sell flowers, plants must be cut, trimmed, and dried. The process takes weeks and a lot of manpower. For refined product, the entire plant can be processed without having to wait. Solvents turn live plants into BHO (butane hash oil) on the spot. Those who produce concentrates have a sellable product within 24 hours, where it would take weeks to properly prepare buds.

Dabs are refined marijuana with highly concentrated doses of THC, which explains why, when I tried it, I could feel my thoughts. About 50 percent of the marijuana flower is vegetative plant matter and weeded out in clarification. What’s left are the cannabinoids and terpenes (the good stuff with the medical applications and flavor).

Marijuana is oil- and fat-soluble, which is why edibles (like brownies) work. When the flowers are simmered in butter, the butter takes on the intoxicating components of the plant, which can be then be strained out; boiling it in water would just get it hot and wet. Once ingested (however they’re ingested) and absorbed into the bloodstream, fat-soluble drugs collect in fatty tissue like the brain.

Whether a substance is fat- or water-soluble depends on polarity. Fat-soluble materials are nonpolar, meaning they lack electrical charge. Nonpolar molecules are held together by covalent bonds, in which electrons are shared between connected atoms. Because it’s fat-soluble, concentrates are made with oil-based solvents (often butane) to suspend the cannabinoids. This separates the essential oils from the plant matter.

Those who produce concentrates have a sellable product within 24 hours, where it would take weeks to properly prepare buds.

For those of us who weren’t in AP Chemistry, a solvent is a material that dissolves another, chemically different material (the solute). There are water-based solvent-extraction techniques, but they are less popular.

“Blasting” (extracting concentrated THC from the plant) is complicated, dangerous, and easy to find on YouTube.

The solvent is introduced to the solute (dank, loud, nugs, and other stupid names), resulting in a yellow liquid, as long as ventilation has been good enough to prevent suffocation by fire.

The product of the last chemical reaction becomes the reactant in the next one. The liquid is heated to evaporate the remaining harsh chemicals until it resembles delicious crème brûlée. The material is then moved into a vacuum chamber where the pump bubbles and fluffs it some more. (The strict need for a vacuum chamber is a point of some Reddit dispute, but it remains the favored process.) 

When the fluff looks like gooey home insulation, it returns to the heat source to take its final form. Once isolated, the beneficial compounds can take a variety of structures. A few variables determine the consistency, but temperature is the big one.

“Shatter,” as it’s referred to in this state, looks like the meth seen in Breaking Bad, but yellow. It’s solid yet fragile and breaks apart easily. Shatter is subjected to an additional process to extract the lipids, fats, waxes, and terpenes. It’s the purest of the refined products. Good shatter can reach over 80 percent THC.

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A Millennium Falcon made of shatter. Photo via Imgur

“Wax” looks like a mother extracted it from a 14-year-old boy’s ear. It still has the terpenes, which makes it more flavorful but less potent than shatter—usually 70 to 80 percent. Of the three most popular concentrates, it’s definitely the one I’d most like to get under a microscope.

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Photo via Andres Rodriguez/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

“Honey oil” looks a bit like shatter and feels a lot like maple syrup. It’s the least refined and most flavorful of the three.

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Photo via Vjiced/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Uptight Amsterdam 

The trouble with concentrates is that the law doesn’t know how to treat them.

“We’ve reached a point in history where America is more liberal than Amsterdam,” A.J. said.

The exploding popularity of refined products reportedly shut down the November 2014 Cannabis Cup, an annual week of events sponsored by the publication High Times. Judges come from all over the world to sample and rate different strains of marijuana.

“All these Americans showed up in Amsterdam, and they’re all really disappointed at how conservative things were,” A.J. complained. “For one, hash oil is illegal there. Concentrates are illegal. You can’t do dabs in coffee shops. They treat it as if it’s hard drugs, and they don’t have a liberal hard-drug policy. They keep weed and hash on one side of the fence, but once you cross over to that level of potency, they don’t want it.”

Each Cannabis Cup has an expo. “Thats why people go,” A.J. explained. “They’re throwing weed into the crowd. They’re throwing hash oil into the crowd. They’re scattering shit everywhere. Free shirts, free this, free that. Anyone in the industry who wants to promote gets a booth at the expo.” 

