Explosion danger: U.S. marijuana oil labs pose deadly, destructive hazard

A suburban home that was the site of a hash oil extraction laboratory explosion is seen in the Mira Mesa area of San Diego, California, U.S., May 5, 2019. San Diego-Fire Rescue Department/Handout via REUTERS

By Andy Sullivan

SAN DIEGO(Reuters) – On the afternoon of May 5, college student John Nothdurft was watching TV at his suburban San Diego home when a series of explosions shook the house. Around the corner, on Sunny Meadow Street, flames billowed from a neighbor’s garage.

A man was running down the street. He was on fire.

Nothdurft, 18, tried to comfort the man as a neighbor sprayed him with a garden hose. “His skin kind of looked like it had melted off,” he recalled.

Investigators quickly determined the cause of the blaze: a butane-gas explosion resulting from an illegal attempt to make a concentrated form of marijuana. Known as hash oil or honey oil, the product can be consumed in vape pens, candies, waxes and other forms that are increasingly popular.

The Sunny Meadow Street explosion illustrates a growing danger as marijuana moves from the counterculture to the mainstream, law enforcement officials told Reuters. With cannabis now legal for medical or recreational use in 33 states and the District of Columbia, users are discovering new ways of consuming the drug.

Nationwide, concentrated products accounted for nearly a third of the $10.3 billion legal market in September 2018, double their share in 2015, according to the New Frontier Data research firm.

In states like California and Colorado, where marijuana use is legal, state-licensed producers of hash oil use sophisticated systems that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But those seeking to make hash oil at home don’t have to spend that much. YouTube videos demonstrate how to strip the psychoactive THC compounds from marijuana using a PVC pipe, a coffee filter and a $4 can of butane.

Production is surging on the black market – especially in California, where the legal market is still dwarfed by an underground network that supplies users across the country.

A “dab” of hash oil can contain up to 90 percent THC – more than four times the strength of typical marijuana buds.

“I will never forget my first time I ever took a dab,” said Sabrina Persona, assistant manager at Harbor Collective, a licensed marijuana dispensary in San Diego. “It’s some pretty strong, pretty concentrated stuff.”

Making hash oil can be lucrative – Persona pointed to a small jar retailing for $45 – but it is also risky. Odorless and heavier than air, butane can build up quickly in enclosed spaces – until a spark from a refrigerator motor or a garage-door opener sets off an explosion that can knock a house off its foundation or destroy an apartment building.

Nationwide, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says it received reports of 260 illegal hash-oil labs in 2017, a 38 percent increase from 2016. A quarter of those labs were discovered because they caught on fire, according to the agency’s annual drug threat assessment.

Those figures are far from comprehensive, as law enforcement agencies aren’t required to provide reports to the DEA’s national database.

Even in California, which accounted for two-thirds of all reported Illegal hash-oil labs in 2017, officials could be undercounting the problem. Child-safety advocate Sue Webber-Brown estimates more than 40 adults and three children were injured from hash-oil lab explosions in the state in 2016 – far higher than the official DEA tally of 16 injuries.

Even so, the DEA reports that at least 19 people have been killed and 126 people injured by hash-oil fires in California since 2014.

“A WHOLE GARAGE OF AMMUNITION”

On Sunny Meadow Street, the inferno blew a garage door 20 feet off its hinges and melted the windshield of a car. Dozens of butane cans exploded. “Boom, bang, boom bang. I thought it was a whole garage of ammunition,” said Ken Heshler, 80, a neighbor. Three people were taken to the hospital with severe burns.

The DEA says it discovered $75,000 worth of hash oil on the scene. The agency says it expects to bring criminal charges against those involved.

According to the DEA, its first report of an illicit hash-oil lab came in 2005, in Oakland, Calif. By 2013, the U.S. Fire Administration was warning that explosions stemming from hash-oil production appeared to be increasing.

Since then, officials say, the problem has grown worse. Narcotics officers in California say that the operations they encounter now tend to be larger than the home labs that proliferated earlier in the decade – with the amount of explosive chemicals measured in barrels, rather than milliliters.

