Hash Lab Explosions Persist Post-Legalization
Concentrated cannabis extracts can take many forms and are given many less-than-scientific names like hash, oil, shatter, budder, sauce, resin, rosin…hell somebody somewhere has probably even dabbed a raisin.
With much higher potency, along with heightened aromas and flavors, cannabis extracts have become increasingly popular over the years and sales revenues of these products are predicted to rival those of traditional raw flower/buds by the end of 2022.
One major contributing factor to the rise of concentrates is the rise in new cannabis users, many of whom appreciate the quick-hitting, ash-free, stink-free reliable convenience of dabbing wax or hitting a vape pen.
It’s pretty remarkable to have witnessed this evolution in preferred consumption methods especially since it has really taken place just over the course of the past decade or so. Of course, people have been making and enjoying hash for longer than 10 years, but the popularity and the knowledge surrounding this high-grade way of getting high really began to boom around 2010…literally.
With the popularity of the medical marijuana scene on the West Coast at the time, quasi-legal cannabis dispensaries were always looking for the next best thing. Most of the ones walking into carried a shelf full of traditional bubble hash and kief, but I can remember making special trips across the city to certain spots just to get BHO, or butane hash oil.
In those days, the entire MMJ scene was virtually unregulated, at least compared to what we are seeing now, and that left the high demand for butane-extracted concentrates in the hands (and in the garages) of whoever was willing to take the risk in making it – and that risk was, and is, no joke.
When extracting cannabinoids like THC or CBD from raw cannabis, the most common and effective solvent used to strip the plant of the desired oils is butane. When passed through a tube packed full of weed, the results dripping from the bottom of the tube are the first stage toward sellable concentrates.
It is the remaining stages that will determine if the product is worthy of dabbing or selling, and it is in those remaining stages that much of the danger lies.
In those early days, very little of the lab-grade equipment seen and used in the process now was available or even known about then. Dudes were using turkey basters for their tube, and lighter fluid for their solvent, then evaporating the residual butane using a pancake griddle – and that was the high-tech guys, I saw WAY worse!
But butane, both in its gas and in its liquid form, is incredibly combustible and all it takes is the smallest spark to cause a massive explosion and there were no shortage of them as more people tried to get in on the gold rush of weed and wax.
As a result, headlines from coast to coast began cropping up about home-built hash labs being blown skyhigh due to unsafe conditions and something as simple as static electricity. As dangerous as it was for those skirting the law to do it, it presented a real threat to their neighbors as well as countless numbers of these labs were in high density housing like apartments or townhomes.
When states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and California began setting a new standard of legalization by allowing the recreational adult use of the plant, strict regulations got put in place as far as cultivation and extraction and many hoped that it would spell an end to the short, but destructive, era of exploding hash labs.
As with most aspects of cannabis legalization, we’ve seen a mixed bag of results on this issue.
Looking back over the past five years across the 33 states that have legalized some form of medical or recreational cannabis production and use, there have been 10 reported incidents involving fires or explosions at legal state-sanctioned cannabis extraction labs.
As is the case all too often, most involved were dealt serious injuries in those incidents.
That number may seem too high to some – let’s face it, one is truly too many – or it may seem awfully low to others, but the law of averages dictates that as the cannabis industry begins to swell, unfortunately, accidents may as well.
2018 saw an estimated $10.4 billion in legal retail cannabis sales and employed 259,000 Americans. Experts predict that those revenue numbers will quadruple over the next two years and so job numbers are sure to follow suit. Along that same time frame is when cannabis extracts are expected to make their push for the #1 method of consumption and so we have the makings of a perfect storm of extraction-related problems if we don’t make some changes.
Opponents of cannabis extracts claim that the industry is moving too fast to possibly enact and enforce the necessary compliance measures and some states have listened, outlawing extraction unless it is done by Co2 or alcohol. Some are banning concentrates altogether unless specifically prescribed by a doctor.
As we know, however, demand WILL find a supply and in states that turn to prohibition for a simple fix the black market has proven to be willing to step up and take the business. This means more illegal, unregulated, and potentially dangerous operations.
Opponents are calling for OSHA and/or local fire departments to train cannabis extractors on the dangers of their duties, but the fact is, our industry could probably teach THEM a thing or two about it. Most of the best hash on the planet is being made in the shadows, outside of the regulatory spotlight of legal markets, and it is being done so safely in the vast majority of cases.
In 2017, the DEA made a claim that the U.S. had 260 illegal cannabis extraction labs. They warned that 33% of them were located in residential homes and that 1 out of every 10 of them had a fire or explosion reported at the address.
No clue about the validity of the last two stats, but I’m fairly certain there were more than 260 illegal hash labs in SoCal alone in 2017.
What we do know for sure is that if the barrier for entry into legal cannabis markets like California’s wasn’t so high, more of these experienced legacy operators would gladly step out of the shadows in order to conduct their business legitimately and to help spread the knowledge that they were forced to learn the hard way for so long.