"Dangerous Hash-Oil Blasts" Linked to Pot Decriminalization in Republic Propaganda

The dangers of fire and explosions related to "hash oil" may be newsworthy, but Friday's Arizona Republic story on the cannabis concentrate reads more like pro-prohibition propaganda.

"Dangerous hash-oil blasts are an increasing concern," according to the headline of the Valley & State story. A sub-head continues, "In markets with more relaxed pot laws, new threat looms."

The sub-head's message heralds the questionable political angle that the threat won't loom if only voters would say no to legalization.

See also: -Smoking Concentrated Marijuana, Known as Dabbing, Is All the Rage

In fact, the problem of hash-oil-related fires is being seen across the country.

The use of hash oil and the trend of amateurs making hash oil at home using butane may well be more prevalent in Washington and Colorado, where marijuana can be sold to adults legally. Type "hash oil" into Google News and you'll quickly find that stoners are trying to win Darwin Awards across the country by introducing flame to butane-choked rooms. The trend has been noted in states that have not loosened their marijuana laws, like Texas and Florida.

The angle in reporter Matthew Casey's article comes to a fine point with a paraphrased quote from our favorite prohibitionist, Carolyn Short of Keep AZ Drug Free. She claims that "hash-oil explosions" in Colorado and Arizona "are evidence that recreational marijuana should remain illegal in Arizona."

Sure -- just as a fire at a moonshine-making operation is evidence that alcohol should be illegal.

As our April article on dabbing explained, it's true that the popularity of smoking "shatter" and other hash-oil products has risen dramatically in the last few years. Although a solvent like carbon dioxide or butane is required to make the oil, (don't freak out until you learn how everyday products like decaf coffee are made), the finished product should contain almost nothing but material found in cannabis. Contaminants may be left behind -- a problem of varying concern for users -- but in nowhere near quantities to make the stuff explosive. Users typically vaporize the goo by touching it to glass made red-hot with a blow-torch.

The term "hash oil explosion," then, used frequently in the news media, is likely a misnomer.

However, a large amount of fumes from butane or alcohol may build up when amateurs are dealing with unfinished batches of hash oil, heating up concoctions on a stove top or putting them in a freezer as part of a process called winterization. When those fumes meet any spark or ignition source, the next step in the process may be skin grafts.

It's a good idea to let the professionals make the stuff -- and indeed, shatter and wax are made commercially and sold in many medical-marijuana dispensaries around the state, bolstering the opposite argument from the one Short makes.

Even in Colorado, where marijuana is legal for adults 21 and older, the homemade versions of wax and shatter are cheaper than if they were to be bought in a store. That could change at some point, though, making the risk and effort of homemade hash oil too high to be worthwhile.

With more than 30 explosions linked to hash oil in Colorado this year, a solution can't come soon enough. But officials in Arizona's neighboring state are planning a more surgical fix than the one that Short and prohibitionists propose. Instead of going back to the days of throwing marijuana users in jail, Denver officials, after hearing about the importance of homemade oil from a Colorado father who gives the oil to his epileptic child, are preparing to restrict only the manufacturing processes that involve gases like butane.

Critics of marijuana culture take a dim view of dabbing irrespective of the explosions due to the high potency. And the use of hash oil isn't for all marijuana aficionados. For instance, Democratic Congressional candidate Mikel Weisser, for example, told New Times last month that he'd found dabbing "intense" but "no big deal," and he prefers to smoke buds.

Yet only political bias could cause Short or anyone else to claim that Arizona's two documented instances of hash-oil-related fires are proof of anything but the need to be super-cautious around flammable fumes. While two men were trying to make hash oil in an Avondale garage in May, the Republic reported, a woman "intending to smoke a cigarette" caused ignition, sending all three people to the hospital.

The January incident at a Tempe gas station, which we covered in our April article, may not have had a direct connection to the manufacture of hash oil. Police told reporters in February that the victim/suspect, junkie Bradley Brennan, accidentally ignited leaking butane cans in his vehicle when he went to light up a bowl of hash oil to smoke. It's unclear why his vehicle contained so many cans of butane, which can be used to refill lighters as well as make hash oil. No extraction tube or other obvious hash-oil-making equipment was located in the vehicle, an inventory list shows, but there was some oil found in two Pyrex dishes.

Brennan's being prosecuted under an old Arizona statute that designates concentrates like shatter -- unscientifically -- as a "narcotic" drug distinct from cannabis.

In March, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled it was legal for Arizonans qualified to use medical marijuana under state law to legally possess concentrates, and for dispensaries to sell them.

The worst "threat" of hash oil, it seems, is that prohibitionists will use the bad PR of "hash-oil explosions" to derail legalization efforts.

UPDATE: For more about the hash-oil trend as it relates to the Phoenix area, see this Esquire article about the "Secret Cup" dabbing contest and event that rolled through the Valley on October 18. And if you haven't heard, the Purple Haze "hash bar" in Tempe is now open for medical users.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.