About two-and-a-half years ago I wrote an article entitled “The Danger of Dabs.” It got me more hate mail than just about anything I’ve written, presumably from the 710 crowd reading the title only and thinking I was vilifying the cannabis concentrate itself. Had they continued reading, they would have reached the point, which was this:
With dabs your local action news team gets to do a marijuana story that shows crack pipe torches used on sticky heroin-looking goo made from a process that blows up like meth labs. The danger of dabs isn’t so much physical as it is a public relations nightmare.
Lately, it hasn’t just been the “local action news team,” it’s been one of the big four national networks and the Associated Press. ABC News had done many stories of the phenomenon of residential explosions from home butane hash oil (BHO) manufacture gone wrong. Their latest reprint of an AP story, “Hash Oil Explosions Rise With Legalized Marijuana,” offers some alarming statistics.
Referring to marijuana concentrate as “the drug’s intoxicating oil,” the story notes Colorado’s burn center treated one victim of a BHO explosion in 2012, 11 in 2013, and just four months into 2013 they’ve treated 10 people, on pace for 30 by years’ end. Firefighters say they’ve responded to 31 BHO explosions in 2014, compared to 11 for all of last year.
As a student of prohibition history, I’m reminded of the 1970s. The support for marijuana legalization in the Gallup Poll rose from 12 percent nationally in 1969 to 30 percent nationally by 1978. In the five years between 1973 and 1978, starting with Oregon and ending with Nebraska, 11 states decriminalized pot, ending the threat of arrest for personal possession. Legalization seemed inevitable as young people enjoyed the ascendance of marijuana’s popularity.
But waiting in the wings were those who hated the marijuana and all it stood for. Some were business people fighting natural competition, others were parents fighting to keep their kids sober, still others were prudes morally opposed to anybody having a good time, and some were fighting marijuana as a stand-in for other culture wars over Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights, and communism. While they were losing ground in the national mood toward Mary Jane, they gained an unexpected public relations ally in Snow White.
In the late 1970s, cocaine and marijuana were party buddies. It wasn’t uncommon to see party goers with a necklace from which dangled a tiny cocaine spoon. The “tap tap, sniff sniff” sound in a bathroom was normal. This website’s famous magazine featured centerfolds of lines of coke alongside bountiful buds and bodacious babes. An ad for Pure Research in April ’78 shows a mound of powder, a razor blade, and professional scale and purity test kit for “crystalline substances.” “Legal Cocaine - A Plan for the ‘80s” reads a cover tease for an article from March ’79 that opens with “Mom, Apple Pie, & Cocaine.” My favorite is the Christmas 1980 cover featuring a sexy woman in red lingerie offering up four lines of cocaine on a mirror in bed.
By the time you hit the 1980s, you get President Ronald Reagan saying smoking even one joint was as damaging to the brain as radioactive fallout from a nuclear weapon (seriously!) Parents’ groups sprung up and got much attention showing off the most extreme pot paraphernalia they could find (eek! a gas mask bong!) And the knockout punch for legalization came when marijuana’s powdery friend started burning up freebasers like Richard Pryor, killing great talents like John Belushi and Len Bias, and evolving into a cheap potent smokable form called crack.
Very quickly, what had been a Me Generation celebrating freedom and getting high flipped to a generation of Baby Boomers becoming parents who rejected the libertine ways of the 1970s and embraced the Just Say No / "Miami Vice" / crack baby scaremongering of the 1980s. Public support for marijuana legalization bottomed out at 16 percent and didn’t top the previous mark of 30 percent again until the 2000s.
So, is butane hash oil the crack cocaine of the 2010s? Not pharmacologically, of course -- you can become seriously addicted to cocaine, overdose and die from it, whereas the worst effect from overdabbing is extreme coughing, vomiting or passing out. But as a public relations nightmare, a killer of legalization momentum, and a residential explosion danger, could BHO do to marijuana now what cocaine did to marijuana then?
One thing our opponents can say accurately about marijuana prohibition is that it raises the cost of marijuana. While prohibition has led to cheaper cocaine, meth, and heroin, cannabis is about double its 1980s cost in inflation-adjusted dollars. When marijuana is expensive, there is more profit to be made from it in plant form.
But through legalization, marijuana becomes cheaper, even with exorbitant taxation. Check any weed-price aggregator on the web and you’ll find the cheapest high-quality marijuana where there are the most liberal medical marijuana and legalization laws. Where weed is cheap and plentiful, there is far more excess trim around to blast into butane hash oil and more profit incentive to make it, as it fetches from $10-$40 a gram in “green states” and up to $100 a gram in prohibition states.
I believe the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, on butane hash oil. There are far too many YouTube videos showing how to do it and it’s not exactly a "Breaking Bad" Heisenberg-level of chemistry experiment. Maintaining or returning to marijuana prohibition isn’t going to stop profiteers from blasting BHO, it will just make it all that more profitable. A large segment of the cannabis community, judging from the popularity of extract-related booths at every marijuana trade show I attend, has switched completely to concentrates only, saying “710 is the new 420” and eschewing any ingestion of “plant matter.” The law of supply and demand dictates that someone will always be making BHO for them.
But the cynic in me wonders how many tales of teens who reject flower entirely in favor of surreptitious oil hits off concealable vapor pens in classrooms will it take to ignite the next moral panic among parents? When will we see the hash oil explosion in an apartment complex that doesn’t just burn a couple of ignorant young adult hash makers, but burns down the homes and kills members of a few innocent families? How long before the sensational story and accompanying pictures of toddlers with third degree burns from a hash oil explosion are used by a politician arguing against even a decrim bill in a prohibition state or arguing against no home grow in a friendlier state? We can make all the factual arguments we like about a few “bad apples” or how home deep-fried turkey basting causes more fires every year than BHO, but in the face of a moral panic, emotion will trump logic every time.
I’m afraid the best we can do is to educate our people about the dangers of unventilated hash oil manufacture and educate the public that excessive taxation and regulation raises marijuana cost and makes hash oil production more profitable. Let’s hope we can legalize states faster than AP and ABC can spread hash oil fear mongering.