Maybe for the last time. Mayor Eberhard van der Laan’s election platform was built upon stronger marijuana laws for tourists. Sick of seeing his city treated as the world’s playground, he threatened to arrest anyone associated with the event if it went forward. 

Dabs are refined marijuana with highly concentrated doses of THC, which explains why I could feel my thoughts.

Now that it’s harder to embarrass ourselves abroad, it’s even more important for some to legalize at home. Amsterdam has always provided an excuse for the gloriously lazy marijuana advocates. It’s easier to buy a plane ticket and trash a hostel than it is to change the world.

A.J. predicts the cup won’t return to Holland: “Who’s going to come back and buy booths? It’s a business that they’re running, selling the booths. And who’s going to come back and buy booths when the mayor the year before shut the whole thing down?”

Amsterdam may be behind the high times, but in places like Oregon and Spain, concentrates are legal and demand is soaring. And as the refined product market expands, so does the refined product accessory market.

The tech boom

After hitting my portable vape on the 1 train platform, I headed downtown to meet Nick Greene, creator of a new vaporizer that won’t be named here due to potential legal repercussions. Greene’s product works with both dry-herb and refined products, which is crucial to its desirability.

Since concentrates are better vaped than smoked, their growing popularity is changing the apparatuses used to consume them. The first vaporizer I ever used was a direct-inhale box. If you tried to get someone stoned with that today, they’d laugh at you. They were analog, complicated, and hard to use. I never once felt that I got stoned, and oh lord did I try.

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Airflow in these old-school vapes is modulated with the lungs, so they don’t use a pump, which makes them cheaper to produce. It also makes them a frustratingly imprecise hassle. To make it work correctly, your breath has to be just right, so there’d better be a seasoned expert close by. Not to mention the precious party time wasted letting it heat up between hits.

The popular vaporizers these days are digital, button-operated affairs that take no skill or practice to operate. 

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Greene’s is a bag-style vape. It’s comparable to the Volcano (the inspiration behind its development) but less expensive. The machine heats the herb or concentrate, filling the bag with vapor. The bag is then taken off the base and inhaled like helium from a balloon at a kid’s party.

The two technologies are evolving alongside one another. Since that pioneering stoner first invented the apple pipe, potheads have been seeking to optimize consumption.

“Some people lack the skills to become accomplished stoners,” Greene laughed. “If you hold the lighter the wrong way, you burn your thumb; everyone can push a button.” 

I don’t know if I agree. Ritual is part of addiction. Don’t get me wrong: I think pot is great and everyone should get stoned, but I am, without a doubt, addicted. My dad hasn’t smoked since the ’80s, but he still prides himself on rolling great joints (and put to the test, he will). Similarly, I get a rush out of tearing open a new bag of Agent Orange (or Green Crack or another unfortunately named strain), ripping apart the bud, and packing the bowl. The texture of flowers crumbling between my fingers is an intoxicating part of the experience.

With my vape, I’m beginning to appreciate a new set of rituals. I play with the temperature settings, pack the oven with a particular gold pencil, and meticulously scrape the lid clean. These aren’t the same rituals that make me feel like I’m in my childhood bathroom blowing smoke into the ass end of a fan while listening to Belle and Sebastian’s Tigermilk, but there’s magic in the new as well.

Since that pioneering stoner first invented the apple pipe, potheads have been seeking to optimize consumption.

Greene moved to vaporizing for health reasons but stayed for reasons of discretion and convenience. Dry-herb portables and refined-product portables are great, but if you can get cartridges, that’s even more convenient.

“Vaping is all about exposing big surface area to heat, which is why you grind your pot,” he said. “That’s really easy with liquids. Pop a cartridge in and heat the liquid directly.” Plus, cartridge-based pieces don’t have to be cleaned. 

The discretion of e-cigarettes and smokable pens are a big draw for users who live with their parents. Vapor isn’t as pungent as smoke and definitely not as plentiful. Like calling it “grass,” bong rips aren’t in fashion anymore. “If you go to Colorado, they don’t talk about smoking weed,” Greene said. “It’s all about dabs and ‘check out this wax I got.’” 

