Before the home in a quiet suburban neighborhood north of Toronto suddenly exploded and burned to the ground last month, there really was no way to tell there was a marijuana extraction lab inside involving flammable chemicals.
Neighbors did know that a family lived there. All five of them — including a baby and two toddlers — had to be rushed to the hospital for smoke inhalation and a range of injuries. A video taken by someone outside captures the panicked scene in the street, and endless billows of smoke coming from the house that's almost entirely destroyed.
York Regional Police investigators later announced there was a drug lab in the house used to extract tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from cannabis and that the parents, and another man, have been charged with arson, and marijuana production and trafficking.
Police and fire departments across Canada confront at least a dozen such explosions linked to these extraction labs every year. In many cases, producers live at the home where they set up makeshift labs to create concentrated, highly potent, forms of cannabis, such as "shatter" — the most common extract on the market that can look like hard taffy. It's smoked or vaporized, commonly known as "dabbing."
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Experts in the field say marijuana extractions are the fastest growing part of the Canadian cannabis industry, with many dispensaries claiming it comprises more than 50 percent of total sales. And over the last five years or so, there's been a boom in commercial extraction ventures, especially in British Columbia, selling to individual customers and shops across the country. In Canada, the only legal way to get marijuana is with a prescription directly from one of the companies licensed by the federal government to grow and sell medical cannabis — in either dried bud form, and, as of recently, a low-dosage oil. It's these entrepreneurial extractors — many of whom showcase their wares on social media — who fill a massive demand in the market for extractions, which are preferred by tens of thousands of patients.
But it's these explosions that the more reputable business owners say give them a bad reputation, and unnecessarily puts people's lives at risk. That's why they're eager for the federal government to release a legalization framework that might finally bring everyone out into the open. In the meantime, a number of people working in extractions have come up with their own code of conduct and set of best practices, that they hope the government will one day co-opt and enforce on everyone else.
The owner of Maple Leaf Extractions, a medium-sized company that opened in the Greater Vancouver Area two years ago, told VICE News in an interview he's having a hard time keeping up with the demand, which he says has increased 10-fold over the last year alone. He wished to remain anonymous for fear of possible legal ramifications operating in the grey market, so he's referred to as John.
His business operates out of an unmarked lab, where he and a few other employees produce, package, and distribute approximately 12 ounces of shatter per week. He also says he has volunteers who help out for free.
"Everybody has different ways of producing it, and the timing and equipment is varied," said John, who currently holds a personal license from Health Canada to cultivate cannabis.
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The first step in his process involves filling a stainless steel column with broken down cannabis or "the raw material," as he prefers to call it. "That's so when we're talking about it with business partners out in public, people don't stare at us."
He, and other extractors, agree that using a closed-loop system is the safest and cleanest. It's also more expensive, costing at least thousands of dollars. Basically, that's when the machine is enclosed so that the chosen solvent, which can be butane, propane, or a mix, has no contact with the air in the lab. Closed loop differs from "open blasting," a process prone to explosion that's frequently used in makeshift labs.
"It's unnerving looking around at some of the products out there now," John continued. "There's a lot of people who have very good equipment and not as good morals, and they put a very old nasty product that might look alright, but it's very dirty to inhale."
This is why he says regulations from the federal government are urgently needed as the industry experiences unprecedented growth. "I want the government to come in and ask us how we're doing things, and tell us how to do it. I believe that's the only way to root out these dangerous products and people."
But even without the government's guidance, James, the owner of Roji Concentrates, another BC-based company, says the industry has evolved and improved itself anyway. For him, there is no excuse for unsafe practices.
His facility is larger than Maple Leaf, run out of two large rooms, one as a butane extraction lab with custom-made equipment, and the other he describes as an "organic chemistry lab" filled with glassware, pumps, and chillers where research and development happens.
James, also a patient, says he employs a chemical engineer, and his team is working on new ways to extract and isolate THC and other cannabis aspects.
"In five years, we'll likely have mandated government testing in place, and hopefully the shady characters will be wiped out," he said. "If we get a chance to compete, I'll be able to bring the best damned products possible to the market, and I'll be able to do it in a legal way that serves the entire country."
Yet with his business still in limbo because it's illegal, he has contingency plans in case the federally-licensed producers are the only ones sanctioned to produce and sell extracts in all forms.
"I'm already in talks with a licensed producer for licensing some of my technology going forward. If the government were to totally attack us small producers, the possibility is right there for me to cross over," he said. "I won't be left behind to run back to the hills and continue making a moonshine of sorts. I will be in the new industry, whatever it is."
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But Horatio Delbert, owner of Horatio Delbert Concentrates, a small company in Vancouver, says he does things differently from the others. And, he claims, only his methods will be able to withstand future government scrutiny and health standards. People familiar with his products and the industry often point to him as a leading, yet elusive, innovator.
