Seven men and two women are facing felony charges here stemming from what authorities say is a new and highly dangerous offshoot of the illicit drug trade: extracting hash oil from marijuana.
For users, hash oil offers a quick and lasting high. For sellers, it is easy to make and offers large profits.
But extracting the oil requires heat and solvent — often industrial-strength butane — that can lead to explosions and fires.
Butane gas is odorless, colorless and highly explosive. It is known to “travel” toward an ignition point like a cigarette lighter, a pilot light or a light switch.
“Basically what we have is an amateurish, uncontrolled use of large amounts of explosives in enclosed or improperly vented spaces,” said David Williams, a San Diego County deputy district attorney.
Twenty explosions and fires throughout San Diego County in the last 12 months were caused by clandestine hash-oil labs, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
When an explosion last year blew out windows and walls at the Heritage Inn in San Diego’s Midway area, two men and a woman were burned. One of the men was engulfed in flames from head to toe as he fled screaming.
The nine people arrested in last week’s DEA raids on locations in San Diego, Spring Valley, Chula Vista and El Cajon are not linked to explosions or fires, according to court documents.
All are facing drug charges. A married couple among the nine are also facing charges of child endangerment for allegedly extracting the hash oil near the bedroom where their toddler slept.
“The people who are using dangerous chemicals to extract hash oil do so without concern for anything other than making a profit,” said William Sherman, DEA special agent in charge of the San Diego office.
Clandestine hash-oil labs, some of them “mom and pop” operations, are popping up throughout the West Coast, often in motels and suburban homes and garages, according to law enforcement officials.
Since Jan. 2, a drug task force comprising members of local, state and federal agencies in San Diego County has investigated more than 50 hash-oil labs.
“They’re everywhere,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Kelly Martinez. “It’s just an easy process, and it’s very easy to get the materials.”
There are indications that drug cartels may be moving into the hash-oil business, Martinez said. “They’ve realized that it’s very profitable.”
Hash oil can sell for $40 to $80 a gram.
Although it is illegal to extract the hash oil from marijuana, selling the oil, at least on a retail basis, may not be illegal in California under its medicinal-marijuana law, officials said.
Ads commonly offer hash oil under various names, such as honey oil, dabs, earwax and shatter.
Agents said that in one apartment raided last week, they found the lab was in full operation, with butane building up in a bathroom. Agents needed to retreat until the lab could be shut down and the butane dissipated.
In the raids, agents said they seized items common to hash-oil labs: numerous cans of butane, large amounts of hash oil and marijuana, bundled cash (about $25,000) and a semi-automatic rifle with several magazines.
On its website, the U.S. Fire Administration offers arch advice to anyone considering setting up a hash-oil operation: “How to make hash oil, explode your house and blow off your hand in 3 easy steps.”