These solvents “want to go boom – they don’t want to be confined, and with the slightest kind of nudge they’re going to explode, said Karen Flowers, special agent in charge of the DEA’s San Diego office.

Less than two weeks after the explosion on Sunny Meadow Street, Flowers’ office responded to another hash-oil fire in the suburb of El Cajon. That operation contained more than a dozen 55-gallon drums of hexane, another volatile solvent. Firefighters were able to control the blaze before the chemicals exploded.

The DEA also raided four other illegal hash-oil labs in the region, including one they said was capable of producing nearly a half million dollars worth of product every two days.

Explosions have been reported across the United States and Canada. In Battle Creek, Michigan, 80 people were left homeless after one destroyed an apartment building in July 2018.

In Michigan’s rural northeast corner, the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team routinely finds hash-oil equipment when it raids illegal growing operations, Detective Lieutenant Stuart Sharp said.

“The more people growing marijuana, the more people are going to experiment with this kind of thing and the more explosions and deaths we’re going to see,” he said.

SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS

Public-safety officials interviewed by Reuters say sales restrictions on butane could limit explosions from makeshift hash oil labs, just as limits on chemicals used in methamphetamine production have helped to curtail domestic production of that drug.

The California legislature voted for statewide limits in 2017, but then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the measure, saying the legitimate hash-oil industry should be given a chance to comply with impending regulations.

Since recreational marijuana sales became legal in 2018, the state has licensed 154 businesses to use butane or other explosive solvents to produce marijuana concentrates. Licensed businesses pay fees of up to $75,000 per year and must use equipment that keeps solvents contained. They must pass a fire-code inspection and train employees on safety standards.

The risk remains. California regulators fined a licensed producer $50,000 in December 2018 after a propane explosion badly burned a worker.

Chris Witherell, an industry consultant, says most of the hundreds of hash-oil operations he has inspected don’t pass the first time he visits. “Equipment is often poorly assembled or operating with incorrect parts,” he said.

Flowers said the DEA has dismantled 18 illegal hash-oil labs in San Diego this year, putting it on pace to nearly double the number in 2018.

“I’m extremely concerned about what the next six months are going to hold,” she said.

(Editing by Kieran Murray and Julie Marquis)

Gang-ravaged Mexico stuck in marijuana ban as U.S. opens up

FILE PHOTO: Marijuana plants for sale are displayed at the medical marijuana farmers market at the California Heritage Market in Los Angeles, California,

By Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican advocates for drug reform are voicing alarm about the country’s widening gap with the United States on marijuana legislation, as criminal violence surges again south of the border.

Tens of thousands have been killed over the years in Mexico, on the front line of a U.S.-led war on drugs. The country’s prohibitionist approach to marijuana is increasingly at odds with the United States, where liberalization is advancing.

California in November became the first state on the U.S.-Mexico border to vote for comprehensive cannabis legalization, further pressuring Mexican legislators to change policy.

Earlier this month Mexico’s Senate duly passed a limited medical marijuana bill. But it has yet to be approved by the lower house and critics say it is still far too little.

“It’s a teeny, tiny reform for an enormous problem in the country,” opposition leftist senator Mario Delgado said during the discussion of the medical marijuana bill.

“It’s absurd that on this side of the border we continue with the violence, the deaths; and on the other side … this same drug is considered legal for recreational use.”

Driven by widespread gang violence, murders are on track to breach the 20,000 mark in 2016 for the first time in four years, adding to more than 100,000 gang-related deaths in the decade since the government began a military-led crackdown on drug cartels.

Many thousands more have disappeared.

Pena Nieto said in 2014 that Mexico could not pursue diverging paths with the United States on marijuana. Earlier this year, he submitted a bill to close the gap on U.S. legislation. But his own lawmakers have been reluctant to follow his lead.

Starting with Washington and Colorado in 2012, U.S. states have begun to legalize recreational use of marijuana, and many more now permit medicinal use, as does Canada.

