Last Saturday at the High Times Medical Cannabis Cup, I sat in on panel of experts discussing the pros and cons of smoking concentrates extracted by using solvents such as butane and isopropyl alcohol. Little did I realize that only days later, I would experience the risks that come from working with flammables, courtesy of some mutant wax that could easily have turned me into a ball of fire, as seen in a video below.
While I didn't really have much to offer on the panel aside from some patient perspective and comic relief in the form of my bearded disguise, Dr. Alan Shackelford, Dr. Bob Melamede and hash experts Selecta Nikka T and Daniel de Sailles shared a wealth of knowledge on the subject.
For over an hour, we discussed the possible health issues of residual solvents left in hash, the pros and cons of using volatile chemicals for the extraction, and where the industry is going in terms of safety. The panel's conclusion? Solvent-extracted hash is beneficial medicine, but it's also only as good as the materials used to make it. And yes, there are some very real dangers.
"I think they are all good for you, as long as you're not using anything that's bad," said Melamede. "If you're using dirty ethanol and you do an ethanol extract, you're going to get a dirty concentrate. If you use dirty butane...then any residues that might be in there that are themselves not volatile will be left over. Like anything else, it's garbage in, garbage out. If you put something good in, then what comes out is good."
Melamede also talked about the quality of the cannabis being important.
"If you have pesticides on your plant material, that is going to come off into that solvent. So when you evaporate the solvent, you'll actually be concentrating those things. And that is the real danger. Pesticides are typically extremely nasty in how they can affect your nervous system and potentially your immune system."
Though he was a bit more skeptical about using solvent-extracted hash without any scientific data to show its safety, Shackelford agreed that when properly made, it's probably no better or worse than other forms of hash.
"I have seen a number of patients who use concentrates...with great success for a number of different conditions," Shackelford said. "If you're heating it up and it's vaporizing or being burned, that butane is pretty much gone. Any residual [butane] would not be a problem." But what can be a problem is concentrated pesticides, herbicides or chemicals left over from impure solvents.
At one point, a patient in the audience got up and said that she had health problems from smoking too much BHO. After going to the hospital because her throat was swelling shut, she was told that an irritant had coated her throat -- likely from her smoking. She admitted that she wasn't told it was a direct cause of the butane, but said it was a wakeup call to be more aware of what she was smoking. Both doctors agreed that it was likely something other than the butane that caused her health problem.
The panel also discussed public perceptions of butane hash, as well as the increasing numbers of home fires caused by the extraction method, including a blaze in Breckenridge a few years ago. It's an unfortunate reality. People are going to blow themselves up making this stuff if they aren't careful. As Black mentioned, it's a lot like creating a batch of bathtub gin.
You can watch the video of the talk for more tips, but the two most important take-aways were: Keep away from open flames and don't be stupid.
Page down for more on the panel's discussion plus videos of the panel and that flaming hash. Of all the dangers -- real or not -- that we discussed on the panel, exploding concentrates never came up once. After picking up a chunk of what I was told was in-house butane shatter oil at a local dispensary I was reviewing, I brought it home to test out. Taking the advice of De Sailles, I lit up a titanium nail with a torch, then threw a chunk on to watch how the oil vaporized. Instead, the chunk flamed up high enough to have been face-scorching were I really hitting the piece. On top of that, it sent a cloud of stringy, black particles of tar into the air.
Check it out here
As you can see, the results made the High Times panel more appropriate than ever. We're set to have the sample tested next week and will be posting the results here on Mile Highs and Lows.
Which brings up the one thing that all the panelists agreed on: More research is needed. But aside from local cannabis testing companies doing evaluations on samples, large-scale research on a Schedule 1 drug is hard to conduct. Without the support of the federal government, research on a scale broad enough to produce dependable results is nearly impossible. Shackelford did point to language in HB 1043 that allows for cannabis research and testing, but noted that very little progress has been made since then.
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Safety for professionals is another concern. Shackelford, who sits on the Colorado Department of Revenue medical marijuana advisory workgroup, hinted at future regulations for the industry, including specifying the use of closed systems that re-circulate the butane or an industrial vent hood for people doing open extractions. "We will be making sure that the products provided to patients in Colorado don't have any downside or any negative effects," he said.
See the panel discussion here: