Hashing It OutBy David Downs
Concentrates point to the future of medical cannabis, but patient beware
Fresh squeezed or concentrate? The choice has come to the world of herb.
Over the last two years, concentrates (concentrated forms of cannabis such as hash, “wax,” “oil,” etc.) have emerged as a huge trend in medical marijuana states, industry experts say. Whether it’s by dry-screening, cold-water sieving or other means, concentrating the therapeutic molecules in marijuana has opened up new treatment vistas for patients.
But it’s bringing along it’s own set of baggage. CULTURE stands ready to hash this out.
Two major, active ingredients in pot—THC and CBD—have been shown in a number of studies to treat nausea, vomiting and cancer pain, as well as slow the progression of AIDS. Cannabis also treats muscle spasticity, chronic pain, depression and anxiety, and the list of indications for the molecules in cannabis seems to grow yearly.
Concentrating cannabis boosts the presence of pot’s active ingredients. Where flowers may test at 15 percent THC by dry weight, a strong concentrate can push 70 percent THC.
“When done right, it’s the purest form of medical marijuana, and way stronger than bud,” California cancer survivor and activist Angel Raich says. “We know it helps.”
Patients sprinkle hash atop flowers in pipes, or vaporize waxes and oils using a variety of methods. Concentrate users inhale less smoke, or none at all. “It’s a lot healthier,” Raich adds.
Electric vaporizers shrunk to the size of a pen (often called “pen vapes”) now offer completely innocuous medicating. “It gives you the ability to basically go anywhere and have your meds,” she says.
Concentrated cannabis, combined with micro-vaporizers “are one of the more medically promising things to come out,” says Josh Wurzer, co-founder of SC Laboratory—a cannabis lab in Capitola.
But when manufacturers concentrate cannabis, they can concentrate both the good and the bad. Contamination, residual solvents and becoming overly medicated (too high) are all reasons to exercise caution, says Jeffrey C. Raber, head of The Werc Shop, a cannabis lab serving Southern California.
Spider mites and other critters can colonize marijuana grown indoors. Fly-by-night producers may douse colonized plants in pesticides to save an infected crop and thousands of dollars in profit.
Mold, fungi and bacteria present in the raw plant can become concentrated through dry sieving, or wet screening. Pathogens can also grow on wet “bubble hash,” or afterward. Buyers get such microbes on their hands and paraphernalia, and can inhale their spores.
“It has not been pretty,” Raber says. “We’ve seen a considerable amount of bacteria, mold and pesticides. About 25 to 30 percent of stuff fails.”
“Contamination is a serious issue,” he says. “I am concerned.”
Making concentrates using solvents (such as butane, used to make Butane Hash Oil, or BHO) has also increased over the last two years, Wurzer, Raber and Raich all say.
About 10 to 15 percent of concentrates tested at SC Labs fail inspection, due to the presence of detectable levels of butane, Wurzer said. Butane is by far the most common culprit, but amateurs are making concentrates with hexane and consumer-grade propane, which contains sulfur compound mercaptan. “That’s bad for you,” Wurzer says.
“A lot of this stuff is made in garages,” Raber adds.
Even pure, clean concentrates can be problematic, simply because patients can end up too medicated. THC tolerance varies, but high doses can lead to feelings of nausea, a racing pulse and anxiety. In such cases, keep calm, it’ll pass shortly. Unlike alcohol, you can’t die from eating or inhaling too much THC.
Experts say practicing safe concentrate use is a matter of using one’s brain, enforcing personal standards and pushing for industry standards.
Know the sources of your concentrates. If feasible, grow and process the material yourself. For those too busy or sick, purchase flowers and concentrates from growers and clubs that participate in voluntary certification programs like “Clean Green.” Patronize licensed, regulated dispensaries that test all their products. Read online reviews, and think twice about unregulated clubs.
Raber says, “patients think, ‘I’ll just try this new place.’ [But] some of the places I’ve seen in L.A.—it’s not clean. Some of our tests confirmed that.”
Self-screen concentrates for microbes, and other contamination. Cold-water extracts shouldn’t smell or look moldy. Hash oils, waxes and taffy shouldn’t crackle when heated. “If it crackles, it’s got butane in it. Dump it,” Raich says.
Seek out advanced concentrates made using carbon dioxide or nitrogen as the solvent. Both elements evaporate to form air, and are inert.
Lobby local, state and federal representatives for sensible regulations, activists say. Pot’s quasi-legality slows down adoption of basic quality control standards. “It makes everybody hesitant to do anything,” Raber says.
“The lack of regulations is more dangerous than butane extraction done right,” Wurzer adds.
And share information. “People say, ‘I never thought of it.’ They just assume it might never even be in there,” Raber says. A patient himself, he won’t touch anything that hasn’t passed inspection.
“I say, ‘Nope. Thanks.’ It’s definitely changed our perspective. When you see that much? Man, no way. You can keep it.”