The process of extracting so-called "hash oil" from marijuana plants appears to be an explosive trend that is posing a threat to residents as "do-it-yourself" methods gain popularity in the Bay Area.
In the past two weeks two hash oil explosions were reported in Santa Cruz. A third incident occurred last Friday in Fremont. Earlier this year, a Santa Rosa explosion injured a teenage boy.
More than two years ago, a 35-year-old man died after he and his roommates, a male and female couple, were making hash oil at a home in Livermore.
The explosion on May 21, 2011, killed Paul Lom and caused $350,000 in damage to the apartment building where the drug was being manufactured.
The couple has since pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and accessory charges in connection with Lom's death.
Although other incidents have not been as lethal, the use of butane to extract the highly coveted product poses dangerous threats to anyone nearby.
A 29-year-old man was severely burned when the extraction went wrong at his home in Santa Cruz Oct. 9.
The front windows were blown out of the home and the man appeared to have been working out of the bathroom, which was also damaged.
Two dogs at the home were also burned.
About 10 days before that incident, three men in a Santa Cruz apartment were severely burned and suffered life-threatening injuries because of a hash oil explosion.
The Sept. 29 explosion was sparked by a pilot light in a water heater near where the men were using butane to extract the usually gummy yellow-orange substance. The explosion led to a one-alarm fire and blew out the wall near the water heater.
The "DIY" practice is gaining notoriety online with YouTube videos and other tutorials providing directions to make the attainable oil.
A 15-year-old boy in Santa Rosa was found making the concentrated cannabis product with 43 pounds of loose-leaf marijuana in August.
In the most recent incident in Fremont last Friday, an explosion and a one-alarm fire was reported at a laundry room at a house.
A 20-year-old man and a juvenile female were burned after the hash oil operation lead to the explosion.
The U.S. Fire Administration in February released an advisory to fire and emergency personnel throughout the country about the increase of hash oil explosions.
In the advisory on its website, officials said "the extraction method appears to be more common on the West Coast."
It continued, "In states with legalized use and availability of medical marijuana, these incidents appear to be increasing."
Federal officials said the ensuing explosions and fires are often misidentified as pipe bombs or meth lab explosions.
Fire officials urged first responders receive training about hash oil extractions.
Cmdr. Mario Sulay with the Santa Cruz County Anti-Crime Team, which operates a narcotics enforcement taskforce, said the practice of using highly flammable butane is "a danger to individuals and to neighbors."
He said the dense gas collects in a room until it meets an ignition source.
He said it doesn't help that many of these operations are done in poorly ventilated areas such as basements, bathrooms and laundry rooms.
"In operations like this they try to hide their activity," he said.
The commander said people will buy multiple cases of butane, and if neighbors see the large amount of canisters it is usually an indicator of the illegal practice.
"If this trend continues," he said, "there will be pushes for legislation to control" butane purchases.
He said the butane process is growing because it "maximizes the product" and extracts the tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, from plants that previously would have been considered low-grade and thrown away.
He said so far this year there have been six cases of hash oil explosions reported in Santa Cruz County, which is up from any other year.
He said the labs are simple to create, especially when compared to the more sophisticated intricacies and supplies needed for a methamphetamine lab.
"It's very minimal," he said. "With easily obtained items. Compared to a meth lab, it's not a lot of labor involved."
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, butane is available over the counter in 8-ounce cans. Typically a whole can is used in one extraction.
Other extraction materials include isopropyl, or rubbing, alcohol, glass dishes and coffee filters.
Sulay said his department, along with other law enforcement agencies, is trying to publicize the hazards of making hash oil at home.
He said the consequences are apparent when people read about life-threatening burns and blown out windows and walls.
There also needs to be education for law enforcement personnel themselves. They need to "know how to look for and how to properly handle it," Sulay said.
Sulay said his goal is to "interdict something before something bad happens."
John Sugg, president of the Sonoma Patient Group, a medical marijuana dispensary in Santa Rosa, said they sell hash oil, sometimes called "honey oil," but only concentrates made with carbon dioxide.
He said inert gases like carbon dioxide are non-explosive unlike butane.
"Using carbon dioxide is safer method," he said. Safer yet would involve making the product outdoors instead of the common practice of staying in a closed-off environment.
He said the process usually involves filling a cylindrical tube with marijuana and pouring butane from the top.
The oil comes out of the bottom and the various nicknames for the drug are based on its consistency and color. He said the "oil" is a solid or waxy substance at room temperatures and liquefies with heat.
"No matter how safe you are, if there is something like a water heater or pilot light or static electricity, that can set off that explosion," Sugg said.
He said, "I call it the exploding hippie phenomenon."
He urged people to "avoid blowing themselves up," although he noted the illegal practice is not as dangerous as a meth lab.
Sugg believes the oil is becoming more popular because of its high market value. A gram of the oil can sell for as much as $60.
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