Why BHO? Seven possible reasons for the butane craze

by Ellen Komp, CalNORML Deputy Director

February 7, 2014 - You’d think the possibility of blowing yourself up making butane hash would stifle enthusiasm for the product, but BHO seems to be spreading everywhere unabated. We’re seeing reports of explosions weekly in California, and starting to hear of them in other places. CalNORML has issued a warning about butane oils (and gotten some flack for doing so, although we’ve also received thanks). As we head to the High Times Cannabis Cup LA with a "Generation Dab" panel on Saturday, here are some of the reasons I can figure for the BHO craze.

1. It’s a generational thing
Under 30 children-of-hippies all seem to prefer “dabbing” with oils. I’ve got a few theories about why this is so, apart from the novelty itself. Many people tell me they think dabs are “cleaner” to smoke, and this is the generation that was bombarded with anti-smoking education from a young age. It’s true that vaporizing is less harmful than smoking plant material, but the problem is many of the oils being consumed aren’t even made from pure butane: they’re made with lighter fluid that contains other chemicals, some of them neurotoxins. The long-term effects of inhaling these, or traces of butane itself, are unknown.

In pot-growing regions, it’s common for parents to allow their teenaged young adults to take the “shake” from their gardens. This lower-quality marijuana has less THC, and it’s safer to smoke, akin to allowing 3.2% beer for the 18-21 age group (as was once done in some states). Some soon figured out they could make water hash out of the shake for a stronger product. But making water hash is actual work: it takes time, and effort. Sticking buds in a tube and pouring butane over them is a lot easier. BHO is the lazy person’s way to make hash, and we were all lazy when we were young.

2. There’s a glut of medical marijuana on the market
One astute industry insider noticed hash oil getting big in Colorado after their medical law passed and everyone was growing it. What do you do with extra product? Make hash, which doesn’t degrade. The quickest and easiest way to do that seems to be with butane. Now that Colorado's passed a law legalizing recreational use, they can't keep enough product on the shelves: now that's progress!

3. Police have cracked down on transportation
After one court decision allowing police to search a car if they even think they smell marijuana, Mendocino county added two canine units to their police force. Police all over the country have had a field day nabbing transporters and grabbing marijuana and money. Drivers are quite vulnerable on the road, and since they make only something like $100 per pound for their service, must carry large amounts of cannabis or cash to make it worth their while.

Whenever there’s a crackdown on a drug, a more concentrated and dangerous form tends to emerge, because it’s safer and easier to transport (think coca and cocaine).

4. Vaporpens are getting more popular
Other than the pricey ($250) Pax vaporizer or the inelegant MagicBox, there isn’t a good portable option for a vaporizer that uses straight plant material. On the other hand, there is no limit to the number of portable vaporizer pens on the market that use oils, either in cartridges or by dabbing on a bit of oil. The products are easy to use, good for traveling, often healthier for your lungs, and unobtrusive to neighbors. They’re the upside of oils, but using something made with unsafe solvents or pesticides isn’t healthy. CO2-extracted oils are safe, but the equipment is expensive and some are claiming theirs is CO2 extracted when it's not. Make sure your collective is testing their products themselves, not just relying on lab test results brought in by suppliers.

5. Events and magazines promote BHO to consumers
At one point, you could go to cannabis trade shows and get a free dab. When I asked two young men at a Mendocino head shop who were trying to buy a case of lighter fluid to make oil, “Do you need to get high that much more quickly?” they responded that it wasn’t for their own use, but rather to make a marketable product. One pointed to the cover of the current High Times, featuring a story on oils. It was a balanced article, but the cover was BHO porn. Magazines are carrying a large number of ads from companies making the accoutrements to dabbing, much like the bong industry of old. One cannabis collective manager in the LA area told me he's refused to carry concentrates, and that his patient population has dropped by half.

