James runs his hand along a shelf full of expensive, glistening glass water pipes before grabbing a small, clear one. It has a titanium disk where the bowl is supposed to be. The lanky, droopy-eyed art gallery owner sets it on a table next to a small blowtorch and twists the cap off a cylindrical rubber container. Using a pencil-like, stainless-steel utensil, he scoops out a small amount of a crumbly mustard-yellow substance that looks like Play-Doh.
He uses the torch to scorch the titanium disk until it's red-hot and then drops the yellow pebble onto it. He quickly hands the pipe to me, and I inhale a stream of white vapor, hold it in for three seconds, and then cough hard. My eyelids flutter, my hands tingle, and my cheeks flush. I feel as if I'm shooting through outer space at warp speed.
I slouch in a chair for the next hour and every few minutes mutter incoherent sentences. Eventually, I'm able to stand, but for about four hours after I leave James' cramped North Miami Beach pad, misfiring neurons muddle my cerebral cortex.
The experience inside James' apartment might sound like the beginning of a public service announcement about huffing household cleaning agents, but in fact I had become part of the hottest trend in good old-fashioned weed culture. I'd inhaled fumes of Blue Dream wax, a strain of butane hash oil, the most potent form of cannabis on the planet.
When manufactured properly, BHO, as it is commonly known, is packed with galactic levels of tetrahydrocannabinol — THC — the chemical compound in marijuana that has the greatest effect on the brain. Nicknamed "dabs" and "wax," the oil has attracted legions of cannabis users. "This gets you as high as the first time you smoked pot even though you have been smoking pot for years," insists James, whose name New Times agreed to change for this story to protect his standing in the arts community. "As far as marketing, this stuff markets itself."
In the past 12 months, BHO use has exploded across Florida and the rest of the nation. Tens of thousands of people are uploading videos to YouTube, Instagram, and Vine of themselves making and smoking the oil. Rap artists such as B-Real, Action Bronson, Wiz Khalifa, and Juicy J are spreading the BHO gospel, and even stodgy mainstream media outlets such as the Atlantic have published basic guides to "dabbing."
Though dabbers believe BHO is the future of cannabis consumption, the movement could get derailed by its own popularity. From Southern California to Florida's west coast, dozens of novices have attempted to manufacture it, with disastrous results. These wannabe cooks have blown themselves up — knocking down walls, terrifying neighbors, and befuddling cops, who have mistaken the glass, steel, and aluminum tubes and explosive materials used in manufacturing BHO for bomb-making paraphernalia.
Just three months ago, two men in their early 20s splintered an efficiency apartment in St. Petersburg, the first such incident reported in the Sunshine State.
"It's no joke," says St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue arson investigator Lt. Joel Granata. "The explosion almost killed both of them. This butane hash oil is nothing to play with."
Marijuana smokers have been making hash oil using solvents such as butane or ethyl alcohol since the 1960s. Back then, the extract was dubbed "red oil," "jelly-butane hash," and "honey oil," the last a slang term also used for modern-day BHO. "Butane extraction has been done for decades by only select, knowledgeable hash makers," says Bobby Black, a senior editor at High Times magazine. "It wasn't widespread or produced on a large scale."
Though using butane might sound hazardous, it is a relatively clean solvent. Food manufacturers have always employed it to make vanilla, orange, mint, coconut, and other extracts.
To produce BHO, the process is simple: An empty tube, usually made of aluminum, stainless steel, or glass, is packed with pot leaves. The tube is capped on one end with a coffee filter, and on the other, there's a rubber stopper through which the butane is injected. The low temperature of the liquid butane crystallizes cannabis resins found in hairlike appendages that contain potent levels of THC called "trichomes." As the butane passes through the marijuana, it strips the resin into the solvent, which exits into a Pyrex dish.
Other solvents commonly used are hexane, isopropyl alcohol, ethanol, and frozen CO2 (dry ice). "Of all the hash techniques, butane is the fastest and produces the most potency," Black says. "You just pack a tube, shoot your butane through it, and a few minutes later, you have your product."
Solvent-based extracts remained on the fringes of pot culture until 2005, when a Vancouver man calling himself "BudderKing" introduced his own brand of concentrate — "Budder" — during a medical marijuana conference. According to a 2005 article in the magazine Cannabis Culture, Vancouver-based chemist and plant analyst Dr. Paul Hornby, who runs a company that tests marijuana, proclaimed, "Budder is the cleanest, most potent cannabis product I've ever tested."
BudderKing spread his technique on cannabis message boards and in High Times. Cultivators in California, Washington, and Colorado — states where voters legalized marijuana for medical use in 1996, 1998, and 2000, respectively — began making Budder to sell to dispensaries.
