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Originally published July 2, 2013 at 8:37 PM | Page modified July 3, 2013 at 7:55 PM

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State faces the latest twist in pot law: concentrates

State regulators are trying to figure out how to regulate potent marijuana concentrates, such as hash oil. Dangerous amateur production, the use of solvents, and the practice of “dabbing” are among their concerns.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Aurelio Romero Jr. uses a metal rod to apply a dab of hash oil to part of a bong that’s been turned red-hot by a blowtorch.

Romero, 31, inhales a cloud of superpotent vapor that fills the pipe.

“It only takes a dab the size of a rice grain to have the same effect as smoking two or three bowls” of dried marijuana, Romero explained at last month’s Concentrates Cup, a hash-oil seminar and competition in Black Diamond.

The increasingly popular practice is called dabbing. “This is America’s insanely baked future,” Rolling Stone declared in its recent Weed Issue.

It’s not what state officials envisioned when they set out to write rules for Washington’s new recreational marijuana system. And they’re still trying to figure out how to regulate the sale of concentrates, potent marijuana extracts such as hash oil.

The state’s new pot law unintentionally defined sellable marijuana in a way that excluded this use of concentrates and extracts. Initially, state regulators believed they would only be infused in edible or liquid products, and that they couldn’t allow the stand-alone sale of concentrates.

After much feedback, regulators did an about-face.

They were persuaded that banning concentrates would hand the black market a lucrative product that is potentially risky to make and consume. Better to bring concentrates under state rules and safety standards, said Randy Simmons, the state’s marijuana project director.

Staff members at the state Liquor Control Board suggested a way to work around the law’s language. If a bit of olive oil or some other inert ingredient is added to a concentrate, they reasoned, it could be considered an infused product.

But questions loom as state officials are scheduled to release draft rules Wednesday.

The law allows adults to buy one pound of pot-infused edibles and 72 ounces of liquid at a time. Hash oil often sells for $40 a gram and can be 80 percent THC, the main psychoactive chemical in pot. Does that mean a customer could walk out of a store with a six-pack of hash oil? That might be worth well more than $50,000.

That’s certainly not the intent, Simmons said. But the liquor board hasn’t yet figured out its workaround for some forms of concentrates. “We don’t have an answer at this time,” he said.

State legislators may have to provide a fix by amending the new pot law to allow stand-alone concentrates.

Flammable process

People have consumed concentrated forms of marijuana for thousands of years, Simmons explained. The most common form has been hashish, generally made by removing the most potent resin from pot plants and compressing it into brick form.

Several years ago hash oil — in forms called shatter, budder and wax — exploded in popularity.

It also sometimes explodes in kitchens and garages of amateur chemists.

The most popular way of making hash oil now involves flammable solvents, particularly butane, which can be bought in hardware stores.

Usually a glass or steel canister is stuffed with dried pot. The canister is then flooded with a solvent such as butane, which strips away the psychotropic plant oils. The resulting golden-brown goo is then purged of the solvent. Common methods include boiling it off in a hot-water bath, according to Wired magazine, or using a vacuum system to pull butane from the oil.

The danger comes mainly in improper ventilation. Butane is heavier than air and tends to sink and puddle in a closed room; sparks can cause catastrophes, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency says are sometimes misidentified as meth-lab mishaps.

“The harmful element in this trend is not smoking it. It’s producing it,” said Chris Simunek, editor-in-chief of High Times, the nation’s premier pro-pot magazine.

That’s one reason why state regulators want to bring hash oil under their oversight.

No home production of hash oil would be allowed under proposed draft rules, Simmons said.

And regulators are preparing safety requirements for licensed producers. Crude equipment such as rice cookers and turkey basters won’t be allowed, Simmons said. Closed-loop systems that keep flammable gases from escaping will be required. It’s also likely ultrarefined medical-grade butane will be required in producing hash oil, Simmons said.

There are alternatives to butane. Carbon-dioxide extraction is considered the cleanest, safest way to make hash oil. But the production equipment can be expensive, with some machines running about $60,000 to $100,000.

Is dabbing safe?

Some worry that inhaling even microscopic amounts of residual solvents may be unsafe.

Genifer Murray is CEO of CannLabs, one of Colorado’s leading laboratories for testing marijuana products.

Murray is quick to stress that concentrates and dabbing are not necessarily the same; not all concentrates are consumed by dabbing.

Concentrates can be especially helpful to medical-marijuana patients, Murray said.

One advantage is that concentrates allow patients who’ve built up tolerance from regular pot use to consume calibrated doses. And because concentrates are so potent, patients don’t have to use as much as they would with dried marijuana.

“You don’t want a cancer patient trying to smoke 10 joints a day,” Simunek said. “It’s cruel.”

Oil advocates maintain dabbing is safe. You’ll consume more butane using a lighter to ignite a joint, they say, than from a single dab hit.

And they stress the amount of residual butane in good hash oil is safe according to federal health standards.

But Murray said such assurances “have no ground to stand on.” Federal safety levels are based on being exposed to butane in an occupational setting, not deliberately inhaling it, she said. She said she knows of no valid studies on inhaling butane hash oil.

“I’m terrified people might get sick or die from contaminated products,” she said, particularly someone with an immune system weakened by disease.

Still, legal regulated concentrates are better than the black-market alternative, she said. “If you don’t allow them, then people are going to use butane cans at home and blow up their house.”

Lawmakers could act

Alison Holcomb, chief author of Washington’s legal pot law, believes dabbing is a youthful fad that will fade over time.

If the state workaround for concentrates doesn’t hold up, she said, the Legislature could amend the recreational pot law early next year to include the sale of concentrates before retail stores open in the spring.

Simunek, of High Times, doesn’t see a reason for regulators to ban concentrates.

“I don’t see why you should make a distinction” between concentrates and other forms of pot, he said. “If I can go in a liquor store and buy 151-proof Bacardi rum, why shouldn’t I be allowed to buy” concentrates, which are really just a stronger form of marijuana?

In the end, said Simmons, his agency’s job is to make the product as safe as possible and keep it out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have it.

After that, he said, “some of the responsibility belongs to adults who make a decision to use it.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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