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Exploding danger: U.S. marijuana oil labs pose deadly, destructive hazard

SAN DIEGO(Reuters) – On the afternoon of May 5, college student John Nothdurft was watching TV at his suburban San Diego home when a series of explosions shook the house. Around the corner, on Sunny Meadow Street, flames billowed from a neighbor’s garage.

A man was running down the street. He was on fire.

Nothdurft, 18, tried to comfort the man as a neighbor sprayed him with a garden hose. “His skin kind of looked like it had melted off,” he recalled.

Investigators quickly determined the cause of the blaze: a butane-gas explosion resulting from an illegal attempt to make a concentrated form of marijuana. Known as hash oil or honey oil, the product can be consumed in vape pens, candies, waxes and other forms that are increasingly popular.

The Sunny Meadow Street explosion illustrates a growing danger as marijuana moves from the counterculture to the mainstream, law enforcement officials told Reuters. With cannabis now legal for medical or recreational use in 33 states and the District of Columbia, users are discovering new ways of consuming the drug.

Nationwide, concentrated products accounted for nearly a third of the $10.3 billion legal market in September 2018, double their share in 2015, according to the New Frontier Data research firm.

In states like California and Colorado, where marijuana use is legal, state-licensed producers of hash oil use sophisticated systems that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But those seeking to make hash oil at home don’t have to spend that much. YouTube videos demonstrate how to strip the psychoactive THC compounds from marijuana using a PVC pipe, a coffee filter and a $4 can of butane.

Production is surging on the black market – especially in California, where the legal market is still dwarfed by an underground network that supplies users across the country.

A “dab” of hash oil can contain up to 90 percent THC – more than four times the strength of typical marijuana buds.

“I will never forget my first time I ever took a dab,” said Sabrina Persona, assistant manager at Harbor Collective, a licensed marijuana dispensary in San Diego. “It’s some pretty strong, pretty concentrated stuff.”

Making hash oil can be lucrative – Persona pointed to a small jar retailing for $45 – but it is also risky. Odorless and heavier than air, butane can build up quickly in enclosed spaces – until a spark from a refrigerator motor or a garage-door opener sets off an explosion that can knock a house off its foundation or destroy an apartment building.

Nationwide, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says it received reports of 260 illegal hash-oil labs in 2017, a 38 percent increase from 2016. A quarter of those labs were discovered because they caught on fire, according to the agency’s annual drug threat assessment.

Those figures are far from comprehensive, as law enforcement agencies aren’t required to provide reports to the DEA’s national database.

Even in California, which accounted for two-thirds of all reported Illegal hash-oil labs in 2017, officials could be undercounting the problem. Child-safety advocate Sue Webber-Brown estimates more than 40 adults and three children were injured from hash-oil lab explosions in the state in 2016 – far higher than the official DEA tally of 16 injuries.

Even so, the DEA reports that at least 19 people have been killed and 126 people injured by hash-oil fires in California since 2014.

‘A WHOLE GARAGE OF AMMUNITION’

On Sunny Meadow Street, the inferno blew a garage door 20 feet off its hinges and melted the windshield of a car. Dozens of butane cans exploded. “Boom, bang, boom bang. I thought it was a whole garage of ammunition,” said Ken Heshler, 80, a neighbor. Three people were taken to the hospital with severe burns.

The DEA says it discovered $75,000 worth of hash oil on the scene. The agency says it expects to bring criminal charges against those involved.

According to the DEA, its first report of an illicit hash-oil lab came in 2005, in Oakland, Calif. By 2013, the U.S. Fire Administration was warning that explosions stemming from hash-oil production appeared to be increasing.

Since then, officials say, the problem has grown worse. Narcotics officers in California say that the operations they encounter now tend to be larger than the home labs that proliferated earlier in the decade – with the amount of explosive chemicals measured in barrels, rather than milliliters.

These solvents “want to go boom – they don’t want to be confined, and with the slightest kind of nudge they’re going to explode,” said Karen Flowers, special agent in charge of the DEA’s San Diego office.

Less than two weeks after the explosion on Sunny Meadow Street, Flowers’ office responded to another hash-oil fire in the suburb of El Cajon. That operation contained more than a dozen 55-gallon drums of hexane, another volatile solvent. Firefighters were able to control the blaze before the chemicals exploded.

The DEA also raided four other illegal hash-oil labs in the region, including one they said was capable of producing nearly a half million dollars’ worth of product every two days.

