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Dabbing for beginners

High-potency cannabis concentrates needn't be scary once you know your way around them.

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Richard Park's budtenders go through a one-year training program before they're allowed to talk, unmonitored, to customers at Andersonville's Dispensary 33, where he's a founding partner and director of operations. That's why pastry chef Mindy Segal suggested he would be a good person to explain the do's and don'ts of dabbing, or vaporizing cannabis concentrates.

Dabbing is the most efficient and direct method of consuming cannabis, but it requires specialized and sometimes bewildering gadgetry to produce the inhalable vapors, which are turbocharged with highly concentrated cannabinoids and terpenes, the compounds that give cannabis its various flavors.

Segal, apart from developing her own line of edibles, is an avid cannabis user. But she'd recognized a hole in her resumé. "I'd only dabbed a couple times, and didn't know the proper way to do it," she says.

No doubt, the options can be overwhelming. Vaporizers, rigs, torches, nails, bangers, carb caps, and vape pens are some of the tools one can apply to the multitextured extractions that are pulled from the carboniferous structure of the cannabis plant through processes such as physical separation and chemical extraction. Concentrates come from collecting trichomes—the tiny, twinkly, sticky structures on the cannabis plant that contain most of its cannabinoids, flavors, and aromas.

The varieties of amorphous blobs that result are sold in appetizing shades of honey, amber, cream, and gold, with names such as shatter, sugar, sauce, budder, batter, crumble, rosin, kief, and good old hash. (Those in the corporate cannabis industry, Park says, are "masters of making up their own names for shit.") They look good enough to eat—like candy—and in fact, employing them in the kitchen is one of the easiest, most predictable ways to cook with cannabis.

But that's another story. Dabbing is by far the most popular method of consuming concentrates, and yet to novices, it's daunting, even scary. It looks like freebasing.

"I can completely understand, when we start breaking out blowtorches and things, why people don't like the way it looks," says Park, who invited Segal and me to a truncated concentrate training session one lazy Sunday earlier this month.

"It's intimidating," says Segal.

"It's contraptiony," agrees Park.

He and budtender Aleks Glass set up a dab station on a conference table spread with a variety of rigs, vapor straws, and handheld vaporizers, along with a microscope, an instant-read thermometer, an aroma diffuser, and a caseful of little childproof jars of cannabis concentrate.

Segal and I brought samples of concentrates too—relatively common, inexpensive stuff purchased over the counter at our own dispensaries, along with our own relatively basic gear.

Park is the person you turn to if you want to become a concentrate connoisseur. Before dabbing he suggested that we limber up our endocannabinoid systems with a few hits of a joint loaded with a strain known for a relaxing, relatively fast-acting noncerebral, physical high.

"I'm trying to avoid a paranoid reaction," he says. "Anxiety is very common with dabs."

That's especially true for novices, who tend to pull in massive lungfuls of vapor loaded with high concentrations of THC not available in the typical bong hit. For first-timers, it's a lot to take all at once.

To start, Park used a stainless-steel dab tool (like something a dentist would probe your gums with) to break a tiny chip off the edge of a postage-stamp-size sheet of shatter extracted from Alien Bubba, a physically relaxing, sedative strain. Then he applied a handheld butane-fueled blowtorch to the base of the quartz bowl, or "banger," attached to a filigreed glass dab rig.

There's a range of desirable temperatures at which to dab, depending on which terpenes and cannabinoids one would like to make available to the lungs. Park started at a relatively high 650 degrees Fahrenheit, well below the generally 800 to 900 degrees F where concentrates combust, but well above the 315 F low point for vaporizing THC. He measured this with his thermometer's probe, and when it hit the ideal temperature he gently placed the chip of shatter in the bowl. As vapors began to swirl and collect in the banger, Park inhaled from the top.

"To me this is pretty complex," said Park, who used to own Cha'va Café, and approaches concentrates the same way he did his coffee and tea tastings. "I'm tasting a little bit of greenery. Honey, even. A melon quality. If we dropped the temperature it would taste much more floral."

