Crime - Sacto 911

Hash oil explosions, prosecutions up in Sacramento County

Explosions, fires and hospitalizations stemming from homemade hash oil operations have led to a spike in prosecutions of hash oil manufactures in Sacramento County.

Hash oil is the highly concentrated form of THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, and it is illegal to manufacture in California. So far this year, there have been more than a dozen hash oil manufacturing cases prosecuted by the District Attorney’s Office in Sacramento County, according to Michael Neves, assistant chief deputy district attorney and former head of major narcotics.

The most popular method of creating hash oil involves running butane through the leaves and stems of the marijuana plant, also known as the shake, and ultimately evaporating it out to create a high-potency resin that can be smoked. Butane is a cheap, accessible and highly volatile liquid that can be ignited by anything from static on nylon shorts to a pilot light, Neves said.

“To me, it’s like having somebody manufacturing bombs next door,” he said. “It’s got the potential to not only blow them up but also to kill the neighbors.”

Explosions across the county have resulted in severe burns, property damage and permanent disfigurement. An explosion in a Rancho Cordova apartment complex in January lead to the lengthy hospitalization of two people and displaced 140 others in surrounding residences. Other fires that resulted from explosions in the Sacramento area put several children under the age of 10 at risk, killed two pet dogs and left a firefighter burned.

The Shriners Hospitals for Children-Northern California has treated at least 68 burn victims due to butane fires since 2011, said Dr. David Greenhalgh, chief of burns. Greenhalgh, who referred to hash oil burns as “an epidemic,” will present his study on the topic to the International Society for Burn Injuries in October to raise awareness about the issue. The average child treated for a butane fire injury has burns on 28 percent of the body, according to the study.

“These agents are made to burn very readily and when there are large amounts of flash flame, typically clothes catch on fire and a large amount of fire can lead to very extensive burns,” he said. “These are the kinds of burns that can kill you.”

Manufacturing hash oil is a felony, punishable by up to seven years in jail. A hash-related explosion could add arson or child endangerment charges. If someone dies as a result of a related fire, homicide charges can be brought against the hash manufacturer.

Neves compared the danger, both legally and physically, of producing hash oil to that of producing methamphetamine. He suggests any residents who see butane canisters, filters or other telltale signs on a neighbor’s property report it to the police immediately.

Jeff Hatley, president of Sequoia Analytical Labs in Sacramento, regularly runs biological analysis on samples of marijuana and marijuana accessories including hash oil, which he said can contain a 90 percent concentration of THC. This is much higher than the standard 10 to 25 percent found in the marijuana flower.

The danger in hash oil production comes from evaporating the butane once it has bonded with the cannabinoids, or chemical compounds, from the plant, Hatley said. While this can be done safely through a closed loop system, there are young people who learn how to make hash oil on YouTube and then mistakenly release the butane into a small space with a motorized fan, such as a garage or a bathroom.

“If there’s a butane fume – BAM – you’ve just blown up your place,” he said. “People think putting the fan in the room is going to help, but you’re only introducing an ignition point. To evaporate it out in the open is extremely dangerous. I do not advise it whatsoever.”

The hash production problem may be on the rise due to an increase in availability of marijuana through medical dispensaries, said Neves. The District Attorney’s Office will continue to educate officials and the public about the problem.

“(Kids) just see that it’s cheap and they have no idea that they’re going to end up in a burn unit getting skin grafts,” he said. “Hopefully as people hear more and more about this, it will get the attention it really deserves.”