The burn center at University of Colorado Hospital used to see about one case per year of severe burn victims that were injured in home hash oil labs.
The gaseous method of making butane hash oil is dangerous enough, but when attempted in under ventilated indoor labs, the risk of explosion is serious.
It’s perhaps why the number of burn cases seen at the center shot up during the past two years, to 11 in 2013 and 10 since this January.
The Denver district attorney’s office was unavailable to comment, but DA George Brauchler told The Associated Press that he’s pursued as many as 10 felony charges already this year, all hash oil-related.
And Colorado’s legalization of weed could be to blame for the increase in home hash oil labs and explosions.
While recreational marijuana is now legal, it’s still pretty much banned everywhere in Colorado.
That’s why people are turning to hash oil, which can be used with a portable vaporizer pen or an e-cigarette, in droves.
“Three years ago I’d never heard of hash oil, and I’ve been an advocate and consumer for decades. It’s becoming a popular item for consumers,” Rachel Gillette, executive director of Colorado’s National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) told VICE News.
Hash oil, also known as "dabs" or wax, is a sticky, amber-colored material that resembles thick honey. Extremely high in Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), it is preferred by some medical marijuana patients because it provides a potent dose in one small drop.
Oil products are primarily used with vaporizers, though stoners have been known to drop some oil onto a hot car cigarette lighter and suck on the fumes.
The most common method of hash oil production uses butane to extract the THC from marijuana leaves.
Legal Grey Area
Colorado’s Amendment 64 passed in November 2012, which legalized the retail weed market. Stores began offering pot to the public this January.
“Under Amendment 64, you can’t roll up a big joint in a bar or on the street, but if you use vaporizers it’s more discreet. It’s definitely increased their popularity,” said Gillette. “There’s really nowhere that you can legally smoke marijuana outside your own home because of smoking ordinances. What if you’re a parent and you don’t want to smoke around your kids? Cities should be rethinking the policy, cannabis should be consumed anywhere.”
Legalization in Colorado and Washington has left state legislators and the criminal justice sector scrambling to catch up. Last year, the Denver Post called the state’s regulation of medical marijuana a “carnival of missteps” and warned that legalization would repeat many of the same mistakes.
VICE News spoke with attorney Brian Vicente, who helped draft Amendment 64. He said that home hash oil production is a “legal grey area” that needs further regulation.
“What we did in Amendment 64 was essentially protected an individual’s right to have and process marijuana plants. And that’s somewhat of a vague term,” Vicente said. Although he advocates for regulating home hash oil production “if it’s good for the community,” Vicente said he thought it was likely a temporary problem.
“There are going to be less and less people producing hash oil at home be cause now you can go to the store,” said Vicente, “People who make hash oil at home cannot sell it, that would be a serious felony. It’s like the end of alcohol prohibition, people keep bootlegging for a while.”
Sgt. Pat Long of Thornton, a suburb of Denver, told the AP that home hash oil production is today’s meth lab.
But advocates at the Marijuana Policy Project told VICE News it’s more akin to the homebrew trend.
“We allow people to brew their own beer, but place more restrictions on alcohol distilling because it’s potentially more harmful,” said Denver-based Mason Tvert of Marijuana Policy Project. “This is a product that is popular and will be in demand regardless of whether it’s legal, so we need to regulate its production and sale to ensure that it’s safe.”
It says a lot that even consumer advocates for stoners are calling for tighter restrictions.
NORML’s Gillette laughed off the idea that making hash is like running a meth lab, but told VICE News she is also concerned for the safety of Colorado citizens.
“Regulation is the way to go,” Gillette said, “When you regulate and require a license and have safety standards, it’s a much safer environment than when people are experimenting in their garage.”
Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara
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