Much like any other area of our culture, the illicit drug market experiences trends in the rise and fall of new products, from crack cocaine to OxyContin to methamphetamine. Drug manufacturers and dealers are continually producing and selling the next big thing to get people hooked – and now, it’s marijuana’s turn.

Since the 1970s, the average THC levels of cannabis have been steadily rising, as measured by analysis of marijuana seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical that elicits hallucinations and the general “high” that marijuana users may feel1. In other words: The more THC, the stronger the weed.

Marijuana growers have selectively bred their plants to contain greater concentrations of THC, offering a more powerful high2. THC levels in cannabis have risen from a mere 0.74% average in 1975, to 8.5% in 2008. Among strains picked as winners in Amsterdam’s annual Cannabis Cup, levels grew from 13.9% to 24% from 1995-2008.

And these days, the plant itself is only one form of marijuana being sold. Hashish, for example, is a tightly compressed form of resin from cannabis. Hashish is typically produced by manually separating parts of the plant or via methods that employ ice water. The process results in a potent product that contains much higher THC levels – reaching a peak of 29.3% in 2006.

But the increasing refinement of illicit cannabis products hasn’t stopped there – other methods can produce hash oil, by far the most powerful and concentrated form of marijuana. Hash oil, also known as honey oil, may offer the most powerful high, but its production requires greater technical skill than sifting through plants or simply rolling a joint. The making of the oil typically involves dangerous solvents such as butane – the same chemical used in lighters3.

The solvents aren’t just a hazard to hash oil users, but to drug producers (and their neighbors). Previously, the infamous concept of the exploding drug lab has been inextricably linked with only homemade meth production – but not anymore. We’ve located over 100 news stories of incidents involving explosions during the production of hash oil, which likely account for a mere fraction of all occurrences. Mistakes made while using flammable solvents can result in anything from minor burns to blasts that have leveled apartment buildings.

The above map contains instances of reported hash oil explosions by local news sources. The points, 0–119, make up 120 instances of hash oil manufacturing incidents across the USA from 2011 to 2014. 

Based on our analysis, these hash oil explosions are largely concentrated along the West Coast, as well as in Colorado – areas that have widely legalized the medical or recreational use of marijuana. California4 specifically bans the production of “butane hash oil” due to its potentially disastrous consequences; similarly, the city of Denver5 is considering a ban on the home production of hash oil using volatile solvents.

Yet as marijuana law reform has risen to prominence in recent years, so has the allure of highly potent hash oil; Google searches for hash oil or its nicknames have more than tripled since 2004. And these searches have been the most frequent in states with the least restrictions on marijuana use, such as Washington and Colorado. As public awareness of marijuana is on the rise, interest in hash oil is blowing up – and unfortunately, so are the labs.

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Sources:

1. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana

2. http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-01/lack-balance-not-thc-makes-pot-health-risk

3. http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-hash-oil-labs-20140922-story.html

4. http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/a-little-dab-could-doom-ya/Content?oid=3518696

5. http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local-news/marijuana/restricting-hash-oil-production-in-denver-city-council-considering-new-bill-tuesday

6. http://analytical360.com/testresults

7. http://www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/pubs37/37035/national.htm#Figure1