By Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel
A new scientific review of burn injuries in Colorado confirms what many of us have been saying for some time - that the popularity of dabbing (i.e., the use of hash oil) brings with it some real dangers and some potential political dangers.
I have previously written about my own preference for flowers, rather than concentrates or edibles, but that is largely the result of my age. I began smoking marijuana 50 years ago, when I was a freshman at Georgetown Law School, and back then one was lucky if you could establish a reliable source for good marijuana, and these more esoteric versions of marijuana were largely unheard of. Occasionally the dealer would have a little hash (allegedly imported from Lebanon or some other distant country, although one never really knew), but it was usually terribly expensive and treated more as something to be saved for a special occasion, like champagne. Most of the time it was difficult enough just to find good pot.
But it is clear that the culture has evolved over the decades, and many of those wanting to enjoy the marijuana experience today prefer something other than flowers. In the states that have legalized marijuana, many seem to prefer edibles or concentrates. Whether that trend will continue is uncertain, but so long as a significant segment of the consuming public wants to obtain edibles or concentrates, we should focus on ways to permit that without endangering the public.
Regarding edibles, as our initial experience in Colorado has demonstrated, the key components to using edibles safely are:
Proper labeling, to avoid accidental ingestion
Proper dosage per unit, to avoid inadvertent overdosing (which is never fatal, but can be terribly unpleasant).
Better educational outreach to novice users, so they understand the lag time between ingesting the marijuana before the full psychoactive effects are felt.
So the initial concern over a few mishaps involving edibles in Colorado seems to have abated. Informed consumers should experience no problems enjoying the marijuana experience from infused edibles.
With concentrates, the most serious issue is the risk of explosions by those who attempt to extract the THC using butane. Novice consumers need to be made aware of the increased strength of marijuana in this form, and concentrates, like edibles, must be kept safely away from children.
Hash oil is a potent marijuana concentrate that can be as strong as 90 percent THC, and is easily manufactured (the process is readily available on the Internet) using butane as a solvent. But the process is also highly volatile and can result in dangerous explosions that all too often cause serious, and sometimes deadly, burn injuries. The similarities with the rash of meth explosions a few years ago is difficult to avoid.
New Study Released from Colorado
A new study just published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology, analyzed the incidents of burn injuries from butane hash oil extraction in Colorado from January 1, 2008 through August 31, 2014, comparing the two years prior to the legalization of medical use in the state; the period of medical use only in Colorado; and the first eight months of 2014, the first year of full legalization.
According to this study, there were no such incidents during the two years prior to the adoption of medical use; 19 cases during the medical use only phase lasting from October 2009 through December 2013; and 12 cases during the first eight months of 2014. So the total number of these explosions was small.
Those involved in these butane extraction explosions were largely white (72 percent), male (90 percent); and young (median age of 26). And the medium length of their hospital stay was 10 days.
The study's authors concluded: "Hydrocarbon burns associated with hash oil production have increased since the liberalization of marijuana policy in Colorado. A combination of public health messaging, standardization of manufacturing processes, and worker safety regulations are needed to decrease the risks associated with BHO (butane hash oil) production."
Potential Political Backlash
Another risk associated with these burn incidents is the possibility that the non-smoking public may be influenced to oppose further legalization proposals, because of the dangers presented by these explosions. Although the actual numbers of explosions are relatively low, each of them are scary, and most become major news stories, at least on the local and state level, thereby frightening large numbers of citizens, many of whom base their support for legalization on the premise that prohibition causes far more harm than the use of marijuana itself.
These incidents of butane burn injuries may well cause some of our supporters to re-evaluate their prior support. And there is no reason for us to incur this political baggage; we have an alternative production method that is safe.
This is a risk that could be avoided by using a CO2 extraction method, instead of butane, to produce concentrates, and as a culture we need to get the word out that it's time to bring an end to the use of butane extraction altogether. It's dangerous to produce concentrates with butane, at least by amateurs, and it may well present a health risk to the consumer.
The CO2 extraction method is safe and non-volatile, avoiding any danger of an explosion. And consumers are further protected because bacteria, mildews and molds are destroyed, and there is no butane residue in concentrates made this way.
It's a win-win solution, but we need to better inform those who produce and use concentrates. If consumers begin to demand CO2-extracted concentrates, and reject products made with butane, the industry will quickly fall into line.
It's time we insisted on the responsible production and use of concentrates. Otherwise we may find ourselves facing significant limitations, or even total bans, imposed on the production and availability of these products. Let's resolve this problem ourselves, so the authorities need not deal with it.