Dabbing, and the hash oil concentrates that make dabbing possible, have become a focus for the emerging medical and recreational cannabis markets. For experienced users, these concentrates open up whole new levels of the THC experience, clocking in at around 75 percent THC - with some high-grade samples apparently testing in the 90s. The market has expanded from modern classic concentrates like budder, to include a range of modern extractions such as high terpene full spectrum extracts (HTFSE’s) and rosin. Certainly, innovators aren’t likely to stop now. Already, crystalline concentrates, developed by California extractors boasts extracts with 99.99 percent THC content that are now hitting the market. Just 10 years ago, few cannabis connoisseurs were aware of the potential for any of these different extracts. Who knows where we will be in another ten years?
How has this extract technology progressed to get us to where we are now? Shrouded in the secrecy of the lingering prohibition era, it’s not widely understood where all of these concentrates have come from and when they came onto the scene.
Processes to chemically extract the active ingredients from the cannabis plant have been used as early as the 1800s to produce the medicinal products, mostly consumed orally, that were available in US pharmacies throughout the 19th century. Leafly details this history in their in-depth article, “Where Did Dabs Come From? A History of Cannabis Extracts.” These aforementioned extraction processes laid the foundation for the creation of concentrates for vaporization, which were first developed during the 1940s. Declassified documents from World War II show that the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, used a THC acetate “serum” for interrogation programs, including cigarettes laced with hash oil. These methods resurfaced in the 50s and 60s as part of the CIA’s highly secretive and controversial MK Ultra program.
After cannabis achieved an increased level of visibility following the explosion of the late 60s counterculture, writers in the 70s began describing solvent-based extraction methods for creating new kinds of concentrates, using solvents such as alcohol and activated charcoal, to create cannabis “honey” oil. In 1977, author Michael Stark discussed a wide variety of possible solvents in his book Marijuana Chemistry: Genetics Processing and Potency.
In 1999, an article posted on the online drug database Erowid, called “Hash Honey Oil Technique,” provided what is said to be the first in-depth description of butane hash oil extraction available on the internet. The method, later dubbed “open blasting,” is now considered dangerous, leaving the extremely flammable butane exposed. However, this method laid the foundation for later closed loop systems, which also feed butane through a vertical column containing ground cannabis plant material. These later methods, however, keep solvents contained, recycling them back through the system.
The genesis of the modern concentrates scene can be traced to 2005, when an article published in the Canadian magazine Cannabis Culture described the new proprietary process of a Canadian producer using the alias Budderking. In the article, he claimed the first “dabs” had been invented as long ago as the 1960s, and described developing his own process in British Columbia beginning the early 90s. Budderking and his colleague worked to produce an amber “glass” concentrate using a multi-step extraction process refined with alcohol.
"We then took it further and it hardened into something that had the feel and look of amber. We liked it because it was extremely strong and much easier to smoke than oil,” he said.
This product made it onto dispensary shelves in 2003, alongside another development from Budderking, a unit used to smoke the new concentrate that preceded modern dab rigs. The budder wasn’t available for long, but the knowledge of the process quickly made its way to places like Colorado and Southern California. By 2010, hash oil concentrates were making an appearance at the High Times Cannabis Cup. Before long, early versions of these oils became available at dispensaries.
Now, methods have branched out. Rosin is produced using heat and pressure, with no need for solvents. Supercritical CO2 is used to create CO2 hash oil, but is mostly reserved for industrial settings, given the expensive equipment necessary to the process. CO2 oil is the most common concentrate used in pre-filled cartridges, boasting high THC content but limited terpenes, due to the harshness of the process. Butane extraction is still the most popular method for producing concentrates for dabbing. The butane extracts all of the THC and terpenes, as well as fats and lipids, called waxes.
Rick Simpson oil uses naphtha or isopropyl alcohol to extract medicinal compounds from cannabis, to create a tar-like substance that can be taken orally or applied topically.
Another recent innovation, high terpene full spectrum extracts, preserves the ratio of components such as terpenes and other cannabinoids in a given cannabis plant, while providing the high potency people have come to expect from concentrates.
Most likely, we are only seeing the beginning of the innovation that is possible with research, when the constraints of prohibition begin to fall away. This means new ways to consume cannabis that are not only increasingly powerful, but also more nuanced and tailored for specific purposes, or that reproduce the experience of whole plant medicine that comes from flower, but with higher potency. Along with a growing knowledge of cannabinoids and terpenes, these developments will help expand the medicinal (and recreational) power of cannabis, helping the public to better understand the nuances of cannabis consumption.