Bad news for butane hash-labbers

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Seeking to reduce the number of butane-fueled explosions around town, the Arcata City Council is clamping down on sales of the flammable gas. Last week, the council heard about its uses and dangers, and introduced an ordinance to regulate the sale, purchase and possession of butane.

One of the slides depicting butane blow-ups shown by APD officer Richard Bergstresser during his presentation to the City Council.

Arcata’s ordinance is similar to other ones enacted in other California towns, including Eureka. No state law exists to regulate butane sales. Voter-approved Prop. 64, which legalized cannabis use for recreational purposes, doesn’t cover chemical extraction of THC from cannabis. It could be legal for industrial use in Arcata’s Medical Marijuana Innovation Zone, but no applications have been submitted for butane hash oil extraction.

Butane is a solvent commonly used to extract THC from cannabis in the manufacture of hash oil, commonly known as “honey oil” or “BHO.” It can be used safely under controlled conditions, though many users don’t take proper precautions, resulting in injuries and property damage. The used canisters are often improperly discarded.

A presentation by Arcata Police Officer Richard Bergstresser, who serves on the Humboldt County Drug Task Force, detailed the common misuse and dangers of butane in hash oil extraction, offering a chemistry lesson followed by graphic photos of sloppy hash labs, some of them after they’ve blown up.

Bergstresser said hash lab operators are often careless in use of butane, which expands 288 times on going from liquid to gas. Even those who equip themselves with expensive pieces of butane/cannabis processing apparatus often don’t use them properly.

Odorless and invisible, butane sinks to the floor of enclosed spaces and saturates the clothing of those in the room. On ignition, it causes terrible burns.

A council staff report by City Attorney Nancy Diamond notes that injuries from hash-related butane explosions account for 8 to 10 percent of severe burn cases – more than car wrecks and house fires combined.

Bergstresser showed photos of some of the residential lab explosions, which caused significant damage and put neighbors at risk.

A staff report included data on butane-related incidents in Arcata and McKinleyville. The first one listed occurred at an L.K. Wood Boulevard apartment building in 2005, and caused $150,000 in damage plus $17,534 in fire suppression costs. Butane explosions weren’t closely tracked by Arcata Fire until 2013. The last three years have seen two incidents each, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and “significant burns” to victims.

Like grow houses, residential hash labs sometimes tend to be a mite untidy – especially after the explosion.

Diamond said the ordinance is a “first step,” and likened it to previous regulations implemented to restrict sales of pseudophederine, used in manufacture of methamphetamine. She noted that butane will still be available online, but suggested that sales to certain ZIP codes might be restricted later. Diamond said she would look into it.

Ordinance No. 1480 restricts butane sales to any single individual to 600 milliliters – about two cans per month – with purchasers’ names and addresses recorded. State-licensed professional users are exempted. Stores also have to keep butane canisters out of reach and can’t sell it to minors. An amendment added at the council meeting requires butane sellers to post a sign detailing the new sales restrictions.

City Manager Karen Diemer said the city met with some local butane sellers in November, though the city is always finding more. The ordinance was adjusted to reflect input from that meeting.

Councilmember Paul Pitino asked that the required sales records be collected from sellers after six months in order to ensure that the sales are being tracked. Councilmember Michael Winkler asked that retail sales be correlated with the sellers’ wholesale purchases to make sure that sales aren’t occurring without being recorded. Diamond said she would bring back language for a possible amendment that would verify compliance.



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