Getting high goes high-tech

Machine used to make hash oil
Photo by Bradley Melshenker, 710 Labs

You still smoke weed? That’s adorable. How quaint.

Boulder’s more dedicated stoners rarely smoke actual marijuana. They smoke “oil.” (Oil also goes by wax, butter, shatter and unusual spellings like “errl.”)

Some say these concentrates are dangerous. Others say they’re an improvement on marijuana and hash. They’re definitely different: While the old hash was made with water, the new hash oils are usually made with butane. And as producers have embraced technology and chemical solvents, hash oil’s popularity has exploded.

“I get more calls about oil or wax than I do about weed,” says Aaron Shaw, owner of Boulder RX, a dispensary on the Pearl Street Mall.

Oil hits are called “dabs” because of a common practice. The oil is “dabbed” onto special bong-attachment hardware that’s been preheated with a blowtorch, like a crème-brulee torch. The oil vaporizes instantly; you inhale through a glass dome or straw. Coughing ensues. Hopefully you don’t vomit. Then you’re outrageously high for hours.

The buzz has generated a “dab culture” with its own events and a roving party bus giving out free dabs in Denver.

And it must be boosting Colorado’s torch sales. (You’re welcome, crème-brulee torch industry.)

You can also smoke hash oil without a blowtorch. You don’t even need a lighter to use vaporizer pens, the electronic cigarettes containing hash oil “cartridges.”

They’re conveniently discreet, with hardly any smell or smoke. Push a button, and the “atomizer” heats the pen enough to boil the oil inside.

Pens can be charged with a USB cord. Plugged into your laptop, they’re a technological leap from a doobie.

The pens almost make butane lighters obsolete — but not butane itself. Butane is used to concentrate marijuana’s chemical compounds. Then it hopefully gets burned off, leaving the concentrated cannabinoids. But varying levels of butane remain, raising concerns. Local dispensary The Farm has taken a firm stance against butane hash oil. (It offers “CO2 oil” instead.)

Research on butane’s effects is scarce. So discerning patients are looking for the cleanest concentrates, Shaw says. Wax sales have fallen, while “shatter” sales have exploded, because patients recognize that butane is more effectively purged from the glassy amber sheets. And new extractor machines are constantly being developed.

“Our new machine recycles the butane that’s used,” says Brad Melshenker, who owns Boulder dispensary The Greenest Green. His newest facility, 710 Labs, just became the first licensed by the city of Boulder to make butane hash oil, he says.

“The city was very cautious in licensing us,” he says. The process took 10 months, involving the fire department, safety engineers, a scientist and an industrial hygienist.

Because butane is explosive, extraction safety is a concern noted even by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “Explosions in residences and hotels around the country,” FEMA warned in February, “are being traced back to a process: using butane to extract and concentrate compounds from marijuana.”

But butane extraction can be done safely, according to Melshenker. The new 710 Labs use “research N-butane,” he says, because it’s more refined than the butane in lighters. (The city does not regulate the grade of butane, but it does require that his oil machine be “ETL or UL listed,” a safety credential required on most industrial equipment.)

“Some call it extract art,” Melshenker says. “I think of it as science. My passion has changed from the flowers. Oil just has more flavor.”

Melshenker says it’s not necessarily about getting higher. His facility may soon produce a less-potent oil variety that simply tastes better than marijuana.

At Boulder RX, some patients have found oil more effective at treating their pain, Shaw says.

Most dispensaries send their trim (resin-coated leaves) to separate processing companies that produce their hash oil. Facilities process several pounds every day in a constant struggle to “feed the machine.”

And appetites for oil keep growing. Earlier this month, Denver hosted the 710 Cup, where those who enjoy concentrates could congregate. At a separate sampling party called “Dabs of Denver,” crowds were told they were making history by celebrating the new 4/20 — on 7/10. It’s a more refined holiday, with less actual weed. Why? If you look at 710 upside down, it spells OIL. (It’s marketing magic — oil and gas executives must be kicking themselves for not discovering this holiday first.)

The hash oil business is booming. Some call it the evolution of the marijuana industry. Maybe this industry isn’t that different from others that handle crops and medicines: As processes grow more efficient, products bear less resemblance to plants. Now there are vaporizers you can plug into your computer, and machines that churn out great quantities of hash oil daily. Soon, there may be pills with only a single cannabinoid (of the dozens in marijuana) isolated in a lab.

Why stop there? Maybe we’ll see vaporizing zip drives and smartphone apps, or plug-in air-fresheners that infuse your living room with hash oil vapor. As the industry grows more sophisticated, the possibilities are endless.

Maybe, someday, the businesses will even be allowed to have bank accounts.

Respond: Leland Rucker is taking a well deserved break. He will be back to writing this column next week.

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