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Honey Oil Production Explodes In Mendocino

Last month in Ukiah, Wayne Briley stood in front of the board of supervisors waving a hash oil extractor, an empty butane canister and some other butane hash oil (BHO) making paraphernalia, explaining to the supervisors why houses are blowing up across California. Briley heads the Redwood Empire Hazardous Incident Team (REHIT), a county level organization tasked with hazardous material clean up and as a result he's had ample opportunity to see the dangerous side of BHO production, commonly called honey oil. In fact, Mendocino provides so many educational opportunities that he's become a regional expert on hash production fires, called upon from across the state when firefighters come upon some head-scratching and potentially hazardous situation.

As Little Lake Fire Training Chief Chris Wilkes says, “Wayne's at the tip of the spear.” Briley has had new challenges as production has diversified to include butane and alcohol methods, as well as expensive closed-loop systems, professionally manufactured specifically for the purpose of making hash.

Briley works under the Health and Human Services Agency for the county, not in law enforcement. His primary concern is ensuring the safety of the people of Mendocino County from hazardous materials and situations. Often this means climbing up on tanker trucks to pump out the diesel so it doesn't slip into rivers and creeks. Sometimes it means going out to witness the environmental devastation caused by diesel spills at indoor grow sites in the forest.

The presentation to the supervisors was prompted by a streak of hash related explosions and fires; beginning in March there was a fire a week for seven weeks in Mendocino County and parts of Lake County. Asked why the incidence of such accidents has spiked Briley told a story. “We went to a bust in Willits, on Elm Lane. The guy lived in a duplex; he and his wife and child lived on one side and he had a honey oil lab on the other. He got busted and the cops called us to come and get the butane, because he had massive amounts of butane,” said Briley raising his eyebrows and spreading his arms. “In his garage he had bags and bags and bags of manicured, bagged up, ready to go, ready to sell buds. And he was making honey oil with the buds. He told the cops he had so much pot that he couldn't sell it, so he decided to make honey oil it out of it.”

In other words, there's a glut in market-supply and a growing desire for new kinds of marijuana products, primarily dabs, on the demand side, resulting in a huge incentive to produce all different kinds of hash.

Diversification Of Production

Which brings up the questions, what exactly are these increasingly popular forms of hash? And what are the consequences that they're having in the community?

What some might consider the traditional method of extracting THC from marijuana, the production of bubble hash, is not only the safest method, but the only legal method under state law, when produced solely for personal consumption. This process involves tumbling the marijuana in ice water to freeze the trichomes, making them brittle enough to break off from the plant. The THC heavy trichomes then sink to the bottom and are sifted through even finer mesh bags resulting in a ground-beef like slab of hash that bubbles when lit. As Supervisor John Pinches pointed out at the recent meeting, “That explains why ice sells more in the middle of wintertime than on the Fourth of July.”

But Briley, doesn't concern himself too much with bubble hash, as he said, “I'm not even talking about marijuana. I'm just talking about these explosions that we have.”

And the majority of the explosions have resulted from the rapidly expanding production of honey oil. In contrast to bubble hash, chemical extraction methods are very illegal and carry stiff jail times. Rather than using harmless water to freeze the trichomes, this method requires the use of the extremely flammable gas butane.

In a method called “open blasting,” Canisters of the gas are plugged into extraction tubes stuffed with shake and the cold butane flows through the tube chilling the trichomes and acting as a solvent. A coffee filter wrapped around the bottom of the glass keeps residue in and allows a solution of butane and THC to ooze out, generally onto a Pyrex platter. As anyone who has watched the procedure, or one of countless YouTube videos demonstrating it, knows, the butane pouring out makes the air look wavy, like the hood of a car on a hot day. This is because butane is dense, denser than air, meaning it doesn't dissipate into the atmosphere. Instead, when open blasting is done indoors the highly flammable gas collects on the floor; an invisible flood slowly creeping higher in search of ignition.

When that spark comes—and it could be anything, static from clothes, a spark from an electrical socket, a pilot light, a refrigerator coil, or someone silly enough to light a joint—the butane ignites in a tiny fraction of a second, exploding the house and causing severe burns to anyone present.

This is something Sheriff Tom Allman knows all too well, “I've seen people with their flesh melting off their fingers and their pants burned off, whereas above the waist they're not injured because all the butane was from the waist down.”

