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Authorities alarmed over increase in hash oil explosions

By: The Gazette Op/Ed
March 20, 2015 Updated: March 23, 2015 at 5:37 am
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Broken and boarded up windows January 29, 2014 at a house in Manitou Springs that was the scene of a likely hash oil explosion in May, 2014. Gazette Photo

It’s known as wax, shatter, honey oil or, simply, BHO — butane hash oil.

Making it is legal in Colorado, but the process of extracting highly potent hash oil from marijuana plants using butane is highly dangerous. And it might be going on next door.

The number of hash oil explosions in Colorado nearly tripled in the first year of the legalization of marijuana — 32 reported explosions in 2014 versus 12 in 2013, according to data collected from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program. And people admitting themselves to the University of Colorado Hospital Burn Unit went from one in 2011 to 10 in the first four months of 2014.

The increases were so alarming that Thornton police Sgt. Pat Long took it upon himself to develop a training program to educate law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders about the process and the inherent dangers of extracting nearly pure THC from marijuana.

So far, about 2,500 people in eight states have attended the training, including officers in the Pikes Peak region — one who cited it in court records regarding an explosion in Manitou Springs in May:

“While approaching the residence I observed several windows to the residence had been blown out and were lying on the ground,” the Manitou Springs officer wrote. “Visible from the outside is the kitchen area. I observed the refrigerator door was broken off the hinges. It appeared that something inside the refrigerator had exploded and the contents were lying on the floor below.”

Long said he first heard about hash oil extractions a little more than a year ago, when Thornton police and firefighters responded to a residential fire but didn’t know the cause.

“There was no logical explanation of why a freezer would blow up,” he said of that incident.

“This whole hash oil stuff was so new — our department had no idea about it, no training, so I actually talked with our fire department and I started making phone calls to various fire agencies,” he said.

“What I was learning is most law enforcement and fire agencies missed their first one or two explosions before they knew what it was.”

Now, Thornton has an ordinance prohibiting the use of any flammable solvent in a hash oil extraction, and a similar ordinance may be coming in Colorado Springs: City Fire Marshal Brett Lacey plans to propose an ordinance that will ban extraction of marijuana hashish oil in residences.

In addition to the case in Manitou Springs in May, news reports in The Gazette also cite at least three other local incidents — one more than a year ago when a man caused an explosion in an apartment on East Pikes Peak Avenue, another when a man was arrested in March 2014 after an explosion on University Drive, and most recently, a home fire in the Cragmoor neighborhood in late February.

The process of extracting hash oil involves forcing butane — a volatile and explosive solvent — through a glass tube filled with marijuana. What results is a highly potent THC stripped from the plant. But something as simple as a spark or a pilot light — even static electricity — can trigger an explosion.

“It’s a process that’s too dangerous for amateurs to undertake on their own,” said Sgt. Jeff Bredehoeft, training manager for the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. “They’re not doing it correctly and they’re doing it hastily, and when you mix those two things together, you’re going to have problems.”

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