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Market for marijuana concentrates grows

Aaron Eskue, a 21-year-old Washington State University student, is among a growing number of people using "dabbing" to ingest marijuana. (McKayla Fox / Murrow News Service)
Aaron Eskue, a 21-year-old Washington State University student, is among a growing number of people using "dabbing" to ingest marijuana. (McKayla Fox / Murrow News Service)

PULLMAN – Aaron Eskue scraped a small amount of greenish, waxy goop from a container, loaded it into a glass bong and heated a piece of metal with a handheld torch – the kind typically used to light camping stoves.

He took a hit, inhaling water vapor laced with concentrated THC, the active chemical compound in marijuana. The process is called “dabbing,” and Eskue, a 21-year-old Washington State University student, is among a growing cohort of marijuana users who have turned to this stronger, faster way to get high.

“An average bowl of marijuana is usually loaded with anywhere from a half a gram to 3 grams of marijuana, when less than a quarter of a gram of concentrate can make you feel just as high,” said Eskue, who works at MJ’s Pot Shop, one of two recreational marijuana stores in Pullman.

Dabbing has been around since at least the 1970s but was never widely popular, in part, because the drug can be dangerous to produce. A number of fires and explosions have occurred when amateur chemists tried to make hash oil using butane – a flammable and volatile gas – in unventilated spaces such as kitchens, garages and even cars.

Now, with the rise of medicinal marijuana and pot legalization in several states, including Washington, there is a burgeoning market for safely and legally produced marijuana concentrates. According to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, a little more than 2 million grams of concentrates were sold in Washington during the 2014 fiscal year. By mass, that represents nearly 20 percent of all marijuana products sold, not including pre-made edibles such as baked goods and gummy candies.

With this rise in popularity, marijuana users have found new ways to ingest concentrates. The traditional method is to heat them in a water pipe, or bong, and inhale water vapor laced with THC. More recently, people have begun loading dabs into e-cigarettes and vaporizer pens, which produce a similar experience.

“Ingesting concentrates is like your graduation from beer to whiskey,” said Hamzah Griffin, an employee at We’re Just Buds marijuana store, across the street from MJ’s. “It’s just a lot more intense than smoking leaf marijuana, but it’s more affordable because less marijuana product is used.”

Marijuana concentrates go by several names, including “hash oil,” “shatter,” “honeycomb” and “earwax.” They’re typically made by soaking marijuana in liquid butane, which extracts THC from the plant material. The butane is then filtered out of the solution, resulting in a gummy solid that can contain anywhere from 50 to 90 percent THC. According to a recent study by researchers at the University of North Carolina and Georgia Southern University, dabbing is at least four times stronger than the average marijuana joint.

Many believe dabbing is healthier than smoking because the process doesn’t involve burning the marijuana, which produces carcinogens. Instead, dabs are heated just enough to loosen THC particles into the water vapor. But science has yet to back the health claim, and researchers warn that dabbing makes it easy to administer a big high all at once.

“Health care professionals have the responsibility to remind their patients, particularly those who have used marijuana, of the dangers that may be associated with a stronger product,” wrote professors John Stogner and Bryan Miller in a recent letter in the journal Pediatrics.

For Eskue, the draw is convenience.

“Vape pens provide a very discreet alternative to smoking, and they don’t smell much like marijuana at all,” he said. “You wouldn’t even know someone was using marijuana unless you were in a closed room with them.”

In recreational marijuana stores across Washington, a gram of concentrate costs about twice as much as a gram of leaf marijuana. But the concentrates pack a much bigger punch – a major appeal given that people in Washington may possess a maximum of 16 ounces of marijuana product. Concentrates also come in a variety of flavors, as do other marijuana products.

Bryan Smith, a spokesman for the Liquor and Cannabis Board, said weekly sales reports indicate that concentrates still are increasing in popularity.

“There’s a pretty significant amount of concentrates and extracts being sold,” he said. “I think it will continue to grow.”