High on Fire: Making Butane Hash Oi

BHO. Full Melt. Earwax. Dabs. The public has finally discovered hash oil. 

BHO stands for Butane Hash Oil. It's produced, as the name implies, via a method that relies on butane, a flammable petrochemical which at room temperature and standard pressure is in gas form. It's the stuff which burns in most of the disposable lighters people buy nowadays.

There's no question: Oil is fun. I should be saying it works as an effective medicine, yet there's no denying that in pot culture the popularity of dabs seems to have less to do with health than it does with getting high - not that there's anything wrong with that.

In terms of health, an effective argument could be made that, for the consumer, oil is much less unsafe than whole-plant cannabis, especially since the oil has no vegetative matter, thus fewer impurities, and fewer hits are needed to have the desired effect.

Sounds ideal. Just one downside: production can be dangerous.

Butane, like it says on the label, is flammable, and pressurized containers are explosive. Google the words Butane, Marijuana and Fire sometime. The results are scary. I found seven separate incidents of fires and/or explosions related to butane hash extraction reported in the media in 2012 and 2013. 

In January, three lab fires and explosions shook Southern California. The latest butane explosion took place in Ocean Beach, near San Diego, California on Jan. 30. Two BHO makers suffered severe burns and a third person in another room was injured. The explosion happened when someone lit a cigarette, igniting the butane fumes.

Update: Two more explosions have since rocked Southern California: in Tustin on July 5 (two men were hospitalized) and in Phelan on Sept. 26 (three men were severely burned).

The question is begged: Why bother? Well, it's simple. BHO is powerful stuff, so it's a highly valued commodity. It tests at between 30-75% THC, compared to 15-60% for cold water hash and kif. BHO is effective, and efficient, but production should not be in the hands of just anyone. Serious safety precautions need to be taken, and they need to be taken seriously, by anyone trying this.

But why bother with butane when you can extract hash oil using CO2 - Carbon Dioxide for folks who didn't take advanced chemistry - from whole-plant cannabis? CO2 is a nonflammable gas and presents less of a risk than butane. A rather detailed method of CO2 hash oil extraction (a.k.a. SFE - Supercritical Fluid Extraction) was even patented in 2012. Supercritical CO2 extraction is the technique which GW Pharmaceuticals reportedly uses to manufacture Sativex. It may be more complex, but fewer buildings blow up and catch fire. Seems like a fair trade.

Doug McVay

Doug McVay

Writer and KBOO radio host based in Portland, Ore. He's also editor of DrugPolicyFacts.org.