Hash oil explosions on the rise, authorities struggle to crack down

by: Linzi Sheldon Updated:


Hash oil explosions are on the rise, and the dangerous oil production at local homes is forcing local authorities to think about how they can crack down.

It’s a difficult challenge with medical marijuana being legal in Washington the medical hash oil industry and recreational marijuana use being approved by a voter initiative last year.

Brandon Hamilton, owner of Washington Alternative Medicine, showed KIRO 7 the controlled, scientific process he uses to create the oil.

"We start our process with always thinking about public safety," Hamilton said. "It's not just about making the extract. It's about having all the other accessories, things you need to do to make a safe extract."

On a Saturday morning, he flushed carbon dioxide through two pounds of marijuana.

"It gets you higher quicker and you have to ingest less of it," he explained.

Initially, hash oil comes out as a yellow paste, before Hamilton filters it multiple times over the course of 30 to 60 days.

"It's full of waxes and lipids," he said.

But not everyone is using the same painstaking system, and it's putting lives at risk.

All over YouTube, there are videos depicting explosions from people trying to make hash oil using butane gas instead of carbon dioxide or other extraction methods.

Amateurs pack cylinders with pot, then flood the containers with butane. Hash oil and gas pour out below into a waiting container. However, since butane is heavier than air, it sinks and can collect. If hash oil is being made in an enclosed space without proper ventilation, any kind of spark, including static electricity, can set off an explosion.

In the past year, there have been at least six hash-oil related explosions across the Puget Sound area.

"The fact that this process is occurring in residential neighborhoods is discouraging, because there are places where they can go and do it now," Hamilton said. "It's frustrating from that standpoint. Every time I hear about one of these happening, I get really nervous about legislative policy being enacted that'll curtail our industry. That's why it's important that people take this very seriously."

One hash oil explosion, in Bellevue, is now linked to the death of an 87-year-old woman.

An explosion in the Rainier Valley shook a building off its foundation in January.

"It was like a bomb went off, like detonated," Maile Carlson said. Her flower shop is next door to the apartment where the explosion occurred. "It shook the whole building," she said.

Police found a marijuana grow operation inside the apartment and said butane in the freezer found its way into the fridge's electrical system.

Officials said when the motor started, it sparked the gas and caused the explosion.

"If the fridge was facing the opposite way, we would have been blown up," she said. "If someone was in there, they would have been dead."

"Hash oil, for us, it's almost like the next meth lab phenomenon," Seattle police Sergeant Sean Whitcomb said.

He said hash oil made from butane at home is clearly risky and presents a problem for police.

"If it's just a small amount, if it's for medical purposes, our hands are kind of tied because there are no specific prohibitions against it," he said.

This appears to be the dilemma Bellevue police faced when dealing with a massive hash oil fire now linked to the death of Bellevue's first female mayor, Nan Campbell.

The apartment building where she lived erupted in flames the morning of Nov. 5.

People were jumping from their second and third floor apartments. Campbell ran from her ground floor apartment and fell outside.

Her daughter, Patty, got a call from the hospital.

"She was losing blood so quickly," she said. "She was really out of it."

Nan had a fractured pelvis and internal bleeding. She survived surgery, but died two weeks later from complications.

She was a mother and a grandmother, as well as a former mayor.

"Very caring," Campbell said. "Very thoughtful. She had such an impact on so many people's lives."

Her death, investigators believe, was caused by a hash oil fire fueled by butane.

"At first I was angry," Campbell said. "You would have to be a complete idiot not to know that it's dangerous."

KIRO 7 obtained documents that show in the month before the fire, police were tipped off by a construction worker, who said he saw the three men living in a second-floor apartment in Nan's building making hash oil.

A police officer visited and warned them that it was a violation of their rental agreement.

They said they were not making hash oil.

In police documents, the officer later said he didn't know if making hash oil was illegal, since "possession of marijuana was no longer illegal" and "medical marijuana laws allow patients to manufacture... certain amounts of marijuana."

Only now, months after the explosion, are police asking King County to charge one of the men, 31-year-old David R. Schultz, with manslaughter.

"Is that enough?" KIRO 7 asked Campbell.

"No," she said. "I don't feel that it is. They took away a life."

Ian Goodhew, with the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, said they are looking at all possible charges, from manslaughter to arson to reckless endangerment.

He said hash oil cases aren't simple or easy to prosecute, since there are no specific charges that exist the same way they do for meth lab explosions.

"The substances used to make methamphetamine are either highly regulated or illegal," Goodhew said. "It's legal to possess a certain amount of marijuana."

Whatever the charges may be, he doesn't expect them for another few weeks, at the earliest.

Goodhew said they'll be pushing for new legislation next year.

"I would vote for calling it Nan's law," Campbell said, "to stop this from happening to anybody else."

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