It cannot be overstated how important the industry of recreational cannabis will be for the state of Maine. As the industry evolves and becomes more advanced, and as customers demand different products and experiences, the state will start to see new, inventive ways to get stoned.
The most popular way to do so appears to be dabbing, which is hotter now than a red titanium nail. Simply put, dabbing describes the process of lighting a glass piece with a blowtorch so it gets red hot, dropping a glob of cannabis concentrate or resin onto the hot glass after 30 or so seconds, and inhaling the vapors that are produced. Critics question the safety of smoking shatter vapors, because even though some concentrates are made with water or carbon dioxide, many are also made with butane, which is not only an extremely volatile gas, but also a health risk.
With the development of Maine’s new recreational cannabis laws, voters and legislators are going to have to familiarize themselves with this form of cannabis in order to ensure the safe and well-informed development of this asset to the economy. Let's start with what the product is, and get our basic definition in order.
For starters, cannabis flowers are those dense, often colorful buds, thickly packed with red or yellow pistils and plump calyces. They are covered in what is known as “glandular trichomes” — a fancy way of saying a little plant hair that produces resin in a little “gland” at the tip. Although there are plenty of medicinal compounds inside of the green part of the plant (like vitamins, flavonoids, and some terpenoids), the good stuff is mostly found in this gland at the end of the trichome. All cannabinoids, including THC, CBD, and others, are found here. They are tightly contained in an orb made out of plant wax, and all of them are oily in nature. This is why, in order to cook with cannabis, you usually need to use a fat like butter or oil as a binder.
Concentrates are named so because they are produced by extracting all the oils and trichomes from the green plant material. Think of it like scraping pine sap off of a tree. Traditionally, in places like India and Jamaica, old-school cannabis growers would simply rub the oils off with their hands, and then scrape the goo off with a hot knife and smoke it. This psychoactive resin is known as charas, and you can see how it's made on YouTube — just type in Green House Seeds documentary “Strain Hunters."
There are basically two macrospective categories of concentrates, which are broken down into several more specific categories defined by technique or solvent used.
The first is chemical separation, another technique used to remove the trichomes from the plant matter, but it's far different from mechanical because it uses what are sometimes very volatile gases for extraction. This involves an efficient process, but much more complex equipment.
What Solvents are used?
Alcohol: One solvent that is sometimes used to extract cannabis flowers, however, it's more frequently used to purify raw concentrates into “clear” or isolate. The legendary cannabis medicine that more or less started it all, “Rick Simpson Oil,” is a raw extract made with alcohol.
Butane/Propane: Butane is easily the most controversial solvent used in the process of making concentrates, and a lot of this is indirectly due to the radical popularity of the product made from it. BHO or Butane Hash Oil is made by filtering cured, dried cannabis through liquid butane gas. For the uninitiated, it may sound a little sketchy, but the process, when done correctly, is actually quite safe and the resulting product, if processed correctly, is completely free of residual chemicals. Butane is an extremely nonpolar molecule, meaning that it binds with great efficiency to the oils produced by the cannabis plant. So BHO will contain not only the vast majority of cannabinoids in the trichome, but all the terpenoids as well. The terpenoids are all of the essential oils, just like the ones you buy at Whole Foods, that give cannabis such a wide variety of unique and pungent aromas. Therefore, hash made with butane typically has considerably more flavor and aroma than any other type of solvent-based concentrate. This makes it an extremely valuable resource to Maine’s recreational cannabis industry.
Carbon Dioxide: Carbon dioxide is easily the safest solvent used to create cannabis extract, for one main reason: unlike its competitors, carbon dioxide is actually flame-retardant, rather than combustible. High-pressure requirements mean expensive equipment, making it much more costly to get started. CO2 does not have a reputation for producing particularly flavorful concentrate, and is used more often to create medical grade products.
Pros vs. Cons: These solvents are extremely useful for the commercial manufacture of concentrates. They yield efficiently, consistently, and regularly. They yield high quality, high quantity concentrates — and yet this consistency breeds a problem. The fact is, you can take any material, grown as poorly as material can be grown, with pesticides and toxins galore, and make extracts that look fantastic with it. Fortunately, we have testing facilities to make sure we aren’t smoking poison. But in any event, what we’re smoking might not be organic if we’re talking about solvent. In other words, dabbing is harmless, but it's important to know how your shatter got made.