NECN INVESTIGATES: Hash Oil Fires a Growing Danger

Hash oil fires a growing danger

In recently-released footage from inside a medical marijuana dispensary in Sante Fe, New Mexico, you can see an employee open the lab door and then an explosion rock the room, forcing the second man to leap through a wall of fire to get out.

“You can get away with something nine times out of 10. But then on that tenth time it can be a devastating effect," said Michael Hazel, the fire chief in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.

The men - who suffered serious burns - were making butane hash or honey oil, also known as BHO, butter, wax or shatter. It's a process that uses highly-flammable solvents to strip a marijuana plant of THC, the chemical that gets you high. The end result is a resin that's highly concentrated, giving users a high that is up to eight times more intense than loose leaf marijuana.

"Folks that are making it are in it for one thing - and that's to make money," said Michael Ferguson, special agent in charge of the New England Office of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Ferguson calls the uptick in home labs here startling. According to the DEA there were 10 suspected BHO incidents in New England last year - a nine-fold increase from 2014.

And if you're one of the more than 20,000 people who have a medical marijuana card in Massachusetts, extracting that oil is perfectly legal.

“It's just a recipe for disaster," Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael said.

So is law enforcement prepared for this new and growing threat?

“No. We’re not,” Carmichael said.

Home cooks can be set up anywhere and it doesn't take much for butane hanging in the air to ignite.

“Anything from somebody turning on a light switch, to turning on a stove, to a static spark. Static electricity could be enough," Hazel said.

Ferguson is especially concerned about the potential for collateral damage, “It's the neighbors. It's the innocent bystanders that are living in the apartments next door, they're at risk,” he said.

A renter's home-cook operation is blamed for a blast that sent three people to the hospital and destroyed a historic home in Tewksbury in 2014.

"It was just a nightmare," said the 84-year-old homeowner, who asked not to be identified.

From Vermont to Rhode Island, home labs are taking their toll on New England.

One man died and another was severely burned in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, last year, and a 5-alarm fire in a clandestine lab swallowed a warehouse in Providence.

“It's an enormous problem and an enormous concern because of how dangerous it is," Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha said. He is prosecuting five men for reckless endangerment in the recent explosions in his state and Rhode Island's attorney general has also filed legislation to make it illegal for anyone to make hash oil using a flammable liquid.

But Massachusetts is lagging behind with no such laws on the books.

“To ignore the activity, to assume that it's not out there I think is a huge mistake,” Neronha said, “And it can lead to some really tragic results.”

The DEA says the biggest jump in hash oil home lab fires is in states which have legalized recreational marijuana.

In a single year, Colorado saw a 167 percent increase in explosions tied to suspected labs. As Massachusetts voters weigh legalization, public safety officials worry that without oversight, the threat from BHO will only increase.

“The worst case scenario is that people will die because of it," Carmichael said.

The New England Narcotics Enforcement Officers Association has drafted language that would ban production of hash oil using a flammable solvent, but says it hasn't been able to find a legislator to back it.

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