Explosions have been reported across the United States and Canada. In Battle Creek, Michigan, 80 people were left homeless after one destroyed an apartment building in July 2018.

In Michigan’s rural northeast corner, the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team routinely finds hash-oil equipment when it raids illegal growing operations, Detective Lieutenant Stuart Sharp said.

“The more people growing marijuana, the more people are going to experiment with this kind of thing, and the more explosions and deaths we’re going to see,” he said.

SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS

Public-safety officials interviewed by Reuters say sales restrictions on butane could limit explosions from makeshift hash oil labs, just as limits on chemicals used in methamphetamine production have helped to curtail domestic production of that drug.

The California legislature voted for statewide limits in 2017, but then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the measure, saying the legitimate hash-oil industry should be given a chance to comply with impending regulations.

Since recreational marijuana sales became legal in 2018, the state has licensed 154 businesses to use butane or other explosive solvents to produce marijuana concentrates. Licensed businesses pay fees of up to $75,000 per year and must use equipment that keeps solvents contained. They must pass a fire-code inspection and train employees on safety standards.

The risk remains. California regulators fined a licensed producer $50,000 in December 2018 after a propane explosion badly burned a worker.

Chris Witherell, an industry consultant, says most of the hundreds of hash-oil operations he has inspected don’t pass the first time he visits. Equipment is often poorly assembled or operating with incorrect parts, he said.

Flowers said the DEA has dismantled 18 illegal hash-oil labs in San Diego this year, putting it on pace to nearly double the number in 2018.

“I’m extremely concerned about what the next six months are going to hold,” she said.

On the afternoon of May 5, college student John Nothdurft was watching TV at his suburban San Diego home when a series of explosions shook the house. Around the corner, on Sunny Meadow Street, flames billowed from a neighbor's garage.

Dabbing: The New, Explosive Way to Smoke Marijuana

‘Dabs’ are a much more powerful form of marijuana that critics say can be dangerous to users.

The legalization of medical and even recreational marijuana in some states has given rise to a sort of “I told you so” attitude among some users.

It comes from the long-held view of many marijuana smokers that pot is neither deadly nor addictive.

But now, the emergence of “dabbers” — people who smoke a highly concentrated form of marijuana culled during a sometimes explosive production process — is giving marijuana a bad name.

From coast to coast, homes are bursting into flames during the manufacture of butane hash oil, or BHO, used in dabbing. And while some people say dabbing provides medicinal relief, stories of users ending up so high they land in emergency rooms have become viral internet fodder.

High schoolers have found ways to conceal the waxy BHO by placing it in Carmex lip balm containers and taking it to school. After placing a dab into an e-cigarette, teens take a puff, hallucinate, and sometimes even pass out. Videos of young adults having strange trips while dabbiagng abound on YouTube.

“This is pot on steroids,” said Kevin Winslow, director of the Quad-City Metropolitan Enforcement Group (MEG), in an interview with Healthline.

MEG is a bi-state drug enforcement collaboration composed of law enforcement officers from Rock Island County in Illinois and Scott County in Iowa. Even in this community of less than half a million people, dabbing stories have become increasingly commonplace and are very much on MEG’s radar, Winslow said.

Soon, BHO may be manufactured and obtained legally in Illinois under its medical cannabis law, Winslow said. This is despite the fact that Illinois has adopted one of the more restrictive medicinal marijuana laws in the United States.

“It’s all going to go eventually into the wrong hands,” Winslow said. “Sick people are not smoking dabs.”

The idea of pot as a harmless plant with side effects no more dangerous than the munchies is dated, Winslow said. Today’s marijuana isn’t the ditchweed that Cheech and Chong used to talk about.

With the advent of medicinal marijuana, today’s users demand a better strain of bud. The Mexican drug cartels are replacing their marijuana fields with poppies because they can’t compete with the powerful marijuana strains made in modern U.S. laboratories.

THC is the part of marijuana that makes people “high,” although it is also considered to have some medicinal uses. While people smoking standard marijuana may inhale THC levels of about 10 to 15 percent, those concentrations can skyrocket to 90 percent when dabbing.

Even Tommy Chong has commented on the hazards of dabbing, comparing it to “freebasing” marijuana. “When you have Cheech or Chong telling you it’s too intense…” Winslow said with a chuckle. “It’s not hippies doing this. They just wanted to mellow out, just chill.”

And while marijuana advocates hate seeing dabs compared to meth — exploding homes and all — it has become a big problem for law enforcement.

