Either way you look at it, the cannabis concentrate market is poised to expand in California through the state’s new medical marijuana rules and a potential recreational market. Pictured: Packaged for labeling shatter hash made using "BHO" butane hash oil extraction on March 22, 2013. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

Concentrated: A new era for cannabis extracts in California

‘You don’t like it. You love it’: Meet the makers of California’s marijuana concentrates, the process, concerns and legal barriers involved

When thinking of marijuana concentrates like hash and dabs, visions of exploding makeshift labs, piles of charred butane cannisters and burn wounds may come to mind for some.

For others, cannabis concentrates represent a diverse subculture within the marijuana community that can provide medical benefits to patients that can’t be obtained through smoking flowers or eating certain edibles.

Either way you look at it, the cannabis concentrate market is poised to expand in California through the state’s new medical marijuana rules and a potential recreational market. And local manufacturers are embracing what they say are much-needed rules.

“It can be made properly and safely, but in regulated facilities,” said Aidan Carroll, an Arcata-based medical marijuana hash maker. “If there are facilities, they need to be regulated, explosion proof, sanitary, all nine yards that any lab facility has to go through.”

THE ENTOURAGE EFFECT

While butane hash oil may seem to get the most attention due to the disastrous and explosive outcomes from poor lab setups, it’s only one method of creating cannabis concentrates.

Volatile chemicals like butane are used to extract the crystals on marijuana flowers, which contain the cannabinoids like the psychoactive THC and non-psychoactive cannabidiol, known as CBD. But there are other non-volatile methods that use dry ice, ice baths, water, and pressure to extract these crystals. Some of these methods have been used for several centuries.

Bryan Willkomm, general manager of the Arcata medical marijuana dispensary Humboldt Patient Resource Center, said each extraction process can ultimately change the medical effects and chemical makeup of a cannabis product. Willkomm said that butane hash oil if consumed raw has its own unique benefits such as suppressing tumor growth, dealing with muscle spasms and treating post-traumatic stress disorder. But if it’s smoked, butane hash oil works as a pain reliever.

Chris Conrad, a cannabis legal expert and author of “The Newbies Guide to Cannabis & The Industry,” said the type of extraction can also produce what is commonly known as an “entourage effect” or “ensemble effect.”

“There is a combination of 100 plus molecules in marijuana that have this medical effect depending on how they interact with each other and the human body,” he said. “That’s what a lot of people think is so great about cannabis.”

However, Conrad noted that extracts can also filter out different molecules, thereby lessening this entourage effect.

LEGAL BARRIERS

The different types of marijuana extraction can also have legal implications.

Under California law, it’s legal for medical marijuana patients to purchase butane hash oil, but the process of making the oil is illegal, according to Conrad.

“If you gather a bunch of lavender and make a butane extraction and make lavender essential oils, that would be legal,” Conrad said. “If you use it to make medical marijuana oil, it’s illegal.”

But the 2008 California Supreme Court case People v. Bergen clarified that other methods of cannabis manufacturing that don’t use volatile chemicals like butane are allowable under the law, Conrad said.

“They said that using water and silk screens is mechanical extraction and making edibles with butter is legal,” Conrad said. “The reasoning for that is the statute was to stop people from blowing up their houses.”

After the passage of the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act by the California Legislature last year, everything has changed.

The new law allows people to open marijuana manufacturing facilities, including for butane hash oil, if they can adhere to strict permitting requirements.

Humboldt County Cannabis Services Division Senior Planner Steve Lazar said that the state rules are still being flushed out and should be in place by 2018.

As the county is also permitting marijuana manufacturing, Lazar said his department will be applying the same standards to manufacturing facilities as they do with other extraction operations such as for herbal oils.

“Why that would be different for cannabis is up for debate,” Lazar said. “In the interim, we’re willing to accept practical conventional methods that apply to other industries.”

Butane operations would have to include blast-proof rooms and fire walls, which Lazar said may result in more people using less expensive, non-volatile methods of extraction.

Lazar said that 170 people have registered their intent with the county to open these non-volatile manufacturing businesses, with another 79 intending to open volatile manufacturing businesses.