6. Places like Amazon.com make it easy to buy the means of production
Recently I found a discarded cardboard box on the lawn of a local middle school. It said, “Whip-It Butane 9x Purified Case.” Looking the product up, I found you can get 12 cans of the stuff on Amazon for $65. A “5x purified” (whatever that means) product is available in 24-can cases for $75.

On a similar page, Amazon sells lighter fluid cases along with a Concentrate Pad as a package deal, promoting BHO filters and other products to use for lighters "and other personal needs!" They even got a five-star review from someone who says it "came out nice" (obviously not talking about a lighter).

Many headshops, liquor stores and other specialty shops sell lighter fluid by the case, some of them in increasing sizes. You can also find the stuff on EBay. Just Google “BHO extractor.” One website selling products used to make BHO oils (modeled by a woman in a lab coat and black lace stockings) brags it’s selling their equipment in many states, plus Canada and Japan. Their Facebook page has a post from the company showing an open flame being used indoors.

7. It's another unintended consequence of the drug war
A harm-reduction model for drug policy would be addressing the problem of BHO explosions, as it would have the house fires we started seeing with indoor-grown cannabis a few years back. The medical model has shown people will avail themselves of a regulated market if it exists. Colorado and Washington, which have both legalized pot for adult use (not just medical), are working on regulations for concentrates made industrially. Timothy Leary used to say that the government’s job is to make sure drugs are safe, and people are licensed and educated to use them properly. Instead, now the kinder gentler governmental approach is a proposal to evaluate anyone found using marijuana for psychological treatment.

Marijuana isn’t a gateway to harmful drugs like meth or Ritalin (unless your dealer is pushing them: this is why hard drug use is down in Amsterdam, where the connection between hard and soft drugs has been severed). But pot does seem to prepare the brain for psychedelics, which have been part of adolescent initiation rites for centuries. Raves-of-their-day the Eleusinian mysteries featured the psychedelic sacrament kykeon, and everyone partook once a year. The Roman’s clampdown on the “pagan” practice is felt until this day, and possibly it’s lead to young adults craving the experience, and looking to get it by concentrating cannabis since the true sacraments are off limits. Until we get a grip on mankind’s relationship to drugs, we’ll always ensure that our “forbidden fruit” is delivered in more and more dangerous ways.


BHO as Medicine

Honestly, we went down the BHO road so that we could make an acceptable concentrate to fight my mother's ALS. There are responsible extractors out there, who are experimenting with ways to make extraction safer. Skunk Pharm, for example publishes all of it's research online and provides support for people who want to build safer extraction tools.

Until it's possible to purchase safe, high quality concentrates, to fight disease and heal, there will be advocates who make their own medicine. What else can we do? I'm not going to watch my mother die from this disease, for want of government assistance.

Regarding those who blow themselves up, there will always be stupid people who behave in irresponsible ways. Can we save them from themselves? Probably not. You can't blame that on cannabis.

Not completely accurate

Butane is harmless as a residue. In fact, n-butane is an approved food additive.

The odorants used in retail butane canisters includes mercaptans that are mildly toxic. These mercaptan odorants are so stinky (they smell like skunky garlic) very little is needed to odorize retail cans of butane (less than 5 parts per million), so even they don't pose much of a health threat as residues in amateur oil extractions.

Professional extractors use n-butane, which contains no odorants.

Increasingly, oil extractions are accomplished using supercritical carbon dioxide as the solvent, which poses no exposure hazards and is not flammable.

"Lighter fluid" refers to several substances. Traditionally, the term referred to the naphtha mixture used for wick lighters. Naphtha lighter fluid is not used for cannabis oil extractions, because it can be difficult to properly purge from the extraction and even the slightest amount of naphtha residue causes the extraction to reek of lighter fluid.

Butane is extremely dangerous only to the amateur manufacturer. Professionals understand how to work safely with pressurized and flammable gases and follow chemical industry-accepted manufacturing guidelines and standards.

Hash does degrade and so do most hash oil and waxes. Plant waxes from cannabis in unprocessed hash and oils are highly polyunsaturated and go rancid very quickly. Many of the studies claiming shelf stability for hashish are simply outdated and incorrect.

