Pubdate: Sun, 18 Jan 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Author: Jack Healy


DENVER - When Colorado legalized marijuana two years ago, nobody was 
quite ready for the problem of exploding houses.

But that is exactly what firefighters, courts and lawmakers across 
the state are confronting these days: amateur marijuana alchemists 
who are turning their kitchens and basements into "Breaking 
Bad"-style laboratories, using flammable chemicals to extract potent 
drops of a marijuana concentrate commonly called hash oil, and 
sometimes accidentally blowing up their homes and lighting themselves 
on fire in the process.

The trend is not limited to Colorado - officials from Florida to 
Illinois to California have reported similar problems - but the 
blasts are creating a special headache for lawmakers and courts here, 
the state at the center of legal marijuana. Even as cities try to 
clamp down on homemade hash oil and lawmakers consider outlawing it, 
some enthusiasts argue for their right to make it safely without 
butane, and criminal defense lawyers say the practice can no longer 
be considered a crime under the 2012 constitutional amendment that 
made marijuana legal to grow, smoke, process and sell.

"This is uncharted territory," said State Representative Mike Foote, 
a Democrat from northern Colorado who is grappling with how to 
address hash-oil explosions. "These things come up for the first 
time, and no one's dealt with them before."

Over the past year, a hash-oil explosion in a motel in Grand Junction 
sent two people to a hospital. In Colorado Springs, an explosion in a 
third-floor apartment shook the neighborhood and sprayed glass across 
a parking lot. And in an accident in Denver, neighbors reported a 
"ball of fire" that left three people hospitalized.

The explosions occur as people pump butane fuel through a tube packed 
with raw marijuana plants to draw out the psychoactive ingredient 
tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, producing a golden, highly potent 
concentrate that people sometimes call honey oil, earwax or shatter. 
The process can fill a room with volatile butane vapors that can be 
ignited by an errant spark or flame.

"They get enough vapors inside the building and it goes off, and 
it'll bulge out the walls," said Chuck Mathis, the fire marshal in 
Grand Junction, where the Fire Department responded to four 
explosions last year. "They always have a different story: 'Nothing 
happened' or 'I was cooking food, and all of a sudden there was an 
explosion.' They always try to blame it on something else."

There were 32 such blasts across Colorado in 2014, up from 12 a year 
earlier, according to the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug 
Trafficking Area, which coordinates federal and state drug 
enforcement efforts. No one has been killed, but the fires have 
wrecked homes and injured dozens of people, including 17 who received 
treatment for severe burns, including skin grafts and surgery, at the 
University of Colorado Hospital's burn center.

The legal complexities played out one snowy morning in a Denver 
courtroom as a district judge puzzled over the case of Paul 
Mannaioni. Mr. Mannaioni, 24, was charged with committing 
fourth-degree arson and manufacturing marijuana after explosions 
ripped through a marijuana cooperative in Denver that was filled with 
cannabis plants and littered with boxes of butane, burners, pressure 
cookers, metal pipes and other equipment commonly used in butane 
hash-oil extractions.

When emergency responders showed up, they found Mr. Mannaioni and two 
other people with severe burns "all over their arms and legs," 
according to a police affidavit. The police said that one of his 
companions, Danielle Cordova, later told them that she did not know 
who had been manufacturing the concentrate, but that the "hash bath" 
exploded when the three stepped into a tent where it had been cooking.

To prosecutors, a crime had taken place. Legalization may have given 
licensed and regulated marijuana manufacturing facilities the ability 
to extract hash oil legally in controlled environments, but officials 
say dangerous, homemade operations using flammable butane - a fuel 
for lighters, portable stoves or heaters - are still illegal.

Mr. Mannaioni's lawyer, Robert Corry, a prominent marijuana advocate, 
had a different take. When Colorado's voters passed Amendment 64 to 
legalize marijuana for personal use and recreational sales, Mr. Corry 
told the judge, they called for a fundamental shift in how Colorado 
treated marijuana. It is no longer an issue for the police and 
courts, he said, but for the regulators and bureaucrats who enforce 
the civil codes surrounding marijuana growers and dispensaries.

"That constitutional provision renders my client's accused conduct to 
be legal," Mr. Corry said in court. "The court system is not to be 
used for marijuana regulation anymore."

He compared making butane hash oil to processing olive oil, brewing 
beer or distilling whiskey at home - riskier, perhaps, and vulnerable 
to devastating results, but no longer a drug offense worth sending a 
young man to prison, according to Mr. Corry. The state law being used 
to prosecute Mr. Mannaioni, he said, was simply no longer valid.

"There are thousands of people in Colorado who are doing this," Mr. 
Corry said in an interview. "I view this as the equivalent of frying 
turkey for Thanksgiving. Someone spills the oil, and there's an 
explosion. It's unfortunate, but it's not a felony crime."

Judge A. Bruce Jones of the Second Judicial District was not buying 
the argument, but he grappled with the holes in the law created by 
legalizing marijuana. Is making hash oil "processing" marijuana - an 
action that was deemed legal under Amendment 64 - or is it 
"manufacturing"? What is the difference? How should the law view hash 
oil? As marijuana concentrate, or as something else entirely? And how 
do you produce it, exactly?

"I have no real knowledge of how you make hash oil," Judge Jones said 
during the hearing.

Mr. Mannaioni has pleaded not guilty and declined to discuss the 
details of the explosion. He said he had worked jobs at dispensaries 
and helped to build marijuana cultivations since he was 18, and that 
it felt surreal to be prosecuted for a marijuana charge in a state 
that embraced legalization, where hundreds of medical and 
recreational dispensaries sell marijuana buds, edible treats and 
their own hash-oil concentrates.

"I was blown away that they even charged us," he said. "The court 
system, they are having a really hard time of letting go that pot isn't bad."

And so far, the legal system has not budged. The state attorney 
general has weighed in to say legalization does not apply to butane 
extraction. This month, a western Colorado judge overseeing the case 
against a 70-year-old man charged with making hash oil in his home 
rejected arguments that drug laws in Colorado were now unconstitutional.

In the mountain town of Leadville, a landlord named Bill Korn spent a 
month last spring cleaning up after one of his tenants blew apart the 
kitchen trying to make hash oil in his 1880s home. The tenant pleaded 
guilty to an arson charge and agreed to pay Mr. Korn $7,000 in 
damages, a sentence Mr. Korn said felt "a little bit light."

"They apparently don't enforce any laws anymore," he said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom