- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - 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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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Information from: Statesman Journal, https://www.statesmanjournal.com


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