California, which has an economy roughly twice the size of Mexico’s, was widely seen as a bellwether for a shift in policy.

Mexico’s Supreme Court last year set the ball rolling in a landmark case, granting four people the right to grow and consume weed, and inspiring hope for change.

In April, Pena Nieto proposed decriminalizing possession of up to 28 grams of marijuana for personal use, and said it would allow people jailed for holding up to that amount to go free.

But senators in his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) put the initiative on ice, saying it “requires a greater analysis,” and only backed medical marijuana use.

The PRI blamed heavy losses in state elections in June on Pena Nieto pushing a liberal agenda, notably his bid to legalize gay marriage, said Lisa Sanchez, drug policy director at the organization Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia.

“They immediately transferred that discussion into the drugs issue by saying, ‘If we go too liberal, we might lose more elections,'” Sanchez said.

Opinion polls show that while there is public support for medical marijuana use, Mexicans are still resistant to the idea of an outright liberalization of the drug for recreational ends.

While Congress procrastinates, some people are even taking advantage of the U.S. opening, said Jaime Andres Vinasco, a doctoral student at university Colef in Tijuana, a border city synonymous with Mexican drug traffickers selling to U.S. buyers.

In Tijuana, moneyed consumers enjoy medical marijuana brought over from California dispensaries that is more potent and of higher quality than local weed, said Vinasco, who has spoken to users and dealers for his research on the reverse flow.

“The cannabis from California, for the Tijuanenses, or residents of Tijuana, has become, for the great majority, a luxury item,” he said. “Quite a paradoxical phenomenon.”

(Reporting by Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein; Editing by Dave Graham and David Gregorio)

Voters could legalize marijuana for quarter of all Americans

Pedestrians pass by a DC Cannabis Campaign sign in Washington

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – Nearly a quarter of Americans will live in areas where recreational marijuana use is legal if voters approve initiatives on Tuesday permitting the recreational use of cannabis in California, Massachusetts and three other states.

With pot already legal for use by adults in four states and the District of Columbia, a win for legalized marijuana in California alone would make the entire West Coast a cannabis-friendly zone, completing a geographical march begun in Washington state and Oregon.

Potential victories in Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine would fill in much of the rest of the West and extend recreational use to the Northeast. Opinion polls show voters favoring the initiative in all five states.

In addition, measures to legalize medical marijuana or expand its use are on the ballot in North Dakota, Montana, Arkansas and Florida.

An unnamed worker waters cannabis plants on Steve Dillon's farm in Humboldt County, California,

An unnamed worker waters cannabis plants on Steve Dillon’s farm in Humboldt County, California, U.S. August 28, 2016. REUTERS/Rory Carroll/File Photo

Twenty-five states already have legalized cannabis in some form, whether medical or recreational, or both.
In California, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1996, a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed 55 percent of likely voters supported a ballot initiative that would authorize the state to tax and regulate retail cannabis sales much like it does alcoholic beverages.

That was similar to the numbers favoring legalization from opinion polls in Massachusetts and Maine. Slimmer majorities or pluralities also point to legalization in Arizona and Nevada.

Approval by California alone, America’s most populous state with 39 million people, would put nearly a fifth of all Americans living in states where recreational marijuana is legal, according to U.S. Census figures. That number grows to more than 23 percent if all five state measures pass.

Backers of legalized marijuana sales have tried for decades to win support at the ballot box, with little success until the past few years, starting with victories in Colorado and Washington state in 2012.

Experts say the latest initiatives include more sophisticated regulatory mechanisms aimed at keeping cannabis away from children and banning the involvement of criminal gangs and drug cartels. Public opinion has rapidly swung toward favoring legalization.

“It’s changed in the minds of these voters from being like cocaine to being like beer,” said University of Southern California political scientist John Matsusaka.

Legalization by even a few of the states where measures are on the ballot could prod the federal government, which still classifies marijuana in the same category as heroin, to begin rethinking its laws and policies, Matsusaka said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Peter Cooney)