From Spokane to Seattle, Vancouver to Mount Vernon, amateur chemists have caused explosions in recent months, often in homes, while using flammable solvents to produce hash oil.
The most recent blast occurred Monday in a Spokane Valley kitchen. Three weeks earlier, an explosion in a Vancouver home left a man hospitalized with burns to his face.
The most devastating local explosion may be a November blast in Bellevue that did more than $1 million in damage to the Hampton Greens apartment building. In escaping the fire, former Bellevue Mayor Nan Campbell, 87, fell and suffered injuries that contributed to her death in the hospital two weeks later.
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Bellevue police said they are investigating the fire and have declined to release a cause. A source close to the case said investigators found all the supplies to manufacture a marijuana-related oil — possibly hash oil — inside one of the burned apartments.
This phenomenon is not part of the state’s legal marijuana system. Under rules for the state’s new industry, hash oil can only be made in licensed facilities, and those do not include homes.
State rules also require that only certain equipment and chemicals be used, for safety reasons. No facilities have yet been licensed by the state, which is sifting through 7,000 applications for marijuana businesses.
Still, amateur hash-oil production and resulting explosions likely will continue, as the Internet is rife with tutorials and the popularity of the super-potent hash oil is increasing with young stoners.
In its Weed Issue last year, Rolling Stone called hash oil “America’s insanely baked future.” Mark Kleiman, author of “Marijuana Legalization,” has predicted that concentrated extracts will eventually eclipse traditional marijuana in the state’s new recreational-pot industry.
Explosions are not limited to Washington state. A search of news reports last year turns up stories of hash-oil explosions from Florida to Hawaii, with a rash along the West Coast.
The Oregonian reported a Jan. 10 blast in Forest Grove that left a man in critical condition. In the past 14 months, at least 17 people have landed in Southern California burn centers due to hash-oil accidents, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Another 27 victims were treated by a burn unit in Northern California, the paper reported, noting that the hash-oil toll was far worse than injuries attributed to meth-lab explosions in the same period.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent out an alert last year noting that many explosions were misidentified as meth-lab mishaps.
People have consumed concentrated forms of marijuana for several thousand years. The most common form has been hashish, generally made by removing the most psychoactive resin from pot plants and compressing it into slab form.
Several years ago hash oil — in forms called honey oil, budder, shatter and wax — exploded in popularity.
Hash oil can be superstrong. Marijuana in Seattle medical dispensaries tends to contain 12 to 20 percent THC, pot’s key psychoactive chemical. Modern hash oil tends to have 40 to 70 percent THC.
“We’ve seen purities as high as 73 percent,” said Jodie Underwood, spokeswoman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The drug’s use has soared with the rise of vaporizing devices, such as “vape pens,” sleek cylindrical gizmos that look like e-cigarettes. Vaporizers are used to consume “dabs” of hash oil in a way that lacks the telltale odor of burned marijuana flowers and is more discreet than sparking a joint or blazing a pipe bowl.
Amateur chemists have taken to making hash oil at home. The most popular method — called “blasting” — involves flammable solvents, particularly butane, which can be bought in hardware stores.
Usually, a glass or steel canister is stuffed with dried pot. The canister is then flooded with the solvent, which strips away the psychotropic plant oils. The resulting golden-brown goo is then purged of the solvent, often by boiling it in water.
The danger comes in improper ventilation. Odorless and colorless, butane is heavier than air and puddles in a closed room; sparks can cause catastrophes.
That’s what happened in the Kirkland blast last month, according to a Police Department spokesman.
Sometimes explosions occur despite precautions. The Los Angeles Times reported that one injured oil-maker made sure a window was open, a fan was blowing and the stove’s pilot light was off. He told the paper he believed a static spark from his shirt ignited the butane that left him with serious burns over most of his body and required 16 skin grafts.
Another mistake was highlighted by the South Seattle blast last month. Fire investigators said butane was left in a freezer, apparently leaked into a refrigerator below and into its electrical system. When the refrigerator kicked on, it ignited an explosion.
Washington state is requiring that extractors use closed-loop systems that keep flammable gases from escaping. There also are alternatives to butane. Carbon-dioxide extraction is considered the cleanest, safest way to make hash oil. But equipment can be expensive.
Brandon Hamilton, owner of WAMOIL in Seattle, produces concentrates sold in about 50 medical-marijuana dispensaries in the state. His carbon-dioxide extractor cost $65,000, he said. He said he employs a professional chemist and has given tours to the Seattle police and fire departments, to help them understand how hash oil should be made.
As for the amateurs, Hamilton said risks are pervasive no matter what precautions they take because butane can slip undetected into electrical outlets and wiring.
“They’re walking on a cliff with no safety net whatsoever. It only takes one little thing to get you off kilter and you’ll cause an explosion,” he said.
It’s tempting to call hash oil the “Breaking Bad” of pot, referring to the television series about methamphetamine manufacturers.
But not all marijuana concentrates are the same, not all are consumed by “dabbing,” and concentrates, including some that have virtually no psychoactive chemicals, can be especially helpful to medical-marijuana patients.
CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta hosted a special last year that showed how marijuana concentrates alleviated the frequent epileptic seizures of a girl in Colorado. Locally, Thurston County resident Ryan Day has testified to state legislators about the way concentrates relieve his 5-year-old son’s seizures.
One advantage of concentrates is they allow patients to consume calibrated doses orally, so they don’t have to smoke or vaporize.
Hash-oil production has been allowed under the state’s vague medical-marijuana laws. The state’s new recreational-pot law does not explicitly bar making hash oil at home for personal consumption, as long as it does not involve more than one ounce of dried marijuana.
The DEA’s Underwood said she expects to see a continued increase in hash-oil explosions with the current climate of marijuana. All forms of pot remain illegal under federal law, she noted.
But the U.S. Department of Justice has said the states of Colorado and Washington can proceed with legal marijuana as long as they adhere to eight priorities, such as keeping legal pot from minors, and keeping it from being diverted to other states.
If the DEA finds a hash-oil case violated one of those priorities, Underwood said agents might investigate.
Hamilton, the professional extractor, agreed that accidents will likely continue because amateurs can buy “blasting” supplies for $100 or less. And, even in a legal recreational market, minors won’t be allowed to buy pot.
“Kids are going to do it while their parents are not at home,” he said. “That’s the primary thing that will happen after Initiative 502 stores open, I believe.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan and news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @potreporterr