Explosions in the high

Butane hash oil is blasting off—both in popularity and, sometimes, literally

Hash of all kinds is more popular than ever in Sacramento. But a lot of it is made with butane: Is this safe for patients to consume? Or even make?

On February 7, a woman shattered all the windows in her San Francisco apartment and was sent to the hospital, along with a 12-year-old boy, for treatment of burn wounds. And on February 19, three people in Tracy were rushed to the hospital, critically wounded after an explosion in their apartment. Authorities have said that these explosions resulted from failed attempts to make butane hash oil.

Butane hash oil, often referred to as BHO, is a concentrated form of cannabis prized for its smooth flavor and strong effects. According to Jeff Hatley at Sequoia Analytical Labs in Sacramento, most concentrated forms of cannabis, such as cold water hash or kief, contain between 15 to 60 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis. But BHO regularly tests much higher, at 30 to 75 percent.

BHO has been around the medical-cannabis community for years, but the past few months have seen a big upswing in itspopularity. There’s a lot of chatter on social-media sites about “dabs” and “wax,” which are slang terms for hash oil. Along with the increased popularity has come more scrutiny into how BHO is made, and questions about whether BHO is safe to use.

Concentrated cannabis, usually called hashish or hash, is made by collecting the crystals that form on the cannabis plant. This can be done by dry sifting cannabis flowers to make kief, by using extremely cold water to separate the crystals from the flowers, or by using a solvent—usually butane, sometimes carbon dioxide or alcohol. The butane evaporates, and the result is a waxy substance high in THC.

Of course, butane is an extremely flammable chemical. There have been many instances where someone making BHO has set themselves on fire.

“I wouldn’t advise anyone to make BHO at home any more than I would advise them to make land mines at home,” said Michael Backes of Abatin Wellness Center, the collective Montel Williams advises in Sacramento. “No one ever died from making water hash.”

A local BHO producer, who preferred to remain anonymous, makes BHO and he says he is very careful. “Never make it inside. Any kind of spark can create an explosion,” he explained. “I don’t even wear a wool sweater or a watch or carry my cellphone when I make BHO. Static electricity can be very tricky.”

Besides the danger, there are also questions about whether or not BHO is safe to use. This depends mostly on the type of butane used to produce the concentrate. Cheap brands, such as Ronson, can be bad for consumption.

Backes says that only pure N-type butane should be used. “Remember, butane doesn’t have a smell. So if you’re smelling what you think is butane, that means the wax was made with off-the-shelf butane,” he said. “Off-the-shelf butane, by law, must have an odorant in it. Those odorants are not good chemicals at all.”

Even then, experts say patients should be wary of purchasing BHO, as most BHO makers don’t have the industrial licensing needed to acquire high-quality butane.

“A friend of mine looked into getting an N tank,” said the anonymous BHO producer. “The rental costs for the tank alone would have double his costs, not to mention the cost of the butane itself.”

And then there’s the fact that this sort of butane production is illegal: According to California Health and Safety Code statute 11379.6, manufacturing BHO is against the law.

“That’s right,” said Oakland-based attorney Robert Raich. “If you are caught in the act of manufacturing, or if they raid you and find tools for making BHO, you could be charged.”

Raich added that although it is illegal to make BHO, it’s not illegal to possess or to sell, so long as one is a qualified cannabis patient.

“There was a case, People v. Bergen [in 2008] that ruled that MMJ patients could possess BHO,” Raich said. “Health and Safety Code 11379.6 is used mostly to go after manufacturers of methamphetamine.”

He also mentioned that the now-defunct Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act, which was sponsored by Americans for Safe Access and UFCW, would have allowed the manufacture of BHO.

Many dispensaries in California don’t carry BHO, and attempts to find a club in Sacramento selling BHO were unsuccessful. Most dispensaries even refused to go on record about BHO.

“We don’t carry it,” said Backes of Abatin Wellness, “mostly because of people’s prejudices.” He did add, however, that new techniques with water are yielding hash with BHO-level THC percentages.

For now, though, it seems that Sacramento patients will have to travel to the Bay Area if they want to try high-quality BHO.