Less rigorous dabbers than Park will simply torch the banger—preferably made from quartz or ceramic material—for a minute or so, until it starts glowing.

"You gotta learn your rig," he says. "From when it's glowing red, most people count down 30 seconds." At this point a cap (aka a carb cap) could be placed over the top of the banger to agitate the concentrate and contain the vapor until it can be inhaled through the pipe. Park doesn't think it's necessary.

"My purpose is to never get stoned in one hit," he says. "You can always hit it twice. You don't have to kill yourself with one rip. Which is what a lot of younger people do."

Not only is dabbing the best way to appreciate the different flavors and aromas in any given strain—especially at lower temperatures—it's also been viewed as a lot safer than smoking plant material. For one thing, since nothing is combusting, there are no carcinogens rushing into your lungs, which is one of the main things physicians don't like about their patients smoking weed.

Next, Park produced a small tub of sauce, a sticky golden goo spiked with tiny crystalline structures, which he vaporized through a long straight glass tube called a vapor straw (aka a honey straw or nectar collector). This method results in a cooler vaporization temperature, which makes more of the terpenes that give the strain—in this case the celebrated MAC, aka Miracle Alien Cookies—its sweet, sour, and rubbery notes without sacrificing its rapidly onsetting euphoric and energizing cerebral results.

"It's a really great high," says Segal. "I didn't get to where I felt too stupid to be in public. It was a delightful feeling, as opposed to an 'oh-my-God-I-can't-breathe' kind of feeling."

"Hitting it this way slows down how much you consume," says Park, which is a good approach for a beginner. Glass vapor straws are also much less expensive than investing in a rig. "It's more potent per breath, but you actually end up smoking less."

That's another advantage cannabis concentrates have over cannabis flower. Sometimes people—particularly sick people—need a lot of potency, and need it fast.

Handheld vaporizers are helpful for this too. Available in all shapes and sizes, these are pocket-size battery-powered devices that allow you to load concentrates into tiny coil-heated ceramic chambers. Unlike the potentially nerdtastic ritual inherent to dab rigs, portable vaporizers are the model for quick, discreet concentrate consumption. And yet this method may be experiencing a backlash due to the frightening recent epidemic of vape-cartridge-related lung disease.

But so far vape cartridges from the unregulated market seem largely responsible for the illnesses. "A lot of this stuff wasn't an issue until they started putting additives into these cartridges, which is definitely a street practice," says Park.

That isn't an issue with regulated concentration extractions, such as the tiny shards of crystalline "diamond" THCA concentrate that Park loaded into a thick, weighty palm-size pen that looked like Iron Man's middle finger. When vaporized this concentrate, which resembles flakes of white chocolate, sends a jolt of nearly 92 percent THC into your cannabinoid receptors. "It's the highest form you can smoke," he says. "You shouldn't smoke this first."

Still, it's a good example of how concentrates are an overall better value than cannabis flower. You inhale less of it, and you get more bang for your buck. That's true at least in advanced markets, where high demand is met by high-quality supply; the price per THC milligram of concentrate is much cheaper than the price per milligram of flower.

Illinois isn't an advanced market—yet. Concentrates of this quality and purity aren't easy to make, and relative to say, Seattle or Los Angeles, they're rare and expensive—and so is the pharmaceutical-grade machinery used to produce them. After January, when they'll be legally available for recreational use, they're going to get even more pricey, since the state plans to tax concentrates at a whopping 25 percent for anything with a THC concentration over 35 percent, as opposed to a 10 percent tax for flower.

As a law-abiding entrepreneur, Park is annoyed that, because of this, we won't have a reliably diverse supply of premium, affordably priced concentrates. Not for a while, anyway.

"They can't make this on the street," Park says of top-grade concentrates like the diamonds. "Even straight-up drug dealers come into the dispensary and buy this. This is how we beat the street, and we're gonna tax it that high?"

For her part, Segal is sold. The day after we hung out with Park, she bought her first dab rig, which she replaced a few days later when it fell from her nightstand and shattered. "You get a bigger, quicker high," she says. "But besides that, I love the ritual. You're doing it together. It's a bonding experience."  v

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