Solvent-extracted concentrates with previously unheard of levels of THC amaze cannabis users.
But accidents during extraction also blow up houses.
And not only is the production of concentrates not regulated by government or third party inspectors, it is also not required to test the finished product sold in pharmacies or through delivery services – meaning smokers could ingest unsafe amounts of chemical solvents.
The dab craze is also causing dissension within the cannabis industry and is wreaking havoc on the image of cannabis at a crucial time. Like unscrupulous growers dumping rat poison in rural watersheds, there are now reports of piles of discarded butane canisters found along roads.
The Now product
Concentrates are undoubtedly becoming increasingly popular with cannabis patients. About 45 percent of products sold in Bay Area pharmacies today are potent products like wax and shatter, according to veteran cannabis activist Debby Goldsberry. But that means “there” [are] no safety regulations for up to 45% of medicinal cannabis products consumed,” she says.
Without public access to pharmacy sales, these numbers are impossible to verify, but easy to believe.
What used to be an exotic novelty or addition to low-value flowers now dominates pharmacy menus.
Dab culture is ubiquitous, from college campuses to cannabis cups. Meanwhile, the butane hash oil process has gained appeal from the mainstream media and law enforcement officers across the country.
Most of the potent concentrates that currently dominate the multi-billion dollar cannabis market in California are made with solvents such as butane to help separate psychoactive THC from cannabis flowers and leaves. The main ways to accomplish this are closed-loop extraction systems — which can cost thousands of dollars — or “blasting” butane, which can be easily done for $50 or less.
All it takes is a tube full of weed, a can of butane, and a willingness to risk arrest and serious bodily harm to get high.
Legal to Own, Illegal to Make
Butane hash oil falls under a legal catch-22 in California: It is perfectly legal to sell, possess and use under Prop. 215, but it’s illegal to manufacture – under the same laws made to address methamphetamine production.
Defense attorney Bart Kaspero specializes in California drug law. He said the legality of BHO for card-carrying cannabis patients is neatly summed up by a paraphrased line of dialogue from Pulp Fiction.
“What did [John] Travolta to Samuel L. Jackson? “It’s legal to buy it, it’s legal to own it and it’s legal to sell it,” said Kaspero.
The explosive potential of BHO extraction has also made it a lightning rod for prohibitions and a target of law enforcement. A new law allowing judges to sanction the production of concentrate as an aggravating offense is being passed by the state legislature.
Bracken McKey, a senior deputy district attorney in Washington County, Oregon, where three major BHO explosions have been documented since 2012, summed up general law enforcement sentiment in an interview with the Oregonian.
“It’s no safer than making methamphetamine,” he said.
Bloated, or exaggerated?
While explosions are very rare, the concern isn’t just madness. BHO explosions are happening in California and across the country. The New York Times reported that Colorado had 32 major explosions in 2014.
Such numbers are alarming, but for context, the National Fire Protection Association says 900 homes are destroyed each year by people trying to fry their Thanksgiving turkey — and no police are calling for a bird ban.
Regardless, BHO’s controversial reputation has not diminished consumer demand or led to clear regulation from the state of California.
There are also safety concerns about the potential for residual solvents in BHO, which many patient advocates say makes mandatory lab testing critical.
The best a California consumer can hope for right now is a pharmacy that voluntarily tests residual solvent levels.
If they do, the results are a good indication of what many patients are consuming. And the indication is that there is chemical-laden, unsafe concentrate on the market.
“We test every product offered by suppliers, and what we find in some of those samples is downright shocking,” Goldsberry says.
Many samples are so obviously contaminated that they aren’t even tested in the lab, she says. Those that do must contain less than 50 parts per million of residual butane, the same limit imposed by Colorado’s recently passed BHO regulations — and well below the accepted standards in a typical cigarette lighter, which are 800 million parts per million.
Other industry experts, such as Daniel “Big D” de Sailles, a partner at Top Shelf Extracts in Denver, Colorado, believe the health concerns over residual solvents are exaggerated.
“BHO has been around since the year 2000,” he told High Times in a 2012 interview. “So people have been dabbing for a decade now and no real issues have been reported yet.”
Many extract manufacturers say that solvent-based extraction is the only way to reliably produce high-quality “next level” concentrates. And the popularity of those concentrates suggests that dabbing isn’t going away anytime soon.
But California will have to wait for regulations. For the first time, a medical cannabis regulation bill — AB 266 — appears acceptable in the state legislature. It’s just not about the production of cannabis concentrates, nor about local laws.
“We’re going to figure out how to sort this out somehow,” Councilman Jim Wood, who represents the Emerald Triangle in Sacramento, recently told SF Evergreen. “But it’s really not part of the conversation right now. And so it must be.”
Photo by Brennan Linsley/AP