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Renaissance in hash oil manufacturing bringing a rash of explosions


When firefighters arrived at an east Santa Rosa apartment last week, they found telltale signs of a troubling drug trend: a charred kitchen floor, a plastic tube full of marijuana and a can of highly flammable butane gas.

Though hash oil, a potent cannabis derivative, has been around for millennia, it is experiencing a renaissance thanks to magazine articles and online videos, some of which tout an unsafe manufacturing process that has caused a number of explosions in homes throughout the North Coast and around the country.

Dave McCullick, vice president of Santa Rosa pot dispensary Sonoma Patient Group, extolled the virtues of hash oil, a drug whose legal status in California is murky. But he said it must be produced safely.

"The manufacturing is the part where people need to get educated," McCullick said. "It would have a lot more support if it wasn't made in a dangerous way."

When it comes to hash oil, McCullick is a bit of a connoisseur. He said his dispensary only sells top-shelf hash oil made by the safest methods.

The only acceptable way to make the golden brown waxy chunks of hash oil — also known as honey oil, shatter or dabs — is with an expensive extracting machine that uses carbon dioxide, McCullick said.

Two Santa Rosa men were arrested Wednesday night after a butane hash oil accident sparked an explosion that nearly torched a kitchen and left one with third degree burns.

"This process is extremely volatile," said Santa Rosa Fire battalion chief Mark Basque, who responded to Wednesday's fire. "It creates a flammable or explosive atmosphere."

Dozens of fires in California have been linked to hash oil making, including at least three in Santa Rosa in the past six months.

In a mid-July explosion, a 31-year-old Santa Rosa man who was trying to produce hash oil suffered life-threatening burns that covered more than half his body. A Petaluma teen suffered burns to his face in a hash oil accident in March.

The hazard has become so pervasive that the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a warning to first responders about hash oil explosions.

"The extraction method appears to be more common on the West Coast; reported fires and explosions have blown out windows, walls and caused numerous burn injuries," the statement said. "In states with legalized use and availability of medical marijuana, these incidents appear to be increasing."

In some states including California, the legality of the actual production process is still in debate, the memo said.

The process involves packing loose marijuana leaves, or shake, into a metal or plastic tube then blasting it with butane, a highly flammable gas that strips the plant of its oils. The butane is then burned off leaving a hard, sticky gel that is loaded with THC, the drug found in cannabis.

"It's a highly concentrated form of THC," said Sgt. Chad Heiser, who runs the Santa Rosa Police narcotics unit. "It's a more concentrated hit. It will get you a lot higher."

The THC content in hash oil is upward of 80 percent compared with 25 percent of quality marijuana, McCullick said.

It is typically smoked out of a modified water pipe by placing a small chunk or "dab" on a nail or other sharp object then touching it to a superheated surface of the pipe where it vaporizes and the smoke is inhaled.

Manufacturing hash oil is illegal, even for medical marijuana patients, Heiser said. The going rate for the drug is double the price of pot, and it is selling for $35 per gram at Santa Rosa dispensaries.

"It is all about money, as with other risky things," said Denny Hutton, professor of alcohol and drug studies at Santa Rosa Junior College. "In a lot of these cases, it's people who are not well off and they are trying to make some extra money."

Cases involving hash oil production are becoming more prevalent, Heiser said. In November, Santa Rosa police busted an operation that had 30 to 40 distilling tubes. More common, however, is the amateur do-it-yourselfer who got the idea online.

"Typically, it's Joe Shmoe that has never done it before, finds directions on YouTube and has an accident," Heiser said. "It's a very dangerous process."

In Wednesday's accident at an East Santa Rosa apartment, Rex Wilkins, 22, and Jimmy Phillips, 28, were arrested on suspicion of manufacturing a controlled substance. They learned about butane hash oil making from a video posted on YouTube, said a friend of one of the suspects, who asked to remain anonymous.

"You can find anything on YouTube, but that doesn't mean you should try it," the friend said. "Stupidity can lead to consequences."

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.