by Ellen Komp, CalNORML Deputy Director
UPDATE 3/22/2015 – This article is speculative, and meant to start a conversation, which certainly has happened. I wrote it after encountering someone buying lighter fluid in bulk to make concentrates, and some quick research uncovered it was a growing trend that obviously wasn’t going away.
Manufacturers in legal medical marijuana states are getting more serious about safety precautions for solvent extractions, and some are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment to make solvent-less, high-pressure carbon dioxide extractions. Cal NORML cautions consumers to know the contents of vape cartridges and oils they buy, and be sure they are laboratory tested at a trusted lab. -EK
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; however some 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.
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 often 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 safer, 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 ancient sacraments are off limits. Until we get a grip on mankind’s relationship to drugs, we’ll ensure that our “forbidden fruit” is delivered in more creative and sometimes dangerous ways.