Delbert — who began producing his own extractions after he started suffering from seizures a few years ago — markets his extractions as "phytoextractions," natural, and require no harmful chemical processes. Instead, he says he uses terpenes, the parts of the cannabis plant that give it its taste and smell, as the solvent.
"After working in this area for decades now, I'm basically an honorary chemist," he said.
He says he doesn't face the same harms or risks with his process, and there's no need for him to take many safety precautions. "I don't have to deal with any 'boom,'" he said.
This process, which he says he's personally created with most of his life's savings, would not have been possible 10 years ago. "That's when I first got to Vancouver, I remember exactly what I was dabbing. It was a ball of isopropanol [a liquid alcohol used as a solvent] barely being held together with cannabinoids ... it was sketch."
He says he moved away from using chemical solvents in his extraction process because of possibly harmful side effects, and also because it was likely Health Canada would not take kindly to the use of harmful, flammable chemicals.
"And I'm so sorry to sound like I'm full of myself, but I've positioned myself in the best way to meet government scrutiny, because I'm not just focusing on meeting the demand that requires the use of butane and other such solvents."
"These other guys, they're not going to make it in the long run."
Ian Dawkins is the executive director of Cannabis Growers Canada (CGC), a BC-based group founded last year that aims to support local cannabis businesses and entrepreneurs, or what it calls the "craft cannabis economy." So far, it has 119 members, which includes growers, dispensaries. Ten of its members are involved in the extraction sector. Dawkins estimates there are at least 250 extraction businesses operating across Canada.
Until the government gets on board, CGC has come up with their own and is urging its members to implement them and self-regulate. And for an industry full of independent-minded people, this will take time and patience, he said in an interview.
"There's a mad scientist vibe with a lot of these guys in a very good way. It's a very ingenious time and we want to support that, but we also want to make sure the public is safe," Dawkins said, adding this goes beyond preventing house fires and explosions.
"There's a real danger that some of these people are using solvents that shouldn't be used for human consumption," he said. "Some aren't purging the products correctly, and we want to make sure people know what they're doing because this is kind of the Wild West right now."
He pointed to one extraction artist who claims to use lemon Pledge as a solvent to give the finished product a lemony taste and smell.
"This is the kind of nonsense we're concerned about," Dawkins continued. "We have a huge part of the cannabis marketplace that's entirely unregulated, there's the potential for real harm or even lung poisoning. I use extracts myself, but with some of these guys, it's scary."
CGC recently put together its code conduct specifically on concentrates extracts. "[A]s we move towards the full legalization of cannabis, it is vital that our community self-declare the high standards and values we already hold, and articulate those clearly and openly to the wider public," it reads.
Photo by Anthony Tuccitto/VICE News
The code says producers must commit to testing all of their products in a CGC-approved analytics facility before they're sold, and only to certified buyers.
It adds that businesses must be compliant with all local zoning laws, "to the great extent reasonable under the current legal system," and they must conduct themselves in such a way that "does not reflect poorly on the wider cannabis business community."
Dawkins and a number of other extractors said that they have been unable to meet with officials from Health Canada or other government departments on the matter.
A spokesperson for Health Canada told VICE News in an email that the department "continues to be concerned about high-potency products such as shatter and wax, as these kind of products can present health risks to Canadians."
"The Government of Canada has committed to legalizing, regulating, and tightly restricting access to recreational marijuana, in order to keep it away from children and to stop criminals from profiting from the illicit trade," the email continued. The department is expected to announce its task force on legalization in the coming weeks.
The Canadian government ought to take an overly cautious approach to regulating the drug at first, since it's always more difficult to add further restrictions than it is to loosen them, Jesseman added. And this could take the form of an outright ban on extracts, or at least placing a legal cap on the amount of THC a product can contain, something that was done in Colorado when it legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use for adults older than 21 in 2012.Rebecca Jesseman, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse (CCSA), said in an interview from the UNGASS in New York, there is a dearth of research on the physical harms associated with consuming the high levels of THC found in concentrates, which can often contain anywhere from 50 to 80 percent THC. And Canada should learn from the ways US states, such as Colorado, have dealt with extractions in a legal market.
In Colorado, marijuana producers are legally required to use closed-loop systems for all extractions. Last year, the state passed a new criminal law that would charge anyone who producers marijuana hash oil at home.
Jesseman added that we can extrapolate from what we do know about the harms of cannabis on the developing brain and see how extracts with high levels of THC might have the same, or worse, effects.
"I think generally speaking, there's a low level of knowledge and understanding when it comes to extracts and edibles," she said. "Canada really has an opportunity to do this and get it as right as we can the first time."
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne