Pubdate: Mon, 20 Jul 2015
Source: Statesman Journal (Salem, OR)
Copyright: 2015 Statesman Journal
Author: Gordon Friedman


Amy Zimmerman's left calf was covered in second-degree burns after a 
Memorial Day campfire accident. To help heal the burns, she applied a 
medicinal salve made with hash oil.

The results were better than she had expected.

"My doctor was impressed, saying, 'What did you use?'" She flashed 
her calf, its new skin pink and glistening. Just a little bit of oil 
goes a long way, she said, "but it's an extract from a plant. That's 
all it is."

Hash oil is an extract of the marijuana plant, and it's highly 
concentrated. Just like marijuana itself, hash oil can be smoked or 
ingested, or as Zimmerman's wound demonstrated, rubbed into the skin.

Aficionados say it is effective as a medicine and gives a quicker, 
more intense high, making it attractive as a recreational product.

While hash oil can be purchased at many medical-marijuana 
dispensaries, some people seek to produce it through illicit, dangerous means.

One production method is called butane hash oil, or BHO, and it 
involves butane - the easily obtained fuel for cigarette lighters. 
The results can be explosive.

"I've seen videos of, literally, explosions blowing out walls in 
houses from trying to cook BHO," said Detective Sgt. Mark Garton, of 
the Polk County Sheriff's Office. "And with meth, you can get that; 
you have chemicals, but it seems like there's more explosions with 
BHO nowadays because pot is more prevalent and meth is hard to make."

Hash oil explosions are increasing in states where marijuana is now 
legal. Thirty people were injured in 32 explosions from butane hash 
oil manufacturing in Colorado last year. Federal charges have brought 
in five Seattle hash oil explosions. In one of those cases, a man was 
sentenced to nine years in prison for causing a hash oil explosion 
that killed an 87-year-old former mayor of Bellevue, Washington.

It's an increasingly common situation, leaving local law enforcement 
and fire agencies predicting an increase in fires and explosions 
related to illegal BHO manufacturing sites.

The black market

A different problem confronts Zimmerman, the owner of 1st Choice 
Cannabis, a Salem medical-marijuana dispensary that offers legally 
produced hash oil. She's competing with the black market.

It's becoming difficult for her to compete against illegal hash oil 
manufacturers because the illegal product is cheaper and easier to 
acquire. Plus, the licensing fees associated with running a legal 
marijuana business can be a burden.

"I could make more money selling it off my couch, and it shouldn't be 
like that," she said.

That leaves the casual user and medicinal patient caught between the 
cheaper yet dangerous black market and the letter of the law. And 
until medicinal and recreational manufacturers can compete on price 
with illegal BHO producers, the chances of an explosion or fire increase.

"It's going to happen," Garton said. His fears of an explosion or 
fire have been stoked by the increased availability of marijuana in 
Oregon coupled with how simple it appears to cook BHO at home.

Easy but dangerous

Making butane hash oil is easy. Butane or another solvent is passed 
through a tube packed with marijuana. Then, the solvent off is burned 
off. What remains is a sludgy oil or wax that's highly concentrated 
with tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. That's the main active ingredient 
in marijuana.

YouTube would have you believe that producing BHO is no big deal; 
there are more than 8,000 videos on the subject. But making it 
carries substantial dangers.

The right butane and air mixture within a closed space, such as a 
kitchen or garage, can explode on contact with a pilot light. 
Absentmindedly lighting a cigarette or the innocent "click" of a 
refrigerator's compressor can cause explosions.

In 2014, a hash oil lab in Portland exploded, leaving Edwin L. Stacy 
with burns and federal charges of endangering human life while 
manufacturing a controlled substance. The explosion, which blew out 
an apartment wall, was caused when Stacy lit a cigarette in the 
vicinity of the butane gas he was using to cook hash oil.

Also in 2014, a BHO lab explosion in Gresham left one man dead and 
another severely burned. The men decided to make BHO after watching 
an instructional video on YouTube.

