James runs his hand along a shelf full of expensive, glistening glass water pipes before grabbing a small, clear one. It has a titanium disk where the bowl is supposed to be. The lanky, droopy-eyed art gallery owner sets it on a table next to a small blowtorch and twists the cap off a cylindrical rubber container. Using a pencil-like, stainless-steel utensil, he scoops out a small amount of a crumbly mustard-yellow substance that looks like Play-Doh.
He uses the torch to scorch the titanium disk until it's red-hot and then drops the yellow pebble onto it. He quickly hands the pipe to me, and I inhale a stream of white vapor, hold it in for three seconds, and then cough hard. My eyelids flutter, my hands tingle, and my cheeks flush. I feel as if I'm shooting through outer space at warp speed.
I slouch in a chair for the next hour and every few minutes mutter incoherent sentences. Eventually, I'm able to stand, but for about four hours after I leave James' cramped North Miami Beach pad, misfiring neurons muddle my cerebral cortex.
The experience inside James' apartment might sound like the beginning of a public service announcement about huffing household cleaning agents, but in fact I had become part of the hottest trend in good old-fashioned weed culture. I'd inhaled fumes of Blue Dream wax, a strain of butane hash oil, the most potent form of cannabis on the planet.
When manufactured properly, BHO, as it is commonly known, is packed with galactic levels of tetrahydrocannabinol — THC — the chemical compound in marijuana that has the greatest effect on the brain. Nicknamed "dabs" and "wax," the oil has attracted legions of cannabis users. "This gets you as high as the first time you smoked pot even though you have been smoking pot for years," insists James, whose name New Times agreed to change for this story to protect his standing in the arts community. "As far as marketing, this stuff markets itself."
In the past 12 months, BHO use has exploded across Florida and the rest of the nation. Tens of thousands of people are uploading videos to YouTube, Instagram, and Vine of themselves making and smoking the oil. Rap artists such as B-Real, Action Bronson, Wiz Khalifa, and Juicy J are spreading the BHO gospel, and even stodgy mainstream media outlets such as the Atlantic have published basic guides to "dabbing."
Though dabbers believe BHO is the future of cannabis consumption, the movement could get derailed by its own popularity. From Southern California to Florida's west coast, dozens of novices have attempted to manufacture it, with disastrous results. These wannabe cooks have blown themselves up — knocking down walls, terrifying neighbors, and befuddling cops, who have mistaken the glass, steel, and aluminum tubes and explosive materials used in manufacturing BHO for bomb-making paraphernalia.
Just three months ago, two men in their early 20s splintered an efficiency apartment in St. Petersburg, the first such incident reported in the Sunshine State.
"It's no joke," says St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue arson investigator Lt. Joel Granata. "The explosion almost killed both of them. This butane hash oil is nothing to play with."
Marijuana smokers have been making hash oil using solvents such as butane or ethyl alcohol since the 1960s. Back then, the extract was dubbed "red oil," "jelly-butane hash," and "honey oil," the last a slang term also used for modern-day BHO. "Butane extraction has been done for decades by only select, knowledgeable hash makers," says Bobby Black, a senior editor at High Times magazine. "It wasn't widespread or produced on a large scale."
Though using butane might sound hazardous, it is a relatively clean solvent. Food manufacturers have always employed it to make vanilla, orange, mint, coconut, and other extracts.
To produce BHO, the process is simple: An empty tube, usually made of aluminum, stainless steel, or glass, is packed with pot leaves. The tube is capped on one end with a coffee filter, and on the other, there's a rubber stopper through which the butane is injected. The low temperature of the liquid butane crystallizes cannabis resins found in hairlike appendages that contain potent levels of THC called "trichomes." As the butane passes through the marijuana, it strips the resin into the solvent, which exits into a Pyrex dish.
Other solvents commonly used are hexane, isopropyl alcohol, ethanol, and frozen CO2 (dry ice). "Of all the hash techniques, butane is the fastest and produces the most potency," Black says. "You just pack a tube, shoot your butane through it, and a few minutes later, you have your product."
Solvent-based extracts remained on the fringes of pot culture until 2005, when a Vancouver man calling himself "BudderKing" introduced his own brand of concentrate — "Budder" — during a medical marijuana conference. According to a 2005 article in the magazine Cannabis Culture, Vancouver-based chemist and plant analyst Dr. Paul Hornby, who runs a company that tests marijuana, proclaimed, "Budder is the cleanest, most potent cannabis product I've ever tested."