As 4/20 rolls around, so does the buzz to plan a legendary session befitting the day. For the uninitiated, April 20 is considered the international stoner day. Most years are marked with a high so overwhelming, people do everything from brushing their teeth with mosquito repellent to forgetting to watch the movie after getting high in the theatre’s parking lot.
This year, endless lockdowns and calls for quarantine have dampened India’s sacred stoner day. On top of that, high prices for a not-so-great high, dealers disguised as delivery agents getting caught and an intensifying crackdown on cannabis across the country threaten to kill the vibe of 4/20 festivities. But for many with privileged access, there’s a booming underground scene for a high with hash oil.
Also known as cannabis oil, honey oil, BHO or shatter, hash oil is a concentrated cannabis extract that can be smoked, vaped, ingested or even rubbed against the skin. It is extracted from cannabis using alcohol like butane and heat, and has a higher concentration of THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component in cannabis.
To put it simply, the difference between hash oil and regular weed is same as the difference between tequila and beer. And while hash oil has been popular in countries including the U.S., the UK and Afghanistan for a while, it is quickly gathering steam in India as scoring weed becomes a tedious task in India.
“My friends and I have started smoking it more since last year’s lockdown,” Karan*, a 24-year-old music producer from Goa, told VICE. “It’s a cleaner, more potent high, and easier to smoke because you can just dip a cigarette into it.” Smoking or vaporising hash oil typically involves heating a special apparatus with a blowtorch and then applying a bit of the substance to the heated element and inhaling. It’s widely called "dabbing" because users only need to use a tiny dab to get high. Karan, who has been smoking hash oil for over a year now, added that it’s also more socially acceptable and often passed off as CBD oil to escape suspicion.
Since it has an increased concentration of THC, the intense potency of hash oil is known to get people really stoned. “I’m a high-functioning stoner usually, but when I smoke hash oil, I have to be sitting down,” Zainab*, a 27-year-old pastry chef from the city of Mumbai, told VICE. For most users like Zainab, the potency of the high is coupled with the fact that the liquid can be stretched out and used for several months, making it ideal in an age where India’s Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) has been intensely cracking down on cannabis.
“We wouldn’t have survived last year’s isolation without hash oil,” admitted Kiara*, a 27-year-old from the south Indian state of Bengaluru who has been using hash oil for almost seven years, but noted an increase in her consumption pattern over the last year. The seasoned user, who has also brewed her own oil, admits that amid an environment of boredom and bad news, hash oil was her only saviour. “It’s a relaxant that makes you zone out and empties your mind. But of course, you can’t get any work done.”
While the scene has been around for at least a decade, recent crackdowns on cannabis oil brought it in the spotlight.
According to data from India’s excise department, weed dealers in India have recently shifted to hash oil since it’s easier to conceal and smuggle across the country, especially as dealers seek creative ways to fly under the radar. “After multiple huge consignments of ganja (Indian slang for marijuana) were seized by the DRI (India’s intelligence agency), excise and police departments in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the suppliers started manufacturing hashish oil as an alternative,” said an excise official in February. “Unlike ganja, it is easy to conceal and transport hashish oil.”
Following a bust in November 2020, the NCB found that a Kerala syndicate was smuggling hash oil from Andhra Pradesh into Bengaluru and Kerala, and even to international countries including Maldives, Sri Lanka, and the Middle East. In December 2020, a busted operation in Hyderabad revealed that the southern Indian city also had many young users. Excise department officials have said that hash oil is smuggled from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh into cities like Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi.
“Hash oil is light and doesn’t smell [as strong], so many people smuggle it in syringes, lip balms, tic tac boxes, tablet kits and cosmetics cases,” said Kiara. “Once, we even smuggled it into a music festival by stashing it in a friend’s hair.”
Priced between Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000 ($66 to $106) for ten grams depending on which Indian city you buy it from, hash oil is still an underground scene that only those with the right contacts, know-how and money can access. But everyone we chatted with spoke about how the black market is growing fast and at the same time, adapting to the country’s drug trade.
“It’s important to note that while the street name is hash oil, this extract is mostly made in India using weed,” said Kiara, who has witnessed and helped friends make hash oil themselves out of home-based makeshift labs. “Butane is sometimes used as the alcohol to help extract the oil from the bud, though it can give the oil a very acrylic taste. Isopropyl is more commonly used to make hash oil.” In India, people also substitute butane with acetone, an alcohol solution commonly used to clean houses or remove nail paint. “But that gives it a very chemical flavour,” pointed out Zainab.
However, despite the hacks using ingredients that are easily available, brewing hash oil is a potentially life-threatening process that could lead to death by explosion. “You have to sweep the weed for hours, use a lot of funnels and heat to extract the oil,” explained Kiara. “Once, when my friends and I tried to make it, I was afraid we would blow up the house.” To convert cannabis into hash oil, the most common technique relies on having to use a large amount of butane—the liquid in lighters, i.e. an extremely flammable substance—which can explode if ignited.
While such instances are commonly recorded in the U.S., an attempt in Chennai in 2019 to make an “intoxicating ganja gel”, believed to be cannabis oil, resulted in an explosion that left a person dead. Some users believe the risk factor adds a layer of attraction to hash oil.
“In Mumbai, it’s more of a luxury, and you’ll see mostly rich kids with the right contacts for other highs like hydro buds doing it,” Kunal*, a 25-year-old marketing professional from Mumbai, told VICE. “There’s a whole hype around it because it’s so exclusive, which adds to its attraction.”
The relative hush-hush around hash oil also leads to increased wastage among new users, who often spill the oil or mess up proportions because they don’t really know how to go about. And while vaping hash oil is fairly common in western countries, vape pens available in the Indian black market are usually designed to absorb CBD extracts or wax, making the consistency and form of Indian-made hash oil more difficult to vape. Users also point out hash oil is a quick way to improve the quality of their high if they’ve scored questionable quality cannabis or want to take full advantage of whatever little quantity they have left.
However, while hash oil gives users a more powerful trip than regular weed or hash, many also report stronger withdrawal symptoms. Rishabh*, a 27-year-old filmmaker from Bengaluru who became dependent on hash oil during the lockdown, has been trying to stay away for the last few months, even as his cravings have intensified. “I couldn’t sleep at night and started feeling groggy in the morning after I stopped smoking hash oil. I had to stop because I couldn’t get any work done, and would often get black outs if I mixed oil and alcohol,” he told VICE “I’m not a smoker otherwise, but since you need tobacco to roll hash oil, it made me dependent on nicotine as well. While regular hash usually gives you a mellow trip, hash oil is an intense head and body high, so it also makes you more paranoid if you do too much.”
It seems that like with weed, hash oil too is something that users either favour for relaxation or well-being, or are unable to handle, and can see it ramp up their anxiety and paranoia. “Hash oil is something that veteran [stoners] use. You would rarely find a first-time user smoking it,” Kripi Malviya, the co-founder of TATVA, a deaddiction and rehabilitation centre, told VICE. “The high is stronger, so even people who’ve built up a tolerance level to regular weed have a more intense experience.” Malviya, who is at the forefront of advocating for practices to use drugs safely in India, pointed out that hash oil could also potentially trigger psychosis in users. “Marijuana is seen as a lifestyle, not a drug. So while I have seen cases of people getting addicted to hash oil, there are not enough people reporting it or seeking professional help.”
*Names changed to protect identities