Legally produced hash oil for Oregon's medical marijuana market is 
made by licensed in-state manufacturers that use a "closed loop" 
system, which prevents flammable solvents from escaping into the air. 
It's a commercial-grade process that ensures a patient's medicine and 
the professionals who produce it are safe.

It's a positive sign for the legitimacy of marijuana businesses that 
safe processes for producing hash oil are known. Plus, demand for the 
product is expected to grow.

Soon hash oils will be commercially available as a recreational 
marijuana product, possibly as soon as Oct. 1. But the business of 
pot isn't always as lucrative as it may seem.

Legal isn't cheap

"We're barely surviving," Zimmerman said. "It's $4,000 a year to the 
state, and $4,500 was my city fee," Zimmerman said. "Not to mention 
my business insurance, my payroll taxes - it's ridiculous."

Michael Wolfhelm, a member of the Oregon Sweetleaf Revival Cannabis 
Garden Club and a self-described fourth-generation cannabis 
cultivator, believes Measure 91, the newly implemented recreational 
marijuana law, will curtail the legal availability of marijuana 
products like hash oil because the black market will be so much cheaper.

The problem is the overhead. The fees associated with operating a 
marijuana business force vendors to raise prices, and they therefore 
can't compete.

The effect, Wolfhelm thinks, could mean more illegal, unsafe BHO manufacturing.

"It's happened all over the United States," he said. "But that's no 
different than meth manufacturing, which is also illegal."

For now, illegally producing BHO can be more cost-effective for some 
than buying it lawfully. A trip to most local head shops would reveal 
that canisters of refined butane are readily available in 12-packs 
for as little as $35.

"Head-shops have exploited it quite a bit," Wolfhelm said.

Meanwhile, as hash oil becomes more popular, Zimmerman still 
struggles to pay her license fees and keep prices down so she can 
compete with Oregon's underground sales. In Washington, where hash 
oil is available for retail purchase, people pay $75 for a half-gram 
of hash oil at the store, she said. She charges $25.

No Oregon processors have been licensed for recreational hash oil 
manufacturing under Measure 91, but Oregon Liquor Control Commission 
spokesman Tom Towslee said licenses will be issued in 2016.

For the foreseeable future, OLCC and Oregon Medical Marijuana Program 
officials will have to continue educating businesses and dispensaries 
about how best to work with hash oils.

"Home guys, they build these do-it-yourself methods. Those home 
methods, that's where they don't have the equipment or the knowledge 
to deal with something that can be very explosive and deadly," Wolfhelm said.

He believes education and proper regulation is key not only to 
providing users with a reliable, safe product, but also for 
preventing dangerous BHO manufacturing labs.

"We try to educate folks to steer away from making it. But we'd 
rather educate people on how to do it with a legal process rather 
than a back door, in your home kitchen process.

"The issue is how we make it safe," Wolfhelm said. "I think we're on 
the right path for that."

Law enforcement's fears

If Oregon's black market continues to thrive even in the wake of 
Measure 91 and the availability of medical marijuana, illegal BHO 
labs will continue to pose a safety risk.

Garton, of the Polk County Sheriff's Office, says BHO manufacturing 
sites have been found in Polk County, though none have exploded, but 
he expects it's only a matter of time until one does.

"If it's a national or state trend, we'll see it here," said Jim 
Stewart, Salem deputy chief of Fire and Life Safety. "I would say 
that we'll see them in Salem. I think we'll see an increase of those 
in the state. The history I've studied shows that is there's been an 
increase of them in the states that have legalized marijuana."

Salem has not experienced any fires known to have been related to BHO 

One BHO manufacturing lab was found near Salem, said Lt. Dave Okada, 
a spokesman for the Salem Police Department. Still, it's difficult to 
know whether there have been other busts related to hash oil production.

"It's really difficult to search that because it just comes up as 
narcotics," Okada said. No specific data on hash oil incidents is 
kept by the Police Department.

Under Meausre 91, manufacturing hash oil by using butane will remain 
a felony, though Garton's worries aren't quelled.

"We're going to see more explosions, and we're going to see more 
injuries," he said. "Maybe I'm wrong, and hopefully I will be."
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