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I’ve been performing some internet searches that could cause red flags in the office, but on the other hand it’s a story of citizen science and lab safety. There is a growing trend for people to perform solvent extractions at home, but what they’re extracting is tetrahydocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana, and they’re using highly flammable butane or isopropyl alcohol for the extraction.
— Illustration of cannabis plants. Hermann Adolf Köhler (1834 – 1879)
Now there’s a bit of me that’s quite admiring of these home grown chemists, methodologies are available online and improvements are shared. However, in my experience, the venn diagram of people who are strongly pro-pot and people who are anti ‘scary chemicals’ has a pretty large central cross over. That leads to a lot of discussion about how smoking ‘hash oil’, the resinous product of these home extractions, is ‘more pure’. I’m not sure I agree, it’s still a mixture of compounds rather than pure THC, and despite claims of the oil being 90% THC by these home extractors, my survey of the literature suggests something topping out at 65%. And what about the additives in the solvent itself? But I’m not here to niggle over how good these extractions are, rather to make a point about how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
If you or I, or any chemist who wishes to remain insured, were going to perform a solvent extraction using a flammable solvent we’d write out a risk assessment before we started. We’d think not only about how flammable the solvent is, but also about its volatility, density, health risks etc., and then we’d set out how to minimise all of these risks. If, however, you’re simply following a series of instructions you found online, but you don’t really understand it, it might occur to you to heat up your extract to drive the solvent off quicker. That’s a logical, familiar physical process that people understand from daily life if not from a science class. However, it can make home hash-oil labs go boom.
In February, US agency FEMA, issued a report that hash oil lab explosions are increasing in the US. And when the emergency services turn up to an exploded kitchen they could be hard pressed to immediately work out whether the tenants were just after a stronger hit from their hash or making something more serious, like methamphetamine or even bombs.
I love chemistry, and we all perform chemical reactions and solvent extractions in our kitchens every day (hello lovely coffee). But perhaps we ought to remind people of the risks as well, and hope that the people we need to educate are not too stoned to care.