You probably associate drug lab explosions more with rural Missouri than suburban Newcastle. And that would make sense: historically, the majority of drug lab explosions have been tied to bad crystal meth chemists doing bad science, and Americans have always had a more voracious taste for meth than the British. But drug lab explosions are now on the rise in the UK, thanks to bad chemists trying to make something new out of the UK's favourite illegal drug.
Last month, the BBC reported on the increase of explosions caused by people trying to turn cannabis into "Butane Hash Oil" (BHO), which is essentially pure THC (the stuff in weed that gets you high) concentrated into little gold slabs (which some people call "shatter") that you smoke in a vaporiser. To make it, you have to use a large amount of butane – the stuff they put in lighters, i.e. an extremely flammable substance – which can pool and explode if ignited.
The BBC's investigation found that two people have been killed and 27 injured in the UK since 2014 as a direct result of this process. So it's clearly a dangerous, and complex to carry out – especially if you're doing it in your own home, as opposed to a heavily controlled lab environment. But one thing the report skimped over is exactly why people are taking these risks. Why flirt with a house fire when you can just buy a ten-bag?
"It's the most ideal form of cannabis for medical patients," said Alex Fraser over the phone, from his home in Brighton. Alex is Events Director at the United Patients Alliance, a group that campaigns and lobbies for medical cannabis in the UK. He treats his Crohn's disease with daily doses of cannabis oil.
"I just took a small dab now as I got home from work to deal with the cramps," he said. "Instead of sitting down, rolling a joint, smoking it and then potentially rolling another, I can just have a quick dab in a matter of seconds and deliver the right amount of THC for the pain relief."
Some solidified Butane Hash Oil, or "shatter" (Photo courtesy of Smokey)
With much of the reporting on BHO, there's a focus on how dangerous it is to produce, rather than why so many people are choosing to produce it – which they appear to be, given the increase of these accidents. Alex said his detailed explanation on the medical uses did not make the final cut of the BBC report, which dubbed the concentrate "super-strength cannabis".
"I know lots of people myself who now make it – they provide for patients. It's a very dangerous thing to be doing, but people are doing it because there is a demand from medical users," Alex explained. "It is such a pure product, and therefore dosages of THC can be measured properly. And for someone who has a condition which needs a high amount of THC or CBD [another active chemical in cannabis] for treatment, smoking so much weed would not be a healthy way to ingest it."
The cannabis community has known about the medical uses for cannabis oil for a while, but it wasn't until recently that pharmaceutical companies starting taking note. Last month, GW Pharmaceuticals – the first company in the UK granted a license to cultivate cannabis and study its medical uses – carried out phase-three trials involving cannabis concentrates and epileptic children. The chief executive, Justin Gover, recently stated that their cannabis concentrate-based medicine Epidiolex "has the potential to provide a robust and clinically meaningful reduction in seizures", according to the latest results from the trials.
As GW continues to conduct new trials with cannabis concentrate-based medicine, and people continue to make the product at home, it's clear cannabis concentrates aren't going anywhere.
I met up with "Smokey", one of many people around the UK producing high quality branded concentrates. He is what is commonly referred to as an "extract artist", and has been making BHO and cannabis concentrates since 2007. With his numerous international cannabis cups and awards, I figured Smokey was one of the best in the UK at what he did.
"I have loads of patients with a range of conditions, from MS to rheumatoid arthritis. There are so many compounds in cannabis that have medical benefits, from THC to CBD," he said. "Anybody who says cannabis is not a medicine is so misinformed. I have plenty of patients who can tell you first-hand how their lives have changed."
Smokey went on to tell me how there is a lot of cannabis oil being made in the UK, but not all of it holds up to a medical standard. "Someone like myself who does things properly will have over £20,000 worth of equipment," he said, adding that he's got experience making concentrates in less illegal settings, after being flown out to labs in Spain and the US. "At the end of the day, it's a dangerous thing to do. You could be a mechanic, you could be an electrician – you just got to know what you're doing," he said. "The problem is: you got so many people thinking they are going to do extractions without much knowledge, when, really, it comes down to being a scientist."
Smokey blames the recent explosions on the individuals as opposed to the process: "The problem these days is everybody thinks they're an extractor. In the hands of someone unexperienced, it is literally a ticking time-bomb." He's seen the process gone wrong before, and heard plenty of horror stories that didn't reach the 9 o'clock news. "I know someone who had a serious accident doing this, and not only are his face, arms and legs burnt; he is psychologically scarred and can't even be in a room with people smoking. It's ruined his life."
Smokey studied Mechanical Engineering at university. He's an educated young man who didn't necessarily need to dedicate his life to making cannabis concentrates, but decided to do so partly out of his passion for fighting current legislation and making the medicine available to more people. "I think it's important to fight the unjust laws through education," he said. "I think we're on the path to legal cannabis; just a week ago the NHS began testing CBD concentrates in vaporisers for the first time."
Beyond the medical demand, Smokey says there is another obivous reason why BHO has become so widespread: profit. "Material that used to be chucked away is now literally being turned into gold," he said, referring to the parts of the cannabis plant – such as leaves and stems – that historically were destined for the bin, but now, with BHO technology, can be stripped down for every cannabinoid compound they contain. The "gold" he refers to is what the final product should look like: a solid golden shard that can go for around £50 to £60 a gram.
A member of the London Cannabis Club told me how he sees a big future market for cannabis concentrates like BHO, as they are so versatile and can be placed in any product from a vape pen to food. "Whether for the recreational or medical market, these concentrates allow for more measured and consistent cannabis products," he said. "More importantly, it also means none of the plant is wasted."
The world of BHO and cannabis concentrates is clearly one that will continue to expand in the UK and internationally, regardless of the law. However, where there is a legally regulated industry in the US, you don't often hear about problems with BHO production. Just like any other dangerous process, leaving it in the hands of untrained people looking for a quick profit is likely to result in big problems.
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