Even seasoned pot users can be confused by one form of consumption that seems to be sweeping the country: hash oil.
You can smoke it. You can eat it. You can vape it. You can rub it on a sore muscle (or somewhere more exciting). The end result is usually the same: it gets you high.
Hash oil has also been getting attention for another side effect: explosions. Kitchen chemists routinely make the news after blowing something up.
So is hash oil a public threat or just another way to have fun? Here's what you need to know.
What is hash oil?
It's the extracted oil from cannabis. You may know it as wax, BHO, dabs or any number of other nicknames.
The oil can have a higher concentration of THC — the main psychoactive chemical in pot — than regular buds. That's why hash oil has the reputation for being more potent.
The drug can be smoked or vaporized directly, or used to make edible products or balms.
How is it extracted (legally)?
The goal is to separate the oil from the plant matter. To do that, you use some type of solvent.
Carbon dioxide and ethanol are some of the safest options, according to AC Braddock, the CEO of the Seattle-based Eden Labs, a company that produces extraction machinery.
Butane is much cheaper, but Braddock says carbon dioxide is preferable since it's not explosive or toxic. “It’s certainly an advantage when you’re setting up a facility as far as local authorities go,” she said.
A sticky situation (AFP/Getty Images/Frederic J. Brown)
To make the oil, you grind up the pot, flush it with the solvent, then heat it and pressurize it to release the oil (you can also use cold and pressure). The end product can have a consistency that ranges from that of olive oil to a sticky toothpaste, or can come out hard and brittle or powdery.
“Whatever process you use will have a different result, whatever strain you use will have a different result, what pressure and temperature you use will have a different result," Braddock said.
How is it extracted (illegally)?
Of course, a lot of people also make hash oil on their own, illegally. Those folks tend to use butane as a solvent (it's cheap) and do the same process at home, without all the machinery and safety you might find in a legal setting.
Here's what that looks like, courtesy of VICE:
Isn't that dangerous?
Yes. Even in Colorado and Washington, where hash oil is legal, the do-it-yourself approach is banned. Both states have seen dozens of cases of home explosions and fires linked to cooking the drug, and such accidents are happening in other parts of the country, too.
Matthew Barden, a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, stressed the dangers of producing hash oil at home, which could put others at risk.
"It's one thing when your own actions don't do anything but hurt you," he said. "It's really bad when your actions cause harm to others."
How about consuming hash oil? Is that dangerous?
No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose, and the same goes for hash oil. But that doesn't mean there aren't risks.
Hash oil can be much more potent than marijuana in plant form, so it's easy for users to consume more than they desire (ask New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd about it).
Probably knows what he's getting into (Denver Post via Getty Images/Seth McConnell)
Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy with the Drug Policy Alliance, compares the two forms of marijuana to hard apple cider and apple brandy. You might have a pint of cider, but the same portion of brandy would make you sick.
Naive users can consume too much if they're not careful, although the stakes aren't as high as with alcohol.
"There's no risk of having a fatal overdose," she said. "There is a risk of somebody passing out from getting high."
What's the thing people do with a blowtorch?
One way people consume hash oil is by a process called "dabbing." The VICE explainer above does a great job walking you through it, but here's the basic idea.
You start with some sticky hash oil, then dab a bit of it on the end of a needle-like apparatus. A titanium needle is a popular choice, since it will need to be heated to a high temperature for the THC to be released.
You'll also need a bong with a titanium extension on the end. This is the bowl — where the hash oil will go.
You heat the titanium extension to a high temperature with a blowtorch, then, using the needle, press the dab of hash oil against the heated bowl. From there, inhale and voilà.
Got a light? (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
The entire process looks more like something out of Breaking Bad than smoking your typical joint or bong, so you can see why it may alarm some people.
Is hash oil getting more popular?
Yes, at least by some measures. The number of people searching for "hash oil" has spiked in recent years, with Colorado and Washington leading the pack. Here's a look at searches for the term on Google throughout the U.S.:
Via Google Trends
In states where marijuana is legal for medical or recreational purposes, businesses can mass produce the oil in a way that wasn't possible in the past. As a result, many people in those states are consuming their marijuana through edibles — all made with hash oil.
The smokable version of hash oil — what people call dabs, wax or BHO (butane hash oil) — has gained a foothold in the media and pop culture, but there's no statistical evidence to show whether usage is increasing.
Speaking anecdotally, Reiman says concentrated marijuana is popular with medical marijuana patients who suffer from serious illnesses. But there's another fan club: young people. "From the beginnings of time, young people have always sought out faster, more efficient ways to become intoxicated," she said.
In her days, it was a beer bong (or a regular old marijuana bong). "Nowadays when kids are experimenting with marijuana they look at concentrates as ways to get really, really high, really, really fast."
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.