Willkomm said he welcomes the new regulations as they will allow for safer manufacturing and more research. If his dispensary couldn’t provide concentrates, Willkomm said some patients have told him they’d either make it themselves or buy it off the black market.

“Through research there may be better extractions, but when you have to do everything hidden, you don’t get to benefit from that shared knowledge like a university would,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

BUTANE CONCERNS

In Humboldt County, 18 people have filed business applications to start a marijuana manufacturing business and many more have expressed interest in opening one, according to Lazar.

The county is about to approve two facilities in Redcrest and Garberville, though Lazar said they still have to send notice to nearby residents.

But one proposed business in Willow Creek is generating concern among nearby residents. Mercer Fraser company Chief Executive Officer Justin Zabel filed an application with the county in August to open a 5,000-square-foot marijuana manufacturing facility that would use both volatile and non-volatile extraction processes. The facility would be located next to Mercer Fraser’s existing gravel extraction plant on State Route 96, with Zabel stating in his application that the facility would not have a negative impact to the environment.

Attempts to reach Zabel on Thursday and Friday were not returned.

But Willow Creek resident Lisa Roberts disagrees. She lives across from the proposed site of Zabel’s manufacturing business on the opposite side of the Trinity River. Roberts and other local residents are concerned about chemicals from the facility possibly leaking into the river.

“That is a concern for me in that you’re now allowing industrial uses so close to the river there and so close to where people boat, fish and swim,” Roberts said.

There are also concerns about what would happen if the facility should explode or catch fire. Roberts said that not much is known about the project at this point, but she’s hoping that will change in the near future.

“We’re hoping to get some dialogue with Mercer Fraser and the county,” she said.

Lazar said Zabel’s application is far from being approved as they are requesting a zoning change and a General Plan amendment. Then there is the community outcry to address, which will be considered when the Planning Commission reviews the application.

“The community out there is a lot more mobilized,” Lazar said.

Butane hash oil operations have been a major concern for Eureka. The city reports that it has experienced 10 hash lab explosions since 2012 that have endangered nearby residents and businesses. To address this issue, the Eureka City Council advanced an ordinance on Tuesday that will make it unlawful for honey butane oil to be sold by a business that has not obtained a permit from the city.

MEET THE MAKERS

Carroll specializes in making ice water hash from marijuana produced by Emerald Family Farms. His work was recognized in 2015 when he won first place for “Best Ice Water Hash” at the Emerald Cannabis Cup in Sonoma County in 2015.

Carroll’s method uses temperature to break off the cannabis crystals from the flowers and then filters them using a variety of silk mesh bags. The risks of using these methods are they are more expensive, more difficult to make and require more care to keep the product clean and contaminant-free throughout.

“There is no room for dirt, contaminants and dust,” Carroll said.

But there’s also no risk of an unexpected explosion.

“There is no danger in this at all. You might get hypothermia if you fell in the water,” Carroll said with a laugh.

Others like Myles Moscato of Palo Verde Farms in Southern Humboldt don’t make concentrates that are smokeable. Moscato makes CBD tinctures, which he creates by soaking dried marijuana flowers in food-grade alcohol. On top of not having to smoke it, the tinctures can help with mental well-being, Moscato said, which can in turn aid physical recovery.

“A lot of this is mental,” Moscato said. “We know our bodies can heal themselves. I think it’s bigger than we can grasp at the moment.”

But Moscato’s father Mark Switzer said that they are having difficulties obtaining a county permit due to zoning issues relating to having flammable alcohol in their business.

“I haven’t heard about anyone blowing up making tinctures,” he said.

Whether it’s making hash, wax, shatter, tinctures, topicals, rosin, kief, carbon dioxide oils, or edibles, Carroll said it’s about making the highest quality and cleanest product possible — a fascination that he said can get pretty nerdy.

“You don’t like it. You love it,” Carroll said. “The goal is to make it the most flavorful, meltiest, watery, drippiest hash when you’re dabbing it.”

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

This story was first published on Times-Standard.com