Greene believes that the only reason pen-style vapes aren’t as popular in New York is because the cartridges aren’t readily available. I hadn’t tried one until a friend of mine smuggled an e-cigarette and cartridges to a wedding in Georgia last April. When I got back, I immediately started asking my friends where I could get refills, who might know how to get refills, and how much a one-bedroom in Denver costs.

Different laws in different areas make trends local, but rapidly accelerating legalization is starting to connect these pockets.

A national catch-22

That marijuana isn’t universally legal creates a catch-22 with a gaping safety hole. Refining THC is dangerous because flammable chemicals are used, but more frightening than an amateur chemist exploding is that the innocent addict might be poisoned by their medicine.

At the moment, the chances that you get “tanesoup” (botched BHO that hasn’t had the toxic chemicals purged) instead of a high-quality concentrate aren’t nothing.

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A tanesoup meme.

“Nobody is writing on their cartridges what is going into the oil,” Greene said. If it’s illegal, it’s not regulated. If it’s not regulated, it’s dangerous, and if it’s dangerous, it’s gonna be illegal.”

To pick a flower and roll a joint takes little to no outside help. To produce and vape a concentrate, you need a network of potheads. Federal drug statutes make it difficult for people like Greene to market their products. “They can prosecute any paraphernalia if it’s marketed for use with drugs,” he complained. 

Legalization of medical marijuana both boosts interest in Greene’s product and causes him problems. He is distressed that the laws make it harder for him to help people.

“If you can say, ‘This will get you high,’ it changes things.”

“Someone would call and say, ‘I’m a medical-marijuana user and I need help with your product,’ and you can’t help them because they just said that. Everybody knows, and in casual conversation everyone says it, but you can’t put it on whatever ads. You can’t recommend temperatures, because different temperatures are specific to different herbs. Three seventy-five is good for weed, but we can’t say that.”

If and when legalization is federal, Greene and his colleagues will be able to advertise their products as useful items, not just complicated and expensive apparatuses for nothing. “If you can say, ‘This will get you high,’ it changes things.”

Dr. Feelgood 

Although a fair amount of those with medical cards don’t have severe medical conditions, plenty do. Doctors don’t prescribe cigarettes for lung cancer. For THC to be administered medically, there need to be devices that separate patients from run-of-the-mill stoners. Vaporizers do just that.

Since exploding over the last decade, California medical-marijuana dispensaries cater to the health-conscious client. This new breed of user has helped boost vape and concentrate appeal. “In the same breath you’d be talking about medical and vapes,” Greene said. Vapes went hand-in-hand with medical; now refined products are going hand-in-hand with vapes.

An old friend who goes by “Slippers” lives in what I call Frisco to infuriate him; he works at a medical-marijuana dispensary.

“In the medical industry we test everything,” he said. “We don’t sell anything we don’t believe in.”

A native New Yorker, Slippers knows that’s a West Coast luxury. “In Cali everyone and their brother grows, so everyone is an expert. If you have oil here, it’s not from some trailer park. Dabs with a proper rig is a much cleaner way to do this.” 

Slippers delivers a selection of marijuana products to a variety of people, but the bulk of his business is the infirm and ailing. “Some chemo people will smoke joints because they are terminal and they don’t give a fuck,” he told me.

More health-conscious patients are making the move to concentrates. “Some oils don’t need to be heated and can be taken orally or without heat, smoke, or vapor,” Slippers explained. “And decarboxylated alcohol tinctures permeates mucus membrane directly and goes right into your bloodstream.”

Refined products make THC a more effective medicine and get you really, really, remarkably high. “I mean, why wouldn’t you want to smoke concentrates?” A.J. said. “You’re so high from taking one dab. We could have been smoking pot since the time I got here, and you probably wouldn’t be this high.”

With people like A.J. cultivating powerful cannabis, Greene building high-quality paraphernalia, and Slippers providing us with enough iterations of cannabis to make Willy Wonka green with envy, all we have to do is wait for the laws to catch up to the people. It’s a lot like gay marriage that way.

Concentrates are a healthier, stronger, easier and cheaper way to get high. “There’s an old saying,” A.J. said as he helped me do another dab. “Marijuana is a messenger, and hash is the message.”

Illustration by J. Longo