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Hash oil brewing leads to fiery explosions, charges in Colorado

Drug TraffickingLaws and LegislationCrimeMarijuana Use
People trying to make hash oil from marijuana cause a growing number of explosions in Colorado
Colorado pot users face arson charges after trying to home-brew hash oil
Kitchens exploding in Colorado at growing rate because of marijuana-related blasts

Corbin Braithwaite couldn't believe his kitchen had exploded.

“I wasn’t even playing with fire,” the hospitalized Braithwaite told a Colorado sheriff's detective.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post stated that Rachel Gillette is the executive director of NORML, a marijuana advocacy group. She is the executive director of Colorado NORML.

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Court documents say Braithwaite went dumpster-diving to find discarded marijuana. He then went online to learn how to turn marijuana into an oily, highly potent liquid that looks like honey. The process requires spraying pot with butane, a flammable gas.

But during his April 26 experiment, something sparked an explosion in Braithwaite's townhouse kitchen, burning off his mustache, goatee and arm hair, authorities said.

A window and screen blew out. A wall cracked. Flames spread to a neighboring unit. Fortunately, neither his 5-month-old baby sleeping directly above the kitchen nor his 4-year-old child nearby on the first floor was injured.

Braithwaite, 34, faces various charges, including child abuse and arson. His is among a growing number cases of hash oil explosions in Colorado, authorities said.

Since the state legalized recreational use of marijuana Jan. 1, there have been at least 31 explosions related to butane and hash oil, leaving at least 21 people injured, according to the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a regional law enforcement task force. Last year, the group recorded 11 explosions in Colorado.

“Within the last couple of weeks, the trend has started to generate some attention,” task force director Tom Gorman said. “Now people are starting to see it’s a little dangerous – it just takes a little spark.”

Colorado's constitutional amendment that legalized marijuana allows adults 21 and older to “process” the drug. Gorman and other authorities say that means producing hash oil within the home is legal, despite the danger it poses.

But prosecutors in some cases, including Braithwaite’s, have charged alleged hash oil cookers with “processing or manufacturing marijuana and marijuana concentrate” through a different law.

Rachel Gillette, an attorney and the executive director of the marijuana advocacy group Colorado NORML, said the conflicting statutes might be something the Legislature wants to address when it reconvenes next year. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn its session this week.

"Obviously, it becomes a safety issue when it’s happening in residential neighborhoods," Gillette said.

Colorado lawmakers Tuesday gave final approval to bills that tackle two other marijuana issues that have raised concern in recent months. One measure calls for further study of how to keep edibles out of the hands of children. The second requires the state to limit the potency of store-sold edibles and hash oil (also known as dabs, shatter or wax).

Gillette said the rise in explosions was probably less tied to legalization than to the growing use of hash oil in increasingly popular methods to get high, such as smoking through "vapes" and eating edibles.

Producing hash oil at home is about 50% cheaper than buying it in stores. But Gillette called on marijuana users to leave it to licensed stores to produce hash oil since those businesses must follow strict safety regulations.

“This is another reason why the regulation of marijuana is the right way to go,” Gillette said.

Months before legal recreational sales began, both Colorado and federal emergency management officials warned of home-brewed hash oil as a major fire danger.

Butane is odorless and heavier than air, allowing it travel along the floor for large distances.  Other flammable gases are sometimes used as well.

Authorities have held at least 10 sessions advising first responders on safety, such as turning off electricity and natural gas before entering a suspected butane explosion site.

No first responders have been injured to date, said Kevin Wong, an analyst with the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

In Colorado, in-home hash oil crimes have started to outnumber small-scale methamphetamine manufacturing operations. The task force recorded 23 meth lab seizures in 2013 across four states, including Colorado, down from several hundred in Colorado alone about a decade ago.

The University of Colorado’s burn unit doesn’t tally meth burns, but it has begun to keep track of burn victims coming from hash oil cases. The hospital admitted 10 victims in the first four months of 2014 compared with 13 from 2011 through 2013.

At least eight of the patients from previous years suffered facial burns and seven required surgery, nurse manager Camy Boyle wrote about the “distributing trend” in a study presented at an American Burn Institute conference in March.

Boyle called for additional regulation and the creation of educational programs directed at marijuana users.

Jefferson County prosecutors have charged Braithwaite with first-degree arson, second-degree arson, five counts of fourth-degree arson, possession of a controlled substance, two counts of child abuse and processing or manufacturing marijuana or a marijuana concentrate. He's scheduled to be arraigned May 12.

In another case, 51-year-old Lee Ray Brown plucked marijuana from someone's trash and successfully produced oil on March 1, according to a court document. But when he placed the oil in his refrigerator, the fridge blew up. Colorado Springs police officers said they later found a stolen wallet at his damaged apartment and meth.

After spending a month in jail, he was sentenced to no additional time, prosecutors said. Brown agreed to 48 hours of community service and three years of probation after pleading guilty to possession of a controlled substance.

 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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