Eight months ago, an explosion and fire tore through the Hampton Greens apartment complex in Bellevue. It happened at 6:30 in the morning. Among the residents was Nan Campbell, the 87-year-old former mayor of Bellevue. She was the city’s first female mayor, elected in 1988.
According to charging documents filed July 22 in US District Court in connection with the explosion, Campbell “was forced to flee the building as a result of the fire, and fell and fractured her pelvis while doing so.” Another woman in the building had to “drop out of her third-story window to escape the flames,” which resulted in a fractured spine, broken arm, and broken ankle. Yet another woman fractured her leg after leaping from a second-story window to escape. Authorities say the fire began after butane fuel, which was being used to make hash oil, ignited in one of the apartments. Campbell happened to be in a neighboring unit at the time. She was taken to the hospital after her fall, and “she later expired due to complications” from her injuries.
At a press conference on July 22, US Attorney Jenny Durkan announced she was filing federal charges against seven people who allegedly operated hash-oil-manufacturing labs that exploded, including that residential lab in Bellevue. Other explosions cited occurred in a house in Puyallup, a house in Seattle, and an apartment building in Kirkland. Seven suspects face up to 35 years in prison on charges that include endangering human life while manufacturing a controlled substance, maintaining a drug-involved premises, and manufacturing hash oil.
What was typical about the press conference was the rah-rah drug-war nature of it all, right down to the silly name, “Operation Shattered.” Federal drug crackdowns—and the media circuses that promote them—historically amount to law-enforcement officials slapping each other on the back for sending people to prison without actually making a dent in drug supply or curtailing harms. Ironically, this aggressive enforcement drives drug manufacturing further underground, which is how you end up with hash-oil labs in apartment buildings, or meth labs in motels for that matter.
“Every one of these home systems is a violation of federal law and state law,” said Durkan, flanked by police, to the TV cameras. “If you’re doing it, you should stop… Enforcement like this does make a difference and shows we will hold people accountable.”
Hash-oil production itself isn’t going away anytime soon, though, especially given that marijuana consumption is legal in Washington State. Hash oil has grown increasingly popular in the last decade, in part because creating it has an exceptional financial incentive. You can turn low-grade marijuana, usually leaves that contain very little THC, into a profoundly potent concentrate. It’s like turning garbage into money. However, hash-oil labs can explode if components are handled incorrectly. The oil, an extract of marijuana’s psychoactive chemicals, is typically made by filling a canister with pot and flushing it with a highly combustible solvent such as butane fuel. If the butane leaks, a tiny spark can ignite it, essentially turning the pressurized canister into a bomb. Failure to do something about risky home manufacturing all but guarantees more explosions, injuries, and deaths.
Still, several news outlets regurgitated the rah-rah tone of the press conference without addressing a question that many journalists would apply to other criminal issues: Does this type of enforcement actually address the problem? That is, will stiff federal penalties for a few residential hash-oil producers prevent more accidents—or would, say, thorough regulation under a legal system keep us safer?
If you listened closely, what started as a rah-rah press conference shifted in tone to a tacit acknowledgement that drug-enforcement tactics may not fully quell the problem. Durkan acknowledged that it’s not an “either-or” choice between busts and regulation, and she said, “It will be up to the state to make regulations” concerning hash-oil production. This is a subtle but important statement, because it’s coming from the Feds, and because regulating pot is the opposite of prohibition—regulation is tantamount to legalization, and in the past, the Obama administration has said that “legalization is not in the president’s vocabulary.” And yet Durkan, who is legally bound to uphold federal drug laws, is essentially saying the state ought to manage its legal pot market as a means to protect the public.
In fact, the state already has made regulations for hash-oil production, but they apply only to processors who’ve been licensed through the state and who are selling to licensed recreational marijuana stores, not medical marijuana dispensaries. The overwhelming bulk of the hash oil is sold in the medical marijuana market, and the medical marijuana market is unregulated. In an interview immediately after the press conference, Durkan said, “The state has to come up with a solution for medical marijuana dispensaries and everything they sell.” Noting that it’s not her job to prescribe policy, she said, referring to the state legislature: “They have to address this issue, because it’s not going away.”
The US Department of Justice has indicated in the past that it will tolerate marijuana operations (recreational pot farms, medical pot dispensaries) if they comply with state laws. So this seems like an acknowledgement that the Feds want hash oil to be better regulated, legally—something that is not fully happening yet.
Can hash oil be made for medical marijuana dispensaries without killing people?
Seattle Police Department spokesman Sergeant Sean Whitcomb says, “We believe that hash oil can be manufactured professionally and safely… We believe that the answer is a combination of education, enforcement, and regulation.”
The liquor control board’s Randy Simmons, who oversees implementation of the recreational pot law, says processors who want to make cannabis extractions must follow several rules that provide safeguards: The machines must be certified, processors must use a closed system that prevents solvents from leaking, butane must be medical grade, a fire department must give necessary permits, and the process can occur only in places where it’s legal to use such chemicals (such as industrial areas, not homes). The state has received 68 applications to process cannabis with an extraction process, but only two licenses have been issued so far.
Can the legislature apply similar rules for the medical marijuana market during its 2015 session? Durkan’s charges and Campbell’s death could light a fire under Olympia, which has failed to regulate medical marijuana for years due to a legislature in a partisan logjam and governors with an anti-medical-marijuana agenda.
“I think if we are clear about the regulation and if people can follow the rules, we can avoid these types of terrible situations,” says House Speaker Frank Chopp, who predicts several medical marijuana bills next year. “We need to have some sort of state movement on it.”
In the other chamber, currently controlled by Republicans, state senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles says, “We should absolutely regulate” the hash-oil market. But how that could happen is anyone’s guess—some may try to kill medical marijuana entirely. “I think that a bill that aligns the medical marijuana system with the recreational system is very needed,” she says. “But in a political body like the legislature, who knows what will happen.”
Uncertain as the situation may be, the developments around hash oil are bigger than hash oil: They are evidence of new thinking from federal officials, local law enforcement, state regulators, and state lawmakers that regulating a legal drug market may keep people safer than prohibition ever could. That is exactly what voters wanted to prove when they voted for legal pot.