What you need to know about concentrates

Shatter, wax and BH-O-My!

Apr 15, 2014 at 10:14 am

Cannabis concentrates — aka “hash oil,” “BHO” (short for “butane honey oil”), “wax” and “shatter” — are powerful extracts of cannabis, typically made using a solvent like butane. They may contain as much as 80 percent THC (or more, as opposed to a bud, which might contain about 10 percent to 27 percent THC), and even a small amount (known as a “dab”) can deliver rapid medicinal or recreational effects. 

Concentrates can be popular with a new generation of marijuana consumers. If the joint is Pearl Jam, concentrates are Action Bronson.

They’re also popular among medical marijuana patients, who want quick relief, the ability to easily regulate their dosage, and don’t want to smell like marijuana. 

Their status under Michigan’s medical marijuana law seems to be in a gray area right now, with two bills and a court case still pending.

At their best, concentrates can be the pure essence of the plant. Free from plant matter, they can be easier on the lungs than smoking the herb. In California, cannabis concentrates can make up 40 percent of a medical marijuana dispensary’s sales. 

However, cannabis oil must be made correctly to have therapeutic value, and here’s where things get sticky.

You might’ve noticed the media reporting on the increase in “hash oil explosions” blowing up garages and hotel rooms across the country. When that happens, someone was attempting to make a concentrate with a solvent, and suffered horrifying consequences — including burns or death. You see, butane and other solvents used in the production process are highly flammable.

Another problem with “blasting” (the process used to make BHO, for example, from the solvent) is that any pesticide in the plant matter can become concentrated in the product. In addition, if an over-the-counter butane is used, residual solvents can become concentrated in it as well. For example, a popular over-the-counter butane might contain only 60 percent butane — the other 40 percent is other chemicals, such as benzene, which is known to cause cancer. If the BHO isn’t properly purged and washed of the chemicals, those solvents get left behind and could have damaging effects on users.

Unfortunately, there’s no standardized regulation of this process, so many amateurs are making concentrates in their back yards and garages, leading to explosions and potential bodily harm. There is a growing number of people advocating for a regulatory and testing process to ensure consumer and production safety, and there’s a bill in the state legislature that will require it — but until that happens, what can you do? 

And how do you know if your concentrate is contaminated? 

There are labs that test BHOs for quality and purity, including Iron Labs in Walled Lake. Be prepared to spend more than $100 though, to have your concentrates fully tested for contamination, in addition to cannabinoid amounts.

If you’re dealing with a dispensary or caregiver, the good ones should willingly test all their product, and should be able to pass on the test results to you.

If you’re on the consuming end and can’t afford a lab, there are some good rules of thumb to keep in mind. The darker the oil, the more likely it is to contain impurities, plant matter and remnant solvents. Good cannabis concentrates generally have the look and consistency of honey — or earwax. No matter the color, before you smoke or vaporize it, you can put a bit on the tip of a nail, and heat it up. If it crackles, fizzes, pops, or bubbles, these are don’t-smoke-it warning signs. Instead, it should burn off silently.

And, if what you smoke gives you a headache, stop using it. Immediately.

Finally, if you really want to go the concentrate route and don’t have access to a professional producer and lab, your best bet is to stick with making or consuming ice-water extractions and butter. It’s a cleaner product and safer to produce. Plus you won’t risk hurting yourself, or anyone else, in the process.