Homemade hash oil has gained more notoriety for headline-grabbing explosions than for its soaring popularity among cannabis connoisseurs.
In January alone, three Medford homes caught on fire after gases used in making hash oil exploded, injuring five.
Legitimate producers who use laboratory-grade systems to extract marijuana concentrates and their derivatives, known as “shatter” and “dabs," have been fighting against this notoriety as state and local regulators devise rules for hash oil production. Jackson County commissioners have held multiple hearings on proposed marijuana laws, including on where and how hash oil might be produced, but have yet to make a decision, said Kelly Madding, director of Jackson County Development Services.
“They’ve created a system that is so regulated,” said Jamie Syken of Dirty Arm Farm, a hash oil manufacturer in the Applegate. “The recreational (marijuana) laws are so intense, and Jackson County adds onto that.”
Syken said his partners want to invest $1 million in marijuana extraction facilities, but regulations being contemplated by Jackson County could mean that he can’t do the extractions at his Applegate farm.
The Jackson County Planning Commission has recommended that water and carbon-dioxide extraction systems be allowed at marijuana businesses on lands zoned exclusive farm use, Madding said. Other kinds of processing require more flammable types of gases, such as butane, which the Planning Commission recommends be allowed on general- and light-industrial-zoned lands.
The closed-loop system of making hash oil, which is similar to vanilla extraction, is built with safety features that contain gases and prevent the explosions seen in homes and backyards, Syken said.
Home-grown hash oil systems, on the other hand, allow the flammable gases to escape, which can ignite with the tiniest spark if not properly ventilated. Hundreds of YouTube videos demonstrate how hash oil can be extracted at home with a few simple ingredients, including a large canister of butane or propane gas. The gas essentially leaches the active ingredients out of the marijuana flowers. Sometimes home-grown extractors attempt to heat up the mixture to get rid of the residual butane, a technique that also can cause fires.
Under Ballot Measure 91, which legalized marijuana in Oregon, home extraction is banned. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission is working on regulatory standards for the production of marijuana extracts by licensed producers.
Despite the ban, many local residents have been attempting to make hash or honey oil at home with devastating results.
In Medford, eight hash oil fires have erupted since 2011.
Three of those fires occurred in January, raising an alarm among firefighters who sometimes have to ventilate a building to get rid of explosive gases before they can put out the blaze.
On Jan. 2, a detached garage on Hamilton Street caught fire, resulting in one burn victim. On Jan. 11, a kitchen in a rental house on Crestbrook Road was damaged, but no one was injured.
On Jan. 26, Medford Fire-Rescue and Medford police responded to a butane hash oil fire inside a travel trailer in the 800 block of South Peach Street. One man suffered second- and third-degree burns to his hands and face. He was transported to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center. Three other victims transported themselves to hospitals to be treated for burns.
In 2014, a Portland hash oil lab exploded, leaving the suspect with burns and facing federal charges of endangering human life while manufacturing a controlled substance. The explosion blew out an apartment wall after the suspect lit a cigarette near the butane gas.
A 2014 explosion in Gresham left one man dead and another severely injured. The men tried to make hash oil after watching a video on YouTube.
Medford fire Chief Brian Fish said nobody has died locally but his department has dealt with several injuries.
“You can get a flash burn from the fireball,” Fish said. “Somebody jumped out of a second-story window and was injured.”
Butane, which is the flammable liquid inside a lighter, is the main culprit in the explosions, Fish said.
Even using carbon dioxide could be a problem in homemade operations, because the gas can fill a room and oxygen levels can drop to dangerously low levels, he said.
“That stuff is really dangerous,” said Karynn Fish, spokeswoman for the Oregon Cannabis Association (name corrected). “It was outlawed in Measure 91. Don’t try this at home.”
Facilities that are regulated by the state will be tested for residual levels of butane or other hydrocarbons used in the extraction process, she said.
“The closed loop is the key to making it safe,” Fish said.
Greg Allen, owner of Rogue Valley Remedies, a new medical marijuana dispensary on South Pacific Highway near Phoenix, said about 20 to 25 percent of his sales right now are related to cannabis extracts.
Under current state law, he can sell the extracts only to medical marijuana patients. Once sales are allowed for recreational marijuana users, he expects at least 40 percent of his sales will be for extracts.
“There are chronic smokers out there, and weed just doesn’t do it for them anymore,” Allen said.
The extracts have a far higher concentration of the active ingredients in marijuana. They’re also more portable and produce a greater “high,” he said.
Allen said he’s got a closed-loop extraction machine that uses carbon dioxide, but he hasn’t been able to use it recently because he’s just opened his dispensary.
“If it’s done correctly, it is safe,” he said. “When you do the tests, there are no residuals left.”
He said the carbon dioxide method requires a much higher pressure — 5,000 pounds per square inch — than butane, which can extract at around 100 psi.
Like Syken, Allen foresees problems with the rules Jackson County proposes for marijuana processors. He believes only a few producers will be able to take on the expense of dealing with local regulations, including paying $5,000 for a license.
“Very few extractors will be able to provide the dispensaries with their product,” he said. “I think it will be a real push to the black market.”