But honey oil production isn't just dangerous to the people in the house. Briley brought up a recent example in Willits to illustrate this, “When Carl Magann, the fire chief, responded to that Holly Lane explosion, well, when Carl pulled up, those butane cylinders were popping off and flying clear over into the neighbors property. So Carl's going: 'Oh man we could have another house fire, or a wildland fire. These things are little missiles going off.'“

Even with his many years experience Briley is regularly surprised. “So this threw me a curve. A couple months ago I get called out in the middle of the night to go out to Appaloosa Way in Redwood Valley. The fire department calls and says, 'Man there's an explosion out here, in a lab, we don't know what it is, you gotta come out and see it,'“ said Briley. He thought he knew what was up, but when he arrived he said, “Wow, I don't know what any of this is.”

What he'd been called to was an alcohol extraction fire, or what Briley describes as, “Alcohol hash, because nobody's named it, so that's a Wayne Briley term: alcohol hash.”

This method involves the use of alcohol as a solvent, either isopropyl, or ethanol in the form of Everclear or vodka. The slush created is then purified by cooking off the alcohol, much like in a still, except instead of the booze these moonshiners are after the sticky residue. Because of the cost of alcohol producers like to recycle their solvent, distilling it out in copper coils. The whole process runs the risk of producing large amounts of vaporized alcohol, which when ignited can be just as explosive as butane.

“The very first one of those I saw, the pressure cooker literally blew up—shrapnel and everything. And started a wildland fire,” says Briley. Luckily only a quarter acre burned before it was put out.

Only two weeks later, Briley was called to Timberline Road in Brooktrails. In this case a gasket on the pressure cooker had been dissolved by alcohol, releasing a stream of alcohol vapor that ignited. Briley has since been told by sheriff's deputies that new specially designed pressure cookers are being produced with alcohol resistant gaskets.

With this kind of expertise, Briley has become the go-to man for hazmat departments from Redding to Sacramento, and teaches an annual class at Continuing Challenge, a hazmat conference in Sacramento, “Everyone is California is calling me.”

New Developments

Last Friday, Briley sat at a conference table pointing to his latest riddle: a heavy stainless steel cylinder about 16 inches tall by 14 inches diameter, with valves and hoses sprouting from the top. Briley couldn't speak about certain aspects of this equipment due to its being evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation, but he did explain that it was used as part of a larger honey oil extraction set-up and could contain up to two gallons of butane.

“I was in Red Bluff the other day, and I said, 'I'm telling you what I've found in the last months, what am I gonna find tomorrow?'“ he said, tapping on the cylinder. “And I didn't know that this was going on as I was speaking. So we're always on the cutting edge, as things go wrong.”

The piece in question had been filled with butane and submerged in ice in a cooler. Butane boils at about 34 degrees, and once it rises above that temperature, pressure in a closed vessel becomes tremendous. The firefighters on the scene called Briley's partner Kirk Ford, who moved the tank to the Ukiah airport where he off-gassed it safely. The fear had been that it would rise above 34 degrees and explode.

Over the weekend it became evident that the contraption was a piece of a closed-loop butane hash oil extraction system manufactured by BHOgart LLC. of San Jose. The system, which sells for $3,995.00, not including the pump, is built by the company as a more efficient, cost effective and supposedly safer method for extracting essential oils from plant material—though they are open about one of the system's primary uses being for marijuana.

Made of heavy stainless steel, with professional machining and welds, the system uses pumps to recirculate butane, after it has run through a huge stainless extraction tube, back into a recovery tank.

Kevin Dolan, a representative at BHOgart, insisted that the machinery is safe so long as used in accordance with their specifications, and that the company offers extensive technical training at their headquarters in San Jose. The recovery tank is equipped with a safety valve, which Dolan claimed would gradually alleviate pressure if the tank became too hot. Briley, on the other hand, believed that if such a tank rose in temperature too quickly it could fail catastrophically, causing an explosion.

In contrast, Dolan's only worry was that butane gradually escaping could build and result in an explosion, if operated indoors, which the company cautions against. Dolan says his company is doing all it can to ensure safety, “We're working with engineers right now to determine if that is the safest way to do it. And if there's a better way, then we'll change it.” This includes working with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) to meet industry standards.

