DIY Hydrocarbon Extraction Continues To Pose Threats To Communities, The Environment

Is it better to leave the extraction to the experts?
DIY Hydrocarbon Extraction Continues To Pose Threats To Communities, The Environment

Cannabis continues to face an ongoing, deadly dilemma. Extraction-based explosions continue to cause extensive damage to neighborhoods, the environment and people in the surrounding area. 

Cannabis consumers and producers create scores of DIY creations at home–from growing their own flower to creating products like oils, edibles, topicals and others. Often, these processes are rather safe to conduct with basic knowledge. Oil extraction can be another story depending on the method selected. 

DIY producers do face minimal yet possible risks when using a solventless method, whether they are using a hair straightener or a more sophisticated solventless extraction-specific machine. The risk increases rather significantly when the extraction process includes a flammable, often volatile solvent, especially hydrocarbon used in butane hash oil (BHO) extraction.

Solvents Singled Out As The Issue As The Risk Persists

In 2018, an analysis from the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology delved into the rising concern around BHO and amateur production. It singled out the blasting methods used. When conducted improperly, flammable pools can form and ignite when sparked.  

Canada’s largest firm investigation and forensic engineering firm, Origin and Cause, expanded on the cause in its February 2020 report on the issue. It said that a spark alone won’t cause an explosion. The correct mixture of air and gas is required. Otherwise, a room with not enough fuel (“too lean”) or an excess of it (“too rich”) won’t ignite. 

“If the fuel to air mixture in the room is too lean or too rich, you could light a whole pack of matches and the fuel simply will not ignite,” the report stated. 

The Origin and Cause report acknowledged the issue as a lingering problem, noting a 38% increase in U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports of illegal hash labs, totaling 260 in 2017. The number may not appear staggering with just several hundred illegal operations among millions of consumers and producers. However, the report went on to state that a quarter of those labs were identified after catching fire. 

“The worry is that with legalization, more people may experiment with BHO extraction at home,” the report stated. 

Troy Ivan, CEO of ethanol recovery appliances brand Extract Craft, believes that the rise in DIY operations is, in part, because of sensationalism creating a hot button topic. 

“Consumers are excited to be able to make DIY cannabis products at home, but they do not realize that just because these are made for the novice consumer does not mean they are simple machines and work at the click of a button,” said Ivan.

He cited hydrocarbon extraction as the area of most concern, stating the importance of understanding its extraction process and device use. “If you do not read the directions and follow them fully, that is when the accidents, sometimes very dangerous accidents, occur,” he said.

Ivan said he couldn’t venture to guess how prevalent DIY operations are. However, the CEO did say that activity on social media and popular ecommerce platforms led him to believe the issue could be substantial. 

Staggering Consequences To Homes And Surrounding Areas

The desire to create more affordable, easy-to-access concentrates does not outweigh the immense risk it is accompanied by. 

Illegal home operations continue to pose their own threat to individuals and communities. With some operations reaching massive proportions, the outcomes can be costly to lives and property, extending well beyond the illegal actors themselves. Reports of large-scale destruction to homes and businesses have been reported, as have deaths and severe injuries from flames and debris.

The concern is not centralized to the neighborhood either. Some are impacting the environment in staggering fashion. Whether the operation is situated in the woods or near flammable brush, the volatile explosions have led to millions in damages, as Michael Cashmareck of Medford, Oregon, found out in September 2020. The 24-year-old he was recently sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay $4 million in restitution for his actions that led to an explosion near the Rogue River in August 2019. The one-day forest fire his DIY operation started led to one firefighter being airlifted out with serious injuries. 

A Likely Ongoing Concern As Responses Underwhelm 

Lawmakers and the industry have taken some steps to thwart the illegal, dangerous efforts but the problem persists. Regulations are in place, with virtually every jurisdiction citing unlicensed extraction as a felony offense. However, rules won’t deter those already breaking the law as they likely see the benefit or necessity in their actions. As such, shutdowns and seizures are likely to continue. 

Attempts are being made on the municipal level as well. Cities like Los Angeles, where the illicit market continues to thrive, include extraction labs as part of their ongoing waves of crackdowns on unlicensed operators in the area. The same has occurred in Canada in recent years, including Vancouver, where butane factories are of concern. 

The legal cannabis industry has done its part in certain cases as well. Extract Craft’s Ivan said his company was involved in getting Colorado lawmakers to revise its stance on “solvents” and to instead focus its ban on hydrocarbon extraction instead. Calling the term solvents a “catchall,” Ivan commended Colorado lawmakers who listened to informed opinions and adjusted legislation to provide some exemptions to the ban.

“Not all solvent extractions are a problem and obviously the hash makers and rosin guys don’t cause any problems at all, said Ivan, adding “You can yell ‘Oh shit’ behind them and they won’t even flinch.”

With legal cannabis still suffering from relatively limited access, and often high prices when within reach, it is likely that DIY operations will exist. 

“Despite the potential consequences of illicit BHO production, at-home production rates appear to be increasing,” stated the UNC report. The analysis concluded that a lack of detailed literature for researchers created a “deficit of risk awareness,”  which it noted is a particular detriment to First Responders who struggle to identify what an illegal extraction operation and mitigate the risks. 

The report posited another likely overlooked area of the subject. “Perhaps equally importantly, how those labs function and what practices and techniques are being shared between amateur BHO users is inadequately understood among public health officials.” 

With risks remaining present at legal hydrocarbon extraction sites, the increased risk at DIY sites is likely to continue. Until additional information is made available to professionals and the public, this largely isolated yet destructive practice will likely continue as efforts fail to fully address the concern.

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