Daniel de Sailles, a supermellow dude with a bald dome and a scruffy ginger goatee who co-owns Top Shelf Extracts, a Colorado firm specializing in marijuana concentrates, says he first tried Budder in 2008. A customer gave him a small amount to sample while he was working for a dispensary in his hometown of Los Angeles. "I had never seen anything like it," he says. "It was golden and looked like wax." He loved it instantly. "I was impressed," de Sailles says, "not just with its potency, but also by how clean and tasty it was."
De Sailles soon began searching for other hash oil makers. He wanted to sell it at two dispensaries he managed. "They ended up teaching me how to make it myself," he says. A year later, he moved to Denver and began working as a consultant for a dispensary called Broadway Wellness. That place sold an average of $120,000 worth of wax a week, he says. "I came out to Colorado, started making hash oil for them, and it just really took off," he says. "Back then it was crazy. The wholesale price for a gram of Budder was $30 to $40."
One of the first Coloradans to sample de Sailles' wax was Ry Prichard, a Denver-based cannabis reviewer. "Dan came out here and brought the extract culture," Prichard says. "It took a while to get a foothold." He began seeing more people doing BHO in 2012 during the second High Times Medical Cannabis Cup in Colorado. "To me, concentrates are the future of cannabis," he says. "When I consume a clean concentrate, there is no plant matter, no carcinogens, and no smell."
Although Colorado voters approved medical marijuana in 2000, the legislature didn't legalize hash oil production until last year. That was around the time marijuana advocates in the state were pushing a ballot measure to legalize pot for recreational use. It passed by an overwhelming majority last November, allowing Colorado to join Washington as states where pot is completely legal.
Hash oil has quickly taken over Colorado's serious weed culture, Prichard asserts. "Just today I saw five articles on Facebook proclaiming, 'Is this the new crack?' "
The state has 772 dispensaries and places that manufacture edibles and oil, according to the Department of Revenue. Last year, Colorado's marijuana industry generated $219 million, about $6 million of which was paid in tax. Approximately one-third of the revenue comes from the sale of marijuana concentrates.
"You are starting to see more hash oil manufacturers pop up since they can now make it in a reasonably safe manner," Prichard explains. "The process has become much more industrialized, and the financial windfall is great for those who know the keys to extraction."
High Times' Black points out no one submitted hash oil samples for a hash competition during the magazine's inaugural Medical Cannabis Cup in Colorado five years ago. "Now we got almost 40 submissions," he says. "For our December issue, I'm doing a big feature about a behind-the-scenes tour of Denver's two biggest BHO makers."
In July, de Sailles helped organize the state's first festival celebrating dabs. "It was called the 710 Festival," he says. "When you turn '710' upside down, it spells 'oil.' We had 600 people come out and had to turn others away because we were at capacity."
Rappers, pop culture's authoritative voices on all things ganja, have embraced wax. During an April 23 appearance on Sirius XM radio station Shade 45, Wiz Khalifa briefed listeners on BHO. "It has been around for a minute," he explained. "People are now just getting their hands on it because they know how to make it right. It is just really more potent as far as the THC. It's no leaves, none of that shit."
In early August, B-Real of Cypress Hill posted a short video on YouTube showing a step-by-step process of doing dabs with an oil rig, titled "How to Dab With Dr. Greenthumb." The same month, Juicy J dropped his single "Wax," in which he raps about "blowin' hash, two, three hits put you on your ass" and how "that wax got me turnt up, that shit just the THC."
For some reason, BHO users have become enamored with buying elaborate, visually stunning pipes that retail for thousands of dollars. For instance, Spider, a $20,000 work by Oregon-based artists Ryan Harris and Darby Holm, looks like a sculpture hanging from a glass web. With the flick of a switch, Spider descends a rope to reveal a sophisticated pipe with a water bowl in the arachnid's abdomen and a mouthpiece on its back end. A three-foot pipe shaped like a machine gun recently sold for $9,000.
Another booming BHO tool is the handheld portable vaporizer, which allows users to toke discreetly in public. "That business is just going to get bigger," Prichard says.
The fact that dabs is illegal in Florida hasn't stopped entrepreneurs from profiting. The Atmos Raw, a handheld oil vaporizer ranked number one among 15 models by High Times this past March 27, is made in Davie. The manufacturer, Atmos Technology, operates from a warehouse about a half-mile from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
During a Tuesday afternoon in late September, Atmos' general manager, Patty Oquedo, was at the front desk helping two customers who were buying a couple of vaporizer pens and dabbers, the stainless-steel, pencil-like utensils used to scoop wax. The walls of the lobby were lined with at least a dozen vaporizer models. The company also makes disposable vaporizers and pens for tobacco companies such as Zig-Zag.
Oquedo and Atmos' president, Charly Benassayag, declined to comment for this article. "We can't be associated with what you are writing about," Oquedo said. "Our products are for tobacco only."
