Colorado courts wrestle with unexpected side-effect of legalized pot: exploding houses
Closeup of marijuana bud (Shutterstock)

Police and courts in Colorado are wrestling with an unexpected, but increasingly common, problem in the wake of of marijuana legalization in their state: home chemists blowing up their homes attempting to extract the marijuana concentrate commonly known as hash oil from the legalized pot.

According to the New York Times, explosions related to the extraction of the popular marijuana concentrate using butane have nearly tripled since the first pot shops opened on Jan 1, 2014 after voters voted to legalize pot in 2013.

While the explosions are not limited to Colorado  -- with officials reporting problems in Florida, Illinois, and California --  how Colorado law enforcement deals with the  'home brewers' is complicated by recent changes in the state's drug policies.

“This is uncharted territory,” State Representative Mike Foote, a Democrat from northern Colorado said. “These things come up for the first time, and no one’s dealt with them before.”

The explosions are the result of the careless use of butane -- normally used in lighters, portable stoves or heaters -- to extract the concentrated tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, from the plant.

Butane fuel is pumped through a tube packed with raw marijuana plants to draw out the THC, producing a golden and highly potent concentrate called honey oil, earwax, or shatter. In the process a room can fill with volatile butane vapors that can be ignited by a spark or flame.

“They get enough vapors inside the building and it goes off, and it’ll bulge out the walls,” explained Grand Junction Fire Marshall Chuck Mathis, whose department responded to four such explosions last year.

According to Mathis, victims often try to blame the explosion and resulting fire on something else.

“They always have a different story: ‘Nothing happened’ or ‘I was cooking food, and all of a sudden there was an explosion.’ They always try to blame it on something else,” he said.

Although no one has died in the explosions so far, the fires have wrecked homes and apartments and injured dozens of people, including 17 who received treatment for severe burns, resulting in skin grafts and surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital’s burn center.

In the case of home explosions, Colorado prosecutors believe a crime has taken place, saying that, while legalization may have given licensed and regulated marijuana manufacturing facilities the right to extract THC in controlled environments, homemade operations using the highly flammable butane are still illegal.

Robert Corry, a prominent marijuana advocate, differs, saying legalization has changed how Colorado treats people with marijuana. According to Corry, it is no longer an issue for the police and courts, but for the regulators and bureaucrats who enforce the civil codes surrounding marijuana growers and dispensaries.

In a court statement, while defending a client who set off an explosion in a marijuana cooperative, Corry said, “The court system is not to be used for marijuana regulation anymore.”

According to Corry, making butane hash oil is similar to processing olive oil, home brewing beer, or distilling whiskey.

“There are thousands of people in Colorado who are doing this,” Mr. Corry explained. “I view this as the equivalent of frying turkey for Thanksgiving. Someone spills the oil, and there’s an explosion. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not a felony crime.”

Judge A. Bruce Jones of the Second Judicial District overseeing the case Corry is defending said he was unsure as he grappled with the law legalizing marijuana; attempting to differentiate between  “processing” marijuana —  legal under Amendment 64 — and manufacturing.

“I have no real knowledge of how you make hash oil,” Judge Jones said during the hearing.

For now the Colorado state attorney general has weighed in saying legalization does not apply to butane extraction.

Earlier this month a western Colorado judge overseeing the case against a 70-year-old man charged with making hash oil in his home rejected the argument that some drugs laws in regard to marijuana are now unconstitutional.