Winslow explained the dab-making process like this: A tube resembling a turkey baster is filled with cannabis, and butane is jammed inside. The crystals on the high-quality buds freeze and drop off, essentially creating tiny teardrops packed with highly potent THC.

It all has to be cooked down to remove the butane. In the process, gas pools. A spark from an outlet, or even an amateur manufacturer lighting up, can have explosive consequences.

Through several additional steps, the end result is the oil or waxy substance BHO, called dabs. Just as the name implies, “a little dab will do you.” It can also quickly get a person hooked.

Dr. Dustin Sulak is a licensed osteopathic physician in Maine who legally dispenses marijuana. He is a diplomat of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine.

In an interview with Healthline, he described the dabbing culture as becoming more popular “amongst illicit cannabis users in all walks of life.”

He described the power of dabs in plain talk.

“A single inhalation of concentrate delivers the THC and other cannabinoids equivalent to three to 10 inhalations of herbal cannabis, depending on the potency,” he said. “This increased dosage delivered with rapid onset produces a stronger euphoric feeling than, for example, taking the time to smoke an entire joint.”

So while dabbing may blow up a kitchen here and there, Sulak says potency is a bigger problem.

“The higher dose is also more likely to cause users to develop tolerance, quickly requiring a larger dose to get the same effects,” he said. “For many dab users, smoking herbal cannabis will no longer produce the desired effect.”

Is this more proof that pot is a so-called ‘gateway drug?’ Not really.

Sulak and others interviewed for this story said kids often try cannabis first because among their peers it is considered safe, socially acceptable, and available. Sulak cited a comprehensive 2002 review by the RAND Drug Policy and Research Center that showed data suggesting the gateway theory could be readily explained by non-gateway models.

“A more recent 2008 study in Development and Psychopathology that looked at 510 pairs of twins found that genetics were more responsible than a gateway effect for progressing from cannabis on to harder drugs,” Sulak said. “We’ll never answer this questions using a controlled study because that would be unethical, but the large volumes of epidemiological data do not strongly support the gateway theory.”

As the legalization of cannabis dries up the illegal drug trade, there will be fewer dealers to sell the drug to those under age. Therefore, the availability of marijuana to teens should also diminish, Sulak said. Any gateway effect that exists now would likewise begin to disappear.

The same goes for exploding houses. Those who medically need the THC and cannabinoid levels that dabbing provides will be able to get it in states where it is produced in controlled environments.

“In my practice, I have occasionally seen dabbing provide better relief to patients,” Sulak said. “For example, migraine patients often find that taking a large dose of rapid onset cannabis at the earliest signs of a headache will enable them to prevent the whole episode.”

Joe Schrank founded TheFix.com, a popular website for alcoholics and drug addicts, recovering and otherwise. Its slogan is “Addiction and Recovery, Straight Up.”

Schrank is no longer involved with the site. He works as a social worker and founded Loft 107, a sober living facility in the heart of Brooklyn that does not turn anyone away.

Approaching two decades sober, he maintains honesty is always the way to go when educating people about drugs and alcohol.

“The correct level of intoxication is zero, dabbing, vaping, drinking … There is no safe level, there should be no intoxication of anything,” Schrank said in an interview with Healthline. “[Kids’] brains are like Jell-O that hasn’t set yet.”

But in the process of conveying that important message, demonizing one substance over another is a bad idea.

“Teens always are going to find a way to intoxicate themselves regardless,” he said, ticking off recent fads that included eating gummi bears doused in vodka.

Dr. Walter Thomas, medical director of The Discovery House residential inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center in Los Angeles, told Healthline that any time someone gets swept up in the drug culture, the chances of substance abuse increase, especially for those genetically inclined to addiction.

Thomas stressed that dabbing is far more dangerous than smoking marijuana.

“The intense high can make people actually lose consciousness, with all the unintended consequences that presents,” he said.

With children, it can be especially hazardous.

Sulak told Healthline that as America begins to get to know marijuana, children must be introduced to it carefully and in the proper context.

“In my practice I treat children with cancer, autism, seizures, spasticity, and other serious conditions, and cannabis has been a lifesaver for many of them,” said Sulak. “Recreational cannabis use should ideally be postponed until 18 years of age, in my opinion, and should be introduced in the context of a good role model able to demonstrate responsible use.”

‘Dabs’ are a much more powerful form of marijuana that critics say can be dangerous to users. ]]>