The ABCs of BHO – demystifying the world of cannabis extracts

Cannabis extracts BHO: Photo of hand holding wax container, backlit by the sun.

There are many options on dispensary shelves for someone interested in cannabis extracts. Rosin, dabs, solventless, wax, BHO, hydrocarbon, extract, crumble, RSO – just a few words you may hear after asking your budtender about extracts (or wax or concentrates). When working behind the retail counter, I would watch customers’ eyes slowly glaze over as I diligently explained the basics of extraction and types of products. And that’s OK, because the same thing happens to me right after asking the grocery checker how my co-op membership works. In an effort to demystify this complex aspect of cannabis shopping, let’s learn a bit about one of the common kinds of extracts: butane hash oil, or BHO.

Basics of BHO extraction

Butane is a hydrocarbon used to extract oils from cannabis plant matter. The oils made with this process can test at 90th percent for THC content. In the extraction process, cannabis flower is passed through liquid butane, which dissolves the trichome heads, where a majority of the cannabinoids and terpenes grow. Next, the liquid passes through a filter that discards plant matter and leaves butane and cannabis oil. At this point, the product is left to sit so that the butane can dissolve, or the chemist runs the material through a vacuum process to purge the butane from the final product. Many plant oils can be extracted with butane, but in the cannabis industry, it can be called “blasting.”

The Products

BHO can be flavorful and effective in dabbing, vaping, topping bowls, or rolling into joints alongside dried herb. Let’s break down the product hierarchy of BHO and possibly avoid some confusion on that first BHO dispensary shopping trip, because many product factors are derived from butane extraction. Extracts are often named after their consistency (or finish). You’ll find shatter, crumble, oil, butter, budder, wax, sap, honeycomb, amber glass, and pull and snap on shelves. Brands name almost all dab products after their texture.

Most people who are new to dabbing find a consistency they like based on ease of use. Some beginner dabbers prefer to start with crumble or butter, which isn’t too sticky, so it can be easily manipulated without any mess. These consistencies can also be easier to dose out appropriately. Products like shatter and amber glass must be stored correctly and can get sticky or gooey when incorrectly handled. It is also easy to get too much when managing shatter products on a dab tool. To find the right product for your needs at the dispensary, start by asking the budtender to see BHO extracts (or wax or dabs), and from there, ask or observe the consistencies for your preference.

Be aware of bad press

There are a lot of news articles about the dangers of dabbing BHOs and the possibly explosive dangers of extracting them. These are both valid when buying or crafting unregulated butane hash oil, but much of the risk is diminished in the compliant, regulated market.

Inhaling foreign substances always carries pulmonary risk. In dabbing, the risk is much greater when products are untested for residual solvents that didn’t make it out in the vacuum purging process. It’s also wise to know the correct temperatures to dab for two reasons. First, terpenes and cannabinoids all have a boiling point, so keeping the temp as low as possible could be more effective and flavorful. Additionally, hot smoke is harder on the lungs, so a less harsh hit could be less harmful to the pulmonary system. It is also worth noting, once again, that extracts are much more concentrated and can create a much more intense high than dry herb or vape pens.

When it comes to the cannabis hydrocarbon extraction process, many fire inspectors get nervous because there have been multiple cases of unregulated extraction operations causing severe fires and explosions. A regulated cannabis extraction lab uses a closed-loop system which mitigates the risk of the process. Some unregulated couch chemists will use the process of “open blasting,” meaning that the butane is in an open vessel while being purged from the final product.

Butane has a 1.6 percent explosion limit, so if 1.6 percent of the air is butane, it is explosive. As such, purging becomes volatile when left open in the room. Closed-loop methods and ventilation reduce this risk because the machine recovers and recycles butane. Butane is not released into the surrounding area using this method.

Stepping into the world of cannabis extracts can be nerve-wracking if you don’t understand the nuances of products and processes. If you were interested before reading, hopefully, now, you feel empowered to explore the world of BHO.

Cara Wietstock is Senior Content Producer of and has been working in the cannabis space since 2011. She has covered the cannabis business beat for Ganjapreneur and The Spokesman Review. You can find her living in Bellingham, Washington with her husband, son, and a small zoo of pets.