Although the story was downplayed by Northern Nevada media, a “hash oil” fire in a Gardnerville apartment building last weekend sent 22-year-old Adam Fitzgerald-Wermes to a Reno hospital with third-degree burns; criminal charges are pending. In 2015 I warned marijuana legalization would lead to potentially fatal hash oil fires and explosions. Following is an edited version of that 2015 column:
Today I’m writing about a dangerous and potentially fatal hazard associated with marijuana legalization: hash oil explosions. We should pay attention to this hazard because Carson City will “welcome” two medical pot shops and at least two “grow” operations later this year.
A couple of people accused me of “fear mongering” when I wrote about hash oil explosions in the Greater Seattle area last year. That was after Seattle’s U.S. Attorney, Jenny Durkan, filed criminal charges against eight people in connection with hash oil explosions, one of which killed the former mayor of Bellevue, Wash., in an upscale apartment building in downtown Bellevue, the state’s second largest city. Both medical and recreational pot are legal in my former home state of Washington.
“There is no legal way to make hash oil,” Ms. Durkan told the Seattle Times. “A hash oil explosion is like a bomb going off in a home.” The Times explained that hash oil is made by stuffing a glass or steel container with marijuana leaves before flooding them with a volatile solvent such as butane. That process produces a golden brown goo, which is purged of solvent by boiling it off using butane. According to the Times, “Butane can puddle in a closed room and a tiny spark can cause a huge explosion.”
So was I fear mongering when I wrote about hash oil explosions? The venerable New York Times doesn’t think so after publishing a Denver-datelined article titled “Odd Byproduct of Legal Marijuana: Homes That Blow Up.” “When Colorado legalized marijuana nobody was quite ready for the problem of exploding houses,” wrote Times correspondent Jack Healy. “But that’s exactly what firefighters, courts and lawmakers ... are confronting these days — amateur marijuana alchemists who are turning their kitchens into ‘Breaking Bad’-style laboratories using flammable chemicals to extract potent drops of a marijuana concentrate commonly called hash oil, and sometimes accidentally blowing up their homes and lighting themselves on fire in the process.”
“Even as cities try to clamp down on homemade hash oil and lawmakers consider outlawing it, some enthusiasts argue for their right to make it ‘safely’ without butane,” Healy wrote. He cited deadly hash oil explosions in a Grand Junction motel, an upscale Colorado Springs apartment building, and a Denver explosion which produced a “ball of fire” that left three people hospitalized. Closer to home, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported at least six hash oil explosions in Reno that sent several people to the hospital.
There were 32 such blasts across Colorado in 2014, up from 12 a year earlier, according to the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which coordinates federal and state drug enforcement efforts. No one was killed, but fires wrecked homes and injured dozens of people, including 17 who received treatment for severe burns.
Meanwhile, hash oil explosions continue in Northern Nevada including one in a Reno home that was occupied by three people including a young child. In last weekend’s case, Douglas County investigators said the process Fitzgerald-Wermes used was “very volatile and highly likely to cause an explosion.”
It’s only a matter of time before Carson experiences its first hash oil explosion. Count on it.
Guy W. Farmer opposed recreational pot legalization in 2016, as did most Carson City voters.