If you think the recent liberalization of marijuana laws around the country is only about smoking leaves and buds, think again. For users younger than 25, "hash oil" is where it's really at. This concentrated resin of marijuana is creating new public safety headaches — even in places where it's legal.
There have always been forms of the substance, but the resins available today are much stronger than in years past. That's due in part to the expertise developed by medical marijuana producers, who have learned how to make more potent versions of the oil.
Near Seattle, medical marijuana entrepreneur Jeremy Kelsey shows off a sample of a resin that he markets as extreme pain medication for cancer patients. It looks like dark green Karo syrup. Kelsey calls it "pure THC."
"There's pounds literally that went into this dish," Kelsey says, dabbing at the sticky substance that coats the bottom of a square Pyrex pan.
His product is especially potent because he makes it only from marijuana buds, not, as others do, from leafy matter and stalks. He calls the resin medication, but recreational users have other names for it: "butane honey oil," "wax," "shatter" or simply "dabs" — because a little dab will do you.
Users smoke it, vaporize it and sometimes even eat it — those people sometimes refer to themselves as "tar babies." High Times magazine jokingly implies that honey oil is best for people who already smoke regular pot every day. The stuff is so strong, it can cause less experienced users to throw up.
Some people make the resin at home. You just soak the pot in some kind of chemical solvent, which extracts the resin from the marijuana. Do-it-yourselfers like using butane, which can be purchased at most hardware stores.
The trouble is, solvents can catch fire — and even explode. Last year, the U.S. Fire Administration, a department of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, issued a bulletin warning of an increase in fires involving the production of hash oil.
In Washington state, which legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012, authorities have noted an uptick in similar incidents. There was an explosion in a building in Seattle on Tuesday, and Verner O'Quinn, a sergeant with the Seattle Police Department's bomb squad, blames solvents used in the production of hash oil.
There were no victims in the explosion, but it created a big bang. "It blew out the windows, blew the walls 6 inches from the foundation in an area. Cracked the siding," O'Quinn says.
He says fires in the Seattle area often come with a particular twist: They start with exploding refrigerators. Apparently, some people put their marijuana-butane marinade in the freezer. "Maybe the process works better when it's colder," O'Quinn says.
Most freezers have a fan, which then circulates the volatile butane fumes into the rest of the refrigerator, "down to where the compressor is," he explains. "A small spark will set it off, and it generally blows the door off."
A 'Practical Decision' To Legalize
Washington state allows adults to possess up to 1 ounce of pot, so turning it into hash oil isn't illegal, per se. Still, if you're using explosive solvents, you might be looking at a zoning violation or even criminal charges of reckless endangerment.
The state is now getting ready to license commercial marijuana processors, who will be required to use purer solvents and professional-grade equipment when making the extracts.
State officials did waver over whether hash oil should be legal at all. Initially, the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which is writing the regulations for the legalization process, decided the voter-approved legalization did not apply to concentrates. It later reversed course.
Randy Simmons, who runs the legalization implementation process, calls that a practical decision.
"We're trying to move as many people out of the illicit marketplace as possible," Simmons says. "And in order to do that, if we would have excluded these oils, we would have left a whole lot of the marketplace in the black market."
In other words, hash oil is too popular not to legalize. But there's no guarantee that will always be true. Simmons points out that after Prohibition ended, liquor laws were constantly fine-tuned with experience. He expects the same thing may happen with marijuana and its more potent derivatives.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington isn't just about people smoking leaves and buds. Among young users, the most popular form of pot is now something called butane honey oil. It's a concentrated marijuana resin. It is legal where marijuana is legal, but its popularity worries public safety officials. That's in part because making the substance can have explosive side effects. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: There have always been forms of hash oils out there, but these days they're much stronger, thanks to the expertise of people like Jeremy Kelsey.
JEREMY KELSEY: This starting out, this is the pure THC concentrate that comes from the plant.
KASTE: Kelsey's showing off a Pyrex dish that contains something that looks like green syrup. He dabs at it with a toothpick and tries to convey just how much marijuana this represents.
KELSEY: There's pounds literally that went into this dish.
KASTE: Pounds of marijuana bud?
KELSEY: Yeah, yeah. Yes. This is straight flowers that makes this. This isn't leaf or nothing. This is straight flowers.
KASTE: Kelsey runs a medical marijuana store north of Seattle and he calls this syrup pain medication for cancer patients. Recreational users have other names for it: wax, honey oil, shatter or just plain dabs. They smoke it, vaporize it, even eat it. It produces a gut-wrenching high that makes regular pot seem weak, a high that motivates some of them to share their fun on YouTube.
KASTE: Some people like hash oil so much they make it at home. All you need to do is soak the marijuana in some kind of a chemical solvent which extracts the resin. Do-it-yourselfers like butane because you can buy it at the hardware store. But the trouble is butane can blow up.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You squish it down and make sure...
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The house is on fire. The house is on fire.
KASTE: Yeah, that's on YouTube too. But you could've seen something like that in person if you'd happen to be standing outside a certain building on the south side of Seattle earlier this week. Verner O'Quinn is with the city's bomb squad.
VERNER O'QUINN: It blew out the windows, blew the wall six inches off the foundation in an area, cracked the siding.
KASTE: There's been an uptick in fires caused by people making hash oil, and not just in pot-friendly Washington state. Last year there was a bulletin about the trend from FEMA. Around Seattle, some of the explosions have been happening inside of refrigerators. O'Quinn says people here seem to think that the best place for their marijuana butane marinade is in the freezer.
O'QUINN: Maybe the process works better when it's colder. At some point what happens is it makes its way into the refrigerator or down to where the compressor is. A small spark will set it off and it generally blows the door off.
KASTE: Washington state allows adults to possess up to an ounce of pot. And turning your pot into hash oil isn't illegal per say. But if you're using explosive solvents, you might be looking at a zoning violation at the very least. The state will require commercial marijuana processors to use safer chemicals and equipment. But officials initially balked at allowing hash oil to be sold at all. Randy Simmons runs the state's pot licensing process.
RANDY SIMMONS: We're trying to move as many people out of the illicit marketplace as possible. And in order to do that, if we would have excluded these oils, we would have left a whole lot of the marketplace in the black market.
KASTE: In other words, they decided that the concentrates were just too popular not to legalize. As a compromise they said that it had to be diluted with food or some other substance. But with experience those rules could change. Simmons points out that liquor laws were constantly fine-tuned after prohibition. And he expects that the same may happen with marijuana and its more potent derivatives. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.