Butane extraction is actually used in industrial settings as varied as canola oil and perfume production, utilizing closed-loop systems that minimize the chance of the explosive gas making it into the air. Though the technology is safe in industrial and regulated settings, it's a far cry from the “open-blast” method common in DIY hash production. However, Dolan's company wants to change this, “The whole idea behind our company is to make it safer and more ecologically sound and allow the mom-and-pop people to afford the machinery that's going to allow them to stay competitive, and be involved.”

In response to questions about the possible problems sprouting up in Mendocino, Dolan stated that, “My response to that is that the problem exists and that we are trying to reduce that danger. People are not going to stop doing this, people are doing it more and more every day and if they can do it in a safer, more controlled manner, then that's better for everyone.” He also pointed out the benefits to the environment from using less butane.

Market Forces

Back at the council meeting Supervisor Pinches asked Briley, “So what's the gist of this? We're seeing the evolution of the marijuana industry?”

To which Briley half shouted, “Yeah! I started doing this about ten years ago, talking about this, and I wrote a little sentence in the presentation: technology is advancing rapidly, so pay attention to stuff. Well, this is something else new.”

Pinches then offered his opinions. “I got a theory on all of this stuff,” he said. “When you see these 500 or 2500 plant gardens, or what-not, they have a massive amount of shake. So it's kind of like over in the Valley, I remember when I was a kid they were worried about what we were going to do with all the rice hulls and rice straw and everything. And over the years they developed a product line to deal with it. Well the marijuana industry is the same: it's developed a product to deal with the massive amount of waste that used to be thrown away.” He continued, “Well, it's frankly, it's disgusting.”

Local business woman Amanda Weatherhead, who runs the Headroom on Main Street, dates the big shift towards honey oil and dabs to about two and a half years ago, saying, “I had to change style of pipes, change products.” Though she sells individual canisters for lighters, she adamantly opposes the kind of homemade honey oil production that has caused explosions, “I don't want to sell it because I don't want to engage in other people's bad practices. It's bad for everybody around. It should be a regulated market.” Shaking her head she pointed to a canister, saying, “It says it right there: extremely flammable, under pressure.”

Community Impacts

Briley's colleagues and bosses at the county Health and Human Services Agency see the issue as reaching beyond just a question of enforcement to one of public safety. Not only do they see the obvious risks of structural and wildland fires, they point to the strain placed on the medical system when a large number of people are injured. Often burn victims have to be airlifted, tying up resources that could be used elsewhere.

So the agencies and their employees must tread a fine line between discouraging dangerous practices for the sake of public safety, and offering advice on illicit activities.

Briley's focus is on insisting people keep the safety of the community in mind, “I would say, if you're going to use chemicals, I don't care what chemical—butane, alcohol's a chemical, maybe you're gonna start using CO2 or something—whatever the chemical process, I would highly recommend that you understand that chemical and what you're doing to it. Because if you don't know it could have a catastrophic failure on you; that means fire, explosion, something bad could happen, and that's what we're seeing. These people didn't understand what the potential problems could be and they had a catastrophic failure.”

Possible New Regulations

Asked about the possibility for new regulations or legislative action, Briley recounted the efforts of his predecessor, Jim Harrison, to get state legislators to pass rules governing the delivery of diesel to grow-sites.

“I don't know if there's the education or the interest with the people that make rules. Either they're not interested, or maybe they just don't know yet,” said Briley. Then pausing to think, he continued, “I think they don't know, so it might take educating and informing the people that make the big decisions.”

Sheriff Allman, agreed that new regulations were required, “I'd love to put a limit on the amount of butane bottles that people can buy. I don't think there's any legal reason why someone needs to be buying more than three bottles of butane.”

Allman explained that in the past month, he had not gone a day without discussing the issue with someone in law enforcement in the county. He sees these new developments as unprecedented, “A lot of people talk about marijuana as being a harmless herb with medicinal qualities, and, you know, 'It's from the land.' I don't want people to get confused and think that honey oil is an innocent drug. It's not innocent in manufacturing, it's not innocent in the amount of chemicals that are used that harm the environment—and the greed that's involved certainly leads to violence, once the greed happens. I can only imagine that when people read this article, they're going to say: 'Come on, cops are supposed to say marijuana's bad.' I'm not saying that—I'm saying honey oil is a game changer because of the public safety dangers it presents.”

(Courtesy, the Willits News)

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