A professional extractor examines a sheet of marijuana concentrate known as "shatter" after removing it from the oven at Mahatma Concentrates in Denver on May 1, 2014. (Brennan Linsley, Associated Press file)

Shatter: Potent pot concentrate becomes more prevalent on East Coast

WASHINGTON — As marijuana extracts expand their presence on the East Coast, an especially potent concentrate is appearing on law enforcement radar.

Shatter, a cannabis extract with about 80 percent THC content, is legal for recreational use in states such as Colorado and Washington, sold in medical marijuana dispensaries in other states and is faster-acting and far more easily concealed than marijuana.

On Monday, Loudoun County sheriff’s deputies intercepted a truck that had about $900,000 worth of packaged marijuana near Dulles International Airport. Included in that load was 15 pounds of shatter, in total packaged weight. Shatter, which is sold by the gram because of its potency, retails for about $60 a gram in Colorado, so 10 pounds of shatter would be worth nearly $270,000 — in a state where it is legal. Black-market shatter probably would cost much more.

Shatter is a form of marijuana wax, derived from butane hash oil. Some forms of shatter reportedly have as much as 90 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. That is about five times the potency of unrefined smoked cannabis and more powerful than standard hash oil. It is produced as a thin, hard translucent layer similar to glass, which can shatter if dropped, and it is typically heated and inhaled through a vaporizer rather than smoked.

Kraig Troxell, a Loudoun sheriff’s spokesman, said his department started seeing marijuana wax about a year ago. He said a national cargo transportation company was used to transport the marijuana to Loudoun, and then it was picked up by a driver in a rented truck. The driver was arrested near the Dulles Greenway and Old Ox Road. Troxell did not know where the shipment originated. He said Monday’s seizure was the largest amount they had found so far.

Although the high potency of shatter is troubling to parents and law enforcement officials, marijuana advocates point out that no one has died from ingesting marijuana. “As long as people are educated about the proper dosage,” said Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project, “it hasn’t presented any problem.” He likened the difference between shatter and regular marijuana to the difference between whiskey and beer.

Ry Prichard, a writer and photographer for The Denver Post’s Cannabist blog, noted that hash oil is not new, but shatter is a relatively recent refinement as a result of proliferating medical and recreational cannabis programs.

“Shatter and other concentrated cannabis products,” Prichard said, “give a stronger, more immediate effect and have shown to have great benefits with a variety of medical conditions because of the quick-acting nature of inhalation or vaporization.”

He noted that more than half of the daily sales for dispensaries in Colorado come from concentrates, primarily in edible cannabis products.

Also troubling to authorities is the specter of amateurs attempting to make their own shatter, a process that involves flammable butane gas. Colorado has reported a sharp rise in the number of home explosions caused by failed attempts to make butane hash oil. Opponents of legalized marijuana say that making cannabis more available will lead to more people attempting to create their own more potent oils, such as shatter.

More from concentrates expert Ry Prichard on The Cannabist Show:

“Landlords, homeowners and tenants who want to protect their lives, property and fortunes need to rally against any law that will allow the commercialization of marijuana in our nation’s capital,” landlord and blogger Kimberly Hartke said in a column in The Washington Post in February.

Fox said legalizing and regulating marijuana was the way to protect homes from hash oil extraction fires, “so businesses are doing it, instead of people making it themselves.”

Prichard said legal makers of shatter and other concentrates in Colorado are highly regulated, and those who make it illegally are subject to felony charges.

Prince George’s County police have only recently seen shatter for the first time, seizing 90 grams in October, spokeswoman Julie Parker said. Montgomery County and Fairfax County police said they were aware that it was available locally but could not quantify how often they had encountered it. District of Columbia police said they had not encountered shatter.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment, said that marijuana concentrates are growing in popularity and that its ease of use through portable vaporizers presented new challenges to law enforcement. Michael Shavers, a DEA spokesman, noted that extraction labs’ use of flammable gases posed dangers dramatized by occasional explosions, and that shatter’s size and weight made it easy to transport nationwide. “The fact that it’s available around the country is a concern for law enforcement,” Shavers said.