Canada may be the first country ever to federally regulate dabs.
On Wednesday, Health Canada released a set of rules called the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) for medical patients. The regulations will replace the former Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, which were declared unconstitutional in Federal Court in February.
Primarily, the regulations allow patients—or their caretakers—to grow their own supply of weed, whereas under the old program they were forced to purchase it from licensed producers.
But, in a section that talks about the forms of marijuana one is permitted to possess, the government says you can alter the chemical or physical properties of fresh or dried bud or cannabis oil as long you don't use "any organic compound that is highly flammable, explosive or toxic, including petroleum naphtha and compressed liquid hydrocarbons such as butane, isobutane, propane and propylene."
Essentially, this means medical marijuana patients are allowed to make shatter, but they can't do it using butane, the most popular and common method.
Dabs, aka shatter, wax, or butane hash oil (bho), is created when THC is extracted from the plant using a chemical process. It creates a hard honey-coloured substance that can then be lit and inhaled using a blowtorch. The effects are much stronger than what one would get from smoking bud.
However, butane (lighter fluid) is highly flammable, which is why the feds are cracking down on it.
In an email statement, Health Canada told VICE the organic solvent restriction was created as a response to R. v. Smith, a Supreme Court judgment that ruled limiting medical marijuana patients to only consuming dried bud is unconstitutional.
"Individuals are able to use other methods for extractions, such as the use of food grade oil such as olive oil, since these methods do not pose the same health and safety risks to the person performing the extraction, and the people and homes around them," the statement says.
Last week, an Ontario man was charged with arson after a dispensary explosion in midtown Toronto. The man suffered from severe burns, and reportedly was missing fingers. The explosion, which came from the building's basement, has fuelled speculation that the dispensary was making dabs. In March, a house exploded in Markham, where police alleged shatter was being produced.
Advocates argue that with the proper precautions, using butane can be safe.
Phil Kwong, 25, runs research for a company called Holistic Extracts based out of Vancouver. Kwong has multiple sclerosis and turned to extracts in 2014, seeking an alternative to the strong prescription medications he was on.
"I feel ten times better and my vision is clearer," he told VICE.
Kwong believes extracts are the "future of cannabis."
"I don't think it's something Canada and the Liberals have looked at. I don't think it's something they understand."
He said if the right protocols and procedures are followed during production, butane and propane are both safe solvents.
But what are the alternatives?
Vancouver-based Horatio Delbert of Horatio Delbert Concentrates uses limonene—a natural solvent that comes from citrus rinds—to make his extracts. He said he's pretty much the only person in the country doing it this way.
Back in April, he told VICE News "I've positioned myself in the best way to meet government scrutiny, because I'm not just focusing on meeting the demand that requires the use of butane and other such solvents."
Delbert said the most popular alternative to butane as a solvent is carbon dioxide, which isn't flammable, explosive, or toxic.
But "for what it produces it's never been able to match the result of butane." He said he hopes solvent-free extractions, such as rosin, could step in to fill the gap.
Delbert told VICE the new regulations basically close the door for gas-based extractions ever having a place in the legal market. The implications, for patients who might otherwise be using heavier prescription drugs, could be be harmful, he added.
"Concentrates now play a major role in opioid addiction management," he said. "When it comes to opioids and pain, people have worked really hard to break their patterns and even three days without their stipends of concentrates is like pushing an alcoholic into a bar."
Justin Loizos, 32, of Scarborough was diagnosed with MS in 2012. He said dabbing is the most effective way for him to medicate and that he'll continue doing it whether it's legal or not.
"I wake and dab and dab all day between my doses of oil for spot titration. It is discreet and more effective than joints."
But Tracy Curley, a Toronto-based patients advocate said she doesn't recommend shatter to her patients because quality and purity can't be assured.
"Shatter/ butter/ wax don't have the same long history of cannabis so the long term effects are still unknown," she said. " I believe there are healthier alternatives that reduce potential harms."
Delbert said he thinks the black market for butane extractions will continue to thrive, although the risks could drive the price up, making shatter less affordable for patients. Kwong, meanwhile, said he wouldn't rule out a legal challenge against the government.
Canada is set to table cannabis legalization legislation next spring.
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