The reasons that oil products are becoming more popular are their potency and convenience. Period.

Yes, these oils are easier to transport during prohibition, as are more potent cannabis flowers.

But the proper response to this increase in potency should be better dosage guidance for all cannabis products. And that dosage guidance is lacking.

Because cannabis and its derivatives are nontoxic, users tend to use more than is needed. Overuse results in tolerance. And cannabis oil is increasingly used to address cannabis tolerance. The 80% THC content of the most potent cannabis oils easily overcomes most cannabis tolerance that develops among regular cannabis users. However, using cannabis oil to overcome tolerance issues can result in even higher levels of cannabis tolerance.

And there is another minor issue associated with cannabis oil and "dabbing.' An unsuspecting cannabis user that is given their first "dab bomb" may have a very unpleasant experience that may even result in a visit to the emergency room for some Valium and medical reassurance. Cannabis won't kill anyone, but an excessive dose of it can be quite frightening. The unpleasant experiences of some "old-timers" with these new high-potency oils has been noted at several recent cannabis conferences.

Michael Backes
Los Angeles

clarification

Butane is not listed by the American Herbal Products Association as acceptable. http://www.ahpa.org/default.aspx?tabid=223#section_solvents

Not everyone is using pure butane to make extractions, but rather naptha or lighter fluids which may contain impurities like hexane, heptane, acetone and benzene.

We have consulted with several laboratories, who report they are finding impurities in cannabis oils. According to the American Herbal Products Association, for a 10 gram daily dose: hexane has a 290 ppm limit, and heptane and acetone are class three, with an acceptable level of 5000ppm. Benzene is listed by AHPA as a class one solvent with no acceptable use.

Still, one lab representative at the HT Cup said something similar to a comment we just got via email: "I should also add that even in the most underpurged oils, the amount of butane, and even impurities that are left over, are absolutely nothing compared to using Bic lighter to light your bong, You suck up more butane and toxic junk, than taking a dab of the most underpurged oil. Just some food for thought."

That may be true (not sure how you'd measure that). No question: dabs are here to stay. But vendors were talking about "solvent free" oils and waxes and CO2 extractions at the show.

Since I've done this research, I'm getting continual pop up ads for cases of lighter fluid from Amazon.com. I think I will write a letter to them, and to lighter fluid manufacturers about their practices and the very real danger of home explosions.

In a fully legalized world, farm bureaus could pitch in on equipment to make safe concentrates.

Nonsense

You wrote: Butane is not listed by the American Herbal Products Association as acceptable. http://www.ahpa.org/default.aspx?tabid=223#section_solvents

CANorml is being disingenuous in its response. The AHPA guidance contains no list of "acceptable" solvents. At all. The AHPA guidance only lists dangerous solvents and acceptable exposure limits of those solvents. The risks posed by butane residues are not mentioned anywhere in the AHPA guidance Why? Possibly because the risks posed by butane residues are low. Here is a direct quote from the federal National Advisory Committee for Acute Exposure Guideline Levels for Hazardous Substances concerning butane and its toxicology, "The toxicity of butane is low."

I think we can agree that solvent residues do not belong in medical cannabis products. But let's focus on the real dangers. CANorml needs to be honest about the real dangers posed by solvents and not promote irrational fears about butane toxicity. The real dangers of solvent extractions stem from the unregulated manufacture of cannabis concentrates by untrained amateurs working in unsafe conditions. Period.

There is no doubt whatsoever that medical cannabis products for commercial distribution should be made by professionals working in conditions and with equipment that meet OSHA standards for safety. Not farm bureaus, but by manufacturers that know how to use and maintain professional extraction technology used for creating safe extractions of known constituency.

Acceptable

It looks to me like a list of acceptable solvents. They list others that are not. Butane is on neither list, so what we're saying is it's neither acceptable nor unacceptable; no data is available.