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Marijuana is a mixture of the dried flowers of the Cannabis sativa plant.1 Marijuana in all of its forms is a controversial drug. Though several states have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes (and a few have legalized recreational use), it is still illegal on a federal level as a Schedule I controlled substance.2 This means that there is no federally approved medical use for the drug and a high potential for abuse.2
There are numerous concentrated cannabis preparations with high levels of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the major psychoactive ingredient in cannabis). “Dabs” is one name given to such potent THC extractions, though they may go by additional designations, such as:3
Marijuana extracts can be extremely potent. While even high-grade marijuana may top out with THC concentrations in the 20% range, many concentrates have THC levels ranging from 40-80%. These increased levels of THC result in more powerful psychoactive effects.3
Compared with the smoking of marijuana plant materials (i.e., flowers, buds), dabbing is a relatively complex involving the inhalation of the vapors of a marijuana concentrate.4 Most often, dabbers use a device they term an “oil rig” to consume the substance.
This device consists of a glass water pipe and a hollow metal rod (referred to as a “nail”). The nail, which has a concave surface for the dab, is heated. Once hot, the dab is placed on the nail, and the vapors are inhaled through the pipe.4
Alternatively, people can take a dab of the concentrate and then use a vape/e-cigarette to heat it and produce vapors that produce an immediate high.3 This method of abuse is sometimes called “vaping”. Though this method ultimately has many of the same health risks, it may be relatively safer in terms of immediate fire/burn injuries. 4
The long-term health consequences of dabbing have not been fully investigated, as this method of abuse is relatively new. However, some suggest that because potent marijuana concentrates contain high levels of THC, the risk of adverse acute effects (e.g., anxiety, cognitive deficits) may be higher and drug-related accidents and injuries may be more common among dabbers than marijuana smokers.4,5
Some have also suggested that physiological dependence and withdrawal are more likely to develop in dabbers, though as of yet there is not enough research to back up this claim.4 Despite the relative lack of information specific to concentrated marijuana extractions, we do know many of the short and long-term effects of regular marijuana use.
Short-term, or acute, effects include:6
Given that concentrates have much higher levels of THC than many other cannabis products, it stands to reason that dabbers are likely to experience relatively intense drug effects. In fact, a 2018 study on infrequent cannabis users found that vaporized cannabis produced stronger effects and resulted in higher concentrations of TCH in the blood, compared to smoked cannabis.
The study also found that high doses of THC, such as those present in dabs and other cannabis extracts, not only resulted in more pronounced subjective drug effects, but in more significant cognitive and psychomotor impairments.5
Anecdotal reports from those who tried dabbing suggest that the high is not the same as the high from smoking and that for some, it can be too intense. One regular marijuana user who dabbed for the first time said it “made [her] hate being high.”7
Long-term effects of regular marijuana use may include: 6
*The National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that continual exposure to high levels of THC may result in an increased risk of addiction.6