Bend resident Tamara Brost became an Oregon Medical Marijuana Program patient after being diagnosed with cancer in 2011 . The marijuana mitigated some of her symptoms, but smoking aggravated her asthma, and edibles, which can take an hour or more to kick in, didn’t provide immediate pain relief.
From there, Brost, who now works at the Bend medical marijuana dispensary Bloom Well, found marijuana concentrate, a waxy, resinous substance created by extracting the active cannabinoids in a marijuana plant using butane, propane or other gases. Concentrate, also known as extract or “wax,” is heated and vaporized rather than being traditionally smoked, which advocates say makes it easier on the lungs. Unlike edibles, it can take effect in a matter of minutes.
Concentrate lives up to its name, averaging about three times more THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high, than the plants.
“I love the effect,” Brost said.
She isn’t alone. Concentrates have moved from the margins to the forefront of the medical and recreational marijuana industries in Oregon and other states.
Cameron Yee, owner and founder of Lunchbox Alchemy, a concentrate producer in Bend, said concentrates formed 5-10 percent of the medical marijuana market in Oregon when Lunchbox Alchemy opened in November 2013. Today, that figure has jumped to more than 40 percent, and Yee’s products are available in 135 dispensaries across the state.
“It’s very new to Oregon,” Yee said.
Despite — or perhaps because of — their newfound popularity among Oregon’s medical marijuana industry, the potency and method of extraction has led to concerns about the safety of extracts, and questions about their fate once Oregon begins recreational sales.
Extracting resin from marijuana plants is nothing new. Hashish, a product made using concentrated marijuana resin, has been a staple in Morocco and Middle Eastern countries for thousands of years, according to Jeremy Kwit, owner of Bloom Well.
However, Rick Ezrine, co-owner and co-founder of CannAlytical Research, a marijuana testing lab in Bend, said high-end dispensaries in Southern California began using gases to extract cannabinoids, a class of chemical compounds found in marijuana, from the plant material around 2010.
“We did a tour of dispensaries about five years ago, and that’s when we first came across these concentrates, and it just didn’t make sense to me back then,” Ezrine said.
Since then, Ezrine, a medical marijuana patient, has been making his own concentrates. He said most professional wax-makers use a closed-loop extraction system, where pot is stuffed into a stainless steel tube. The tube is attached to a hose that pumps in the solvent, typically butane, propane or carbon dioxide. The tube is heated and pressurized, with the resulting substance then filtered and collected in a chamber, before being placed in an oven for one to four days to remove the residual solvent.
“You remove all the carcinogens out with the butane,” Ezrine said.
While Ezrine said it’s possible to add a small amount of concentrate to bowls or joints filled with marijuana flower, the most common way to consume extracts is by dabbing.
Dabbing requires a customized pipe, known as a “rig,” that comes with a nail, a surface that can be coated with extract and heated with an open flame, vaporizing the wax.
As concentrates have gotten more popular in recent years, so too have rigs. Roy Ruiter, owner of Zion’s Den Pipe Shop on SE Ninth Street, said he began selling rigs three years ago, and was among the first local head shops to do so. At the time, they were a small portion of his business, but today they provide more than half of his sales.
While advocates say the unique method of inhalation makes it safer than smoking marijuana buds, due to the removal of carcinogens, critics note that the process of consuming, which often involves an open flame, is reminiscent of much harder drugs.
“One of the main things people don’t like is the torch,” Ezrine said. “I think they account it to crack.”
Though Ezrine said he thinks concentrate is healthier than marijuana flower, he acknowledged that the primary draw of the product is its potency. Because the product typically ranges from 60-80 percent THC, a small amount of concentrate can go a long way. Kwit said he recommends concentrate to patients like Brost, who can’t or don’t want to smoke an entire bowl to treat chronic pain, migraines and insomnia.
“We see clients using these concentrates to get rapid onset relief,” Kwit said.
However, the high potency has drawn criticism. Ezrine said users can become dehydrated and vomit if they take too much. In certain instances, Ezrine said, it’s possible to black out from dabbing, though he said it’s rare. Indeed, Ezrine said that the biggest known danger of concentrates is the manufacturing process.
“The biggest issue with (concentrate) is the fact that it’s not accessible, and so people are trying to make it in their house, and blowing themselves up,” Ezrine said.
Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, prohibited residents from making extracts at home, citing a rash of butane hash explosions in the state. Colorado saw 27 people injured in THC extraction lab explosions in the first six months of 2014 alone, according to a report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a multi-agency drug-enforcement organization. In January, the state also introduced legislation that would require specific labeling for extracts, though the bill was postponed indefinitely in March.
In Oregon, the recreational future of extract is still up in the air. Senate Bill 460, which would allow medical dispensaries to sell a limited amount of marijuana to recreational consumers beginning in October if signed by Gov. Kate Brown, would not allow sales of concentrates or edibles.
Additionally, Ezrine speculated that it would be possible for Oregon to prohibit recreational sales of concentrates entirely. Measure 91 does not reference the legality of concentrate that is purchased from a licensed marijuana retailer.
“There has to be some detrimental effects (to smoking pot), but I think you’re lessening them as much as you can by using a concentrate,” Ezrine said. “I honestly think that’s the best thing that’s happened to this industry in a long, long time.”
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