Mario, a tall graphic artist with a beard that would shame Paul Bunyan, slides his hands into a pair of black latex gloves and digs his fingers into a blue glass bowl containing a savory pot salad of OG Kush, Grand Daddy Purp, and Girl Scout cookies. On a Tuesday morning in early September, the onetime New York resident hunches over his wooden coffee table while meticulously crushing green, orange, and purple buds mixed with leaves and stems.
"This is roughly 60 grams of shake and popcorn buds from different strains grown outdoors in California," Mario says. "I'm doing this run for some friends who had some leftovers. Right now I am breaking up the smaller buds so everything is the same consistency."
Mario is a "chef," or someone who makes BHO. He's been "blasting" (making the oil) for almost two years. Across the nation, except in Colorado, hundreds of chefs such as Mario risk arrest for operating drug labs. Mario clandestinely cooks weekday mornings, when most of his neighbors are at work and their children in school.
Profit makes it worth taking the chance. In California and Colorado, a gram of dabs runs $25 to $30, but dealers in Miami charge $50 to $80 for the same amount.
Mario stuffs the weed into an aluminum tube and walks onto the front patio, enclosed by a six-foot-high wooden fence.
He injects butane into the tube, and a few seconds later, a clear yellowish liquid begins to drip onto the pan as two portable fans circulate air around the patio. "I just make it for myself and my friends," he says. "I'm not a large-scale operation — certainly not high-tech."
Mario has certainly perfected his method since trying wax for the first time in the summer of 2011. "A friend made some of the shittiest oil ever," he recalls. "At the time, neither of us knew the right process of extracting all the butane."
Mario spent the next three months learning from chefs in California, Colorado, and Washington. "I sought people who had been making it for a while and bothered the shit out of them," he says. "They were willing to help me out and share their knowledge."
Another Miami oil chef, Marley, a heavyset, sandy-blond man in his late 20s, began dabbing in 2010. He started making hash oil about nine months ago. "There are so many dab enthusiasts on Instagram. I would just go on people's [images] and read what they were posting," he says. "I do hashtag searches for '#dabs,' '#dabsofinstagram,' and '#dabbersdaily.' I even found pointers with '#vacuumpump.' "
Since they began making their own dabs, Mario and Marley rarely smoke trees now. "A heavy smoker like me is packing bowl after bowl," Marley says. "I'll do one dab and I'm high for four hours, at least."
Adds Mario, who has used marijuana since age 14: "For me, wax is a cleaner, healthier product. There is no leaf matter, which still produces tar. "
On a quiet residential street about a half-block from St. Petersburg High School, rain pelted the red-brick exterior of a garage converted into a one-bedroom apartment. Inside, Antonio Cortes and Robert Belize stood over an electric kitchen stove. Belize's girlfriend chilled in the bedroom. One of the 22-year-old men was attempting to make hash oil using low-grade hardware-store butane to pour the hash liquid into a Pyrex dish sitting on a hot burner.
Suddenly, the room went white. A thunderous explosion blew out the windows as two interior walls buckled. Cortes and Belize ran through the open front door, their bodies covered in burns.
Justin Washington, a 17-year-old junior at St. Petersburg High, was in a house next door. "It was a very loud boom," Washington recalls. "It sounded like a car's gas tank exploded."
A few minutes later, two fire trucks and a team of firefighters in hazmat suits rushed through the narrow alley as smoke billowed from the doorway. While paramedics tended to Cortes and Belize, who sustained first- and second-degree burns on their arms, legs, and upper torsos, St. Petersburg deputy fire marshal Lt. Joel Granata found no evidence of a fire.
A 20-year fire veteran and arson investigator with a granite chin and blue eyes, Granata says the 360-square-foot apartment looked like someone had detonated a concussion bomb. "We focused on the kitchen," he recalls. "The top of the stove had been blown off, and the burners were in disarray. There was also a big hole in the ceiling right above the stove."
Initially, no one talked. "None of them were telling us the truth," Granata says. "I found some marijuana buds inside a mug next to the stove. I then found empty cans of butane in the garbage and on the floor."
This has got to be drug-related, Granata thought. Soon, Belize's girlfriend cracked. "She told us they were watching a video on YouTube on how to make hashish oil," he says. "We found a glass extractor and other empty cans in a nearby dumpster. All the pieces of the puzzle fell into place."
Cortes and Belize, who have been criminally charged with manufacturing hash oil, could not be located for comment. Their catastrophic attempt was the first documented BHO explosion in Florida.
The incident highlights a problem that's spreading across the country. As BHO use has increased in the United States, so has the number of reckless manufacturers. Since January, at least a dozen explosions have been reported in California, Michigan, Oregon, and Oklahoma. In February, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued an alert about the dangers of BHO. "Butane is highly explosive, colorless, odorless, and heavier than air and therefore can travel along the floor until it encounters an ignition source," the warning declared. "Initial explosions can lead to secondary explosions and fires. In states with legalized use and availability of medical marijuana, these incidents appear to be increasing."
