Honey oil explosion
Dungeon raid shines light on concentrated cannabis
Last week’s raid of downtown Chico’s Dungeon tobacco shop is just the latest event highlighting the proliferation of concentrated marijuana production in the area. In 2015, law enforcement seized 56 butane honey oil (BHO) labs in Butte County and in Chico alone, there were three BHO lab explosions. This past June, the City Council answered the call to do something about it, voting to restrict the sale of butane to 600 mL per person every 30 days.
The raid, which ended in the arrest of four people charged with the unlawful sale of drug-manufacturing equipment, was the result of a nearly year-long investigation by the Butte Interagency Narcotics Task Force.
“Word was that they were a significant source of butane, and also that there’d been butane labs, complete butane labs, sold there,” explained Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. “Sure enough, this store was a source of the rather sophisticated, scientific equipment designed specifically to process butane honey oil to turn it into a wax, almost into a rock candy called shatter.”
Prosecutors hope to convince a judge that the owners and employees at the family-run business (Mahmoud, Nizar, Ehab and Iyad Saeidah) sold the equipment with the knowledge that it would be used to manufacture honey oil, Ramsey said.
So, what is honey oil? For those who do not consume cannabis either medicinally or recreationally, this substance might sound dirty and less desirable than the green plant everyone is familiar with, if for no other reason than it is so often associated with butane, the gas you would find inside a Bic lighter.
But honey oil by itself, so named because its color and consistency are much like honey, is merely a concentrated form of cannabis. Because it’s concentrated, it often contains very high levels of THC (the psychoactive compound in marijuana). It can be heated and inhaled, either directly or through a vape pen, or it can be further refined for use in edibles, lotions or balms. In large-scale production facilities, the solvent most commonly used to extract the chemical compounds from the plant is carbon dioxide. Butane is used just as easily—and much more cheaply.
“Concentrated cannabis is the future of cannabis,” said Sid Brolin (not his real name), whose company creates extracts using C02. He preferred to not go on the record because of the pending state of laws in California regarding medicinal cannabis manufacturing permits and licenses; using concentrated cannabis is currently legal for medical marijuana users, and the products are available at dispensaries.
“There’s a greater degree of transparency with respect to what you’re consuming [with concentrates],” Brolin said. “All of our products are lab-tested so they’re consistent. They’re tested for pesticides, which are removed, and any chemical components in the product itself.
“Over the course of the last couple years, it’s become the fastest-growing segment of the market.”
Jessica MacKenzie, director of the Inland Cannabis Farmers’ Association, gave further insight into the popular form of cannabis and how it’s manufactured.
“Making butane honey oil is a highly dangerous thing to do, because butane is highly volatile. That should be done in a laboratory,” she said. One of the problems associated with BHO labs is that they are often created in unsafe environments, such as garages and sheds that contain other materials that could easily ignite.
“The gas is heavier than air and pools in low-lying areas near possible ignition sources,” Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien told the Chico City Council in June.
Indeed, most people agree that using butane to concentrate cannabis is both dangerous and unhealthy.
“With concentrates, like honey oil, if you do the process well, you’ll inhale vapors but you’re not getting all the particulate matter [that you would find in smoking the plant],” MacKenzie explained. When it comes to butane extraction, however, it’s nearly impossible, especially considering most BHO labs are clandestine, to ensure that no butane remains in the oil. “If it’s got butane in it, and you’re not successfully getting all the butane out of it, then where’s the benefit?” she said.
Back to the Saeidah family. The raid and its aftermath were not entirely straightforward, which makes their situation notable. For one, the initial incident yielded three arrests, of the elder Nizar (43) and Mahmoud (34), as well as 21-year-old Ehab.
Turns out, Ehab’s arrest was not part of the plan. He’d been confused with his younger brother, Iyad.
“Ehab rather convincingly denied having had contact with the undercover agent, but then made other admissions that caused him to be arrested,” Ramsey explained. “Later the next day, when Iyad was popping off on television, the undercover agent happened to be watching. He said, ‘That’s the guy I had talked to.’”
Iyad had been part of a small protest group gathered outside the Dungeon following the raid and initial arrests. He was interviewed on Action News Now, and was filmed threatening the television station’s management. A CN&R reporter was on the scene the following day, interviewing protesters, when Iyad returned. Thinking the CN&R reporter was with the same TV crew, he again expressed anger, this time saying, “I might just come down and shoot a whole motherfucking news station …”
The CN&R reported the threat. Iyad subsequently turned himself in to police and has been charged in connection to the honey oil equipment as well as for making criminal threats.
None of the Dungeon employees were charged with selling butane, though the undercover agent was buying “master cases,” which include 96 cans each, of the gas, according to Ramsey. He said the sale took place before the law restricting butane sales passed in Chico.
As Iyad told Action News Now, selling the honey oil machines is very common, Brolin said. “Everybody sells that shit. You won’t find it at a professional dispensary, but so many head shops sell that equipment. There is nothing special about these guys,” he said. “My hope for them is that they don’t face any criminal charges, just some really serious fines. It’s dumb—you shouldn’t have butane laying around, selling it to kids who are going to blow themselves up.”