LOS ANGELES — Nicholas Broms was trying to squeeze a better high from marijuana when his Oregon condo caught on fire. An explosion knocked out a wall, blew out his sliding glass door and torched his arms.
“I just remember everything being engulfed,” he said. “I looked down and both of my arms were on fire. I thought I was going to be permanently disfigured.”
The explosion is one of a recent number of such incidents involving the manufacturing of hash oil, a potent marijuana byproduct that is extracted with butane from parts of the plant that are often discarded. Disasters from the do-it-yourself drug have been recorded primarily on the West Coast, where states have passed medical marijuana laws, in a phenomenon reminiscent of meth lab mishaps, but not as common.
Hash oil, also known as honey oil, is illegal in California. It sells on average for about $50 a gram at marijuana dispensaries and has about 15 percent THC, the main intoxicant in marijuana. A drop or two can be as potent as a joint.
“There is a wide profit margin to be made with these labs,” said Patrick Kelly, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency in San Diego. “They are becoming more prevalent now than ever.”
The problem is that producing the oil can be volatile and firefighters are often the first to discover crude home-baked labs after a tragedy.
In Southern California alone, there have been at least three explosions from making hash oil in the past two months:
•A smoky explosion rocked a hotel near SeaWorld San Diego in late January like an earthquake and sent guests fleeing for safety. A 22-year-old man, whose skin was hanging off him, was fighting for his life and two others were also injured. The scene was described as a war zone. The case has been submitted to the San Diego County district attorney’s office.
Windows shattered and walls bowed inside a West Hollywood apartment from a hash oil explosion. Prosecutors charged 39-year-old Robert Bockoff with four felony counts, including manufacturing a controlled substance and recklessly causing a fire. Bockoff was badly injured and one investigator said his skin was basically blown off. An arrest warrant was issued for Bockoff after he failed to appear in court for his arraignment on Feb. 28.
Three men were burned over 80 percent of their bodies when a powerful blast lifted the ceiling of a house in Monrovia, northeast of Los Angeles, and set it ablaze. Hash oil was blamed for the eruption, but no charges have been filed.
There have been several instances in Northern California last year as well, including an explosion at a San Francisco apartment that injured a woman and her 12-year-old son, who needed skin grafts on his face and body. Two people are facing charges.
Los Angeles police Detective Frank Lyga said most indoor marijuana grows that are busted have some sort of hash oil production. While the popularity of cooking hash oil is rising, awareness of its potential hazards is limited.
“As long as they are using flammable liquids, we’re going to have explosions,” Lyga said. “It’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong and they blow off their hands or something even worse.”
Law enforcement has been getting the word out lately to help identify items used in hash oil manufacturing.
Last month, the U.S. Fire Administration — a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — noted in a bulletin that hash oil explosions are increasing. In San Diego County, law enforcement also received a bulletin about the dangers of hash oil.
Colorado has the nation’s only regulated hash producers and legal guidelines for safe production, requiring only water-based hash. But enforcement is spotty, and illegal explosions persist.
A February house explosion in the Denver suburb of Lakewood injured four and was blamed on an illicit hash cook. The explosion renewed calls for Colorado to step up has regulations as the state mulls new rules for the broader recreational pot industry.
Lyga added that most police officers aren’t familiar with hash oil production and when they come across the materials — namely PVC piping that is capped off — they think it’s a pipe bomb. He said first responders will receive training in the coming weeks about what to be looking for when there is a possible hash oil explosion.
Hash oil is made from loose marijuana leaf and stem pieces that often are thrown out because of their poor quality. The weed crumbs are packed into a pipe and butane is poured through it. A heat source is used to separate the butane and what is left is the oil.
But without good ventilation, the vapors can build up, lie close to the floor and pose an unseen yet dangerous threat because they don’t dissipate quickly. An open flame, static electricity or anything that can spark the gas is a recipe for disaster.
“You do it in your house, light a cigarette and it blows up. You’ve let the world know you are a moron,” said Bob Melamede, a biology professor at the University of Colorado and president of Cannabis Science, Inc., a company that develops cannabinoid-based therapies for the treatment of cancer and infectious diseases.
Broms, 22, said his own misfortune was due to stupidity.
The former Marine who deployed twice overseas, obtained a medical marijuana card and uses pot to help him sleep. He prefers hash oil because it’s cleaner and he grows his own marijuana, so it’s cheaper to extract himself than to buy it at a dispensary.
He had extracted the oil a couple of times on the deck of his condominium several miles outside of Portland. But cold weather forced him to make it inside one night. Gas vapors were sparked when a refrigerator kicked in, causing the blast.
Neighbors helped extinguish the flames and he was hospitalized with second-degree burns.
Broms is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday when he could face charges, said Chris Lewman, a deputy district attorney in Washington County.
Law enforcement officials contend it’s illegal to change the drug’s composition in a way that places people in danger, but the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act allows patients to covert pot to hashish or hash oil. The state acknowledged the legality last year in response to a lawsuit that is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Broms is grateful his neighbors weren’t hurt and has no plans to extract hash oil in the future.
“I’m not doing any ‘Breaking Bad,’” said Broms, referring to the TV show about a teacher-turned-methamphetamine manufacturer. “It was just basically a cooking accident.”