Amy Roderick, a spokesperson for the San Diego office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, says there have been six BHO explosions in the city since November 2012. One of the worst cases occurred this past January 30, when a 22-year-old lit a cigarette in a guest room at the Heritage Inn Sea World, where he was allegedly extracting hash oil. According to one witness, the building shook violently and then there was a loud explosion. The BHO cook was transported to a nearby hospital in critical condition. Two other people in the room were also injured.
Roderick says the second-floor hotel room resembled a war zone. "The damage was pretty bad," she recounts. "The kitchen looked like someone threw a grenade in there."
The suspect survived and has been charged with manufacturing hash. Even though medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, the state's medical cannabis laws do not allow the manufacturing of hash oil. "It's considered much like a meth lab," Roderick says, "because they are using chemicals."
Frank Lyga, a Los Angeles Police Department detective, encountered his first BHO operation five years ago. "I went to a location where I found bags of cultivated marijuana that had been ground up," he says. "There were 1,000 butane cans in the backyard. The house was being used to manufacture honey oil."
Since then, Lyga has investigated 40 BHO labs, including 11 that have exploded. In one incident, a man was blasting inside the lavatory of a motel room. "The individual was using just one can of butane," Lyga says. "The door flew about 85 feet, and the windows blew out. He suffered severe burns on his face, hands, arms, and chest."
In another recent case, three people making hash oil became engulfed in flames from a spark. "Two have recovered and gone to rehab for burns on 90 percent of their bodies," Lyga says. "The third person is still in an induced coma."
In San Diego, DEA agents find BHO labs at 75 percent of the grow operations the agency shuts down."This is the new drug trend," Roderick says. "If someone is growing marijuana indoors or outdoors, we are finding they are also extracting hash oil."
Some people are just stupid, she adds. "In the Sea World case, you had a guy sitting in there extracting for four, five hours," Roderick says. "He had about 12 cases of butane in there. He told everyone at the scene he lit a cigarette."
Colorado hasn't experienced the volume of BHO explosions reported in other states because the practice is licensed like any other business. "We have to file manifests with the government, telling them how much trim we are receiving and how much is being processed into oil," de Sailles of Top Shelf Extracts says. "Everything is regulated here, which is why you don't have garages exploding out here."
When Lake Worth state Sen. Jeff Clemens and Plantation state Rep. Katie Edwards head back to Tallahassee in February for the 2014 legislative session, the duo plans to reignite a push to make Florida the 21st state to approve medical marijuana. Clemens and Edwards introduced the Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Act earlier this year, but it failed to even get a committee hearing. The measure is named for Jordan, a Melbourne resident who has been using marijuana to alleviate the debilitating symptoms of Lou Gehrig's disease for a quarter-century.
The Palm Beach and Broward legislators are undeterred. "We knew the bill was a long shot," Edwards says. "We recognized, however, that public sentiment about medicinal cannabis has changed dramatically."
Indeed, butane hash oil is gaining popularity at a time when Americans' opposition to marijuana has softened. In May, a Fox News poll found nine of ten registered voters believe marijuana should be legal if prescribed by a physician.
In the past five months, New Hampshire and Illinois have legalized medical marijuana, joining 18 other states and Washington, D.C.
In Florida, the advocacy group People United for Medical Marijuana recently released a poll that shows seven in ten Florida voters support a constitutional amendment legalizing cannabis for medicinal purposes. The poll, conducted by Hamilton Campaigns, a firm used by Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, surveyed 600 registered voters between January 30 and February 3. An eye-popping 81 percent of respondents said doctors should be able to recommend marijuana to patients without fear of arrest or loss of license. Only 14 percent were opposed. Asked if marijuana should be regulated and taxed like alcohol and cigarettes, 68 percent said yes and 27 percent opposed the idea.
A grassroots effort to place medical marijuana on the 2014 ballot has built momentum thanks to the involvement of Tampa-area attorney John Morgan, a major fundraiser for President Barack Obama who is pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the petition drive. So far, he's provided about $150,000 of the $216,000 raised.
As the legalization debate grows, pot advocates need to address BHO. Florida doesn't want to be like California, where it's illegal to produce but dispensaries sell it all day. The Sunshine State should look to Colorado.
"Colorado is leaps and bounds ahead of any state — really the world," says Prichard, the Denver-based cannabis reviewer. "We've had only a few incidents with BHO explosions because people can go to a dispensary and buy hash oil at a reasonable price."
Until BHO is legalized in Florida, Prichard cautions users about producing it. "They are making it in an unsafe, unregulated environment," he says. "They are risking their lives and their property not knowing what the hell they are doing."
Jacob Katel and Jess Swanson contributed to this article.