SEATTLE - When police were called to a Bellevue apartment to check out apparent marijuana manufacturing in October 2013, an officer smelled butane and pot and saw jars of green leaves.
The people inside the apartment were uncooperative, only showing their medical marijuana cards and saying they supplied a dispensary. And with small grows permitted under medical pot laws and no warrant, the cop left the guys alone.
Not three weeks later, an explosion rocked the apartment complex that would force women to jump from their burning units and ultimately killed 87-year-old resident and former Bellevue Mayor Nan Campbell.
After the Nov. 5, 2013, fire, investigators determined the fire came from that same apartment the cop had visited earlier.
A criminal probe revealed the three men inside were manufacturing hash oil, a highly-concentrated and viscous byproduct of marijuana often extracted with butane. It takes only a little of the oil to get people high. It's illegal to produce without a license under Initiative 502 laws, but that hasn't stopped do-it-yourselfers from building their own clandestine labs, which has led to tragedy in several cases throughout Washington from Puyallup to Mount Vernon.
Until the operation takes a tragic turn, authorities say there are few ways to find and bust the illegal labs. Without new rules from the Legislature, no one knows how to resolve the holes in the current state law.
"Unfortunately these things don't come to our attention until there's an explosion or fire," said Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, whose office has recently prosecuted six hash oil production cases. "These are unlicensed amateurs involved in a highly volatile process."
Cases include, but aren't limited to, the following:
Jan. 1, 2014: An explosion at a Kirkland apartment building blew out windows and expelled debris 25 feet from the building. The blast pushed walls out six to 10 inches and firefighters condemned parts of the building. One tenant told authorities she had previously reported drug activity at the site of the explosion.
Jan. 7, 2014: One apartment exploded in the Mount Baker neighborhood of Seattle within 500 feet of Franklin High School. It was next to a flower shop.
March 11, 2014: An explosion at a Lake City location shattered windows and moved a wall 3 inches.
May 20, 2014: Several small explosions occurred at a Puyallup hash oil lab at a household whose residents included a 14-month-old. Reports from first responders read: "(B)utane canisters flung out from the explosion were still falling from the sky as far as 50 yards away from the building." No one was injured, but a car was burned and a tricycle melted at the home. Federal charging documents say the two men allegedly involved, Kevin Weeks and Seth Cleek, continued to deliver marijuana-infused products to medical marijuana dispensaries for weeks after the explosions.
Nov. 25, 2014: A fire caused at the site of an extensive hash oil lab destroyed a home in the Bitter Lake area of Seattle. Residents escaped the home uninjured, but the home was estimated a total loss.
HASH OIL 101
Hash oil, also known as shatter or butane honey oil (BHO), is extracted from marijuana leaves and is several times more potent than smoking unadulterated marijuana.
The product is consumed through dabbing, which employs a water pipe; vaporization with a vape pen; or mixed into edible products. It's known as an efficient way to get high, using a small amount of product with a greater impact than any other cannabis derivative.
"The extraction culture has really started taking off," said Brandon Hamilton, owner of WAM Oil, a Seattle hash oil manufacturer that supplies medical marijuana dispensaries. "When people can make BHO at home with cheap equipment, it's something more people are gonna do."
Hamilton says it's attractive among users because of its potency and because it can be consumed with discreet vape pens.
"People don't even recognize you're smoking cannabis," he said.
Dabbing is especially popular among 21- to 32-year-olds, he added, noting that younger consumers are less picky and open to buying from clandestine producers who might offer product of lesser quality than that of licensed pros.
"You really don't care about things like that, you just want to have fun," Hamilton said of younger users.
In short, home hash oil cooks use butane to extract the "honey" from the cannabis leaves. The process is so volatile that a spark from a refrigerator plugin can ignite the butane gas and blow a house off its foundation, as it has in the Mount Baker neighborhood of Seattle.
"It's one of those things that it works great until it doesn't," Bellevue Police Officer Seth Tyler said. "... Even turning on a light switch is enough to trigger an explosion in these labs."
But it's worth the risk to people who want to turn a buck.
"What we're seeing with hash oil is a number of people ... taking it upon themselves to produce a substance which will allow them to make quick, easy money at risk to themselves and others," Seattle police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said.
Hamilton and his small staff at WAM Oil produce hash oil legally for medical marijuana. The company doesn't yet have its I-502 license to sell recreational products, but Hamilton hopes to obtain one.
WAM Oil extracts its product with carbon dioxide, which is known to be a safer process than the butane extraction. The company's products also reach up to 98 percent THC concentration.
Even with his efforts, Hamilton knows that people will continue to make BHO at home.
"When people can make BHO at home with cheap equipment, it's something more people are gonna do," he said. "Is it the safe way to do it? No. But that isn't going to stop anybody."
Several federal charges were filed in July against people connected to hash oil labs, including the three people accused of causing the Bellevue fire: 32-year-old David Richard Schultz II, 28-year-old Daniel James Strycharske and 31-year-old Jesse D. Kaplan.
The trio is charged with endangering human life while manufacturing controlled substances, maintaining a drug-involved premises and manufacturing hash oil and marijuana -- of course, marijuana possession and production are still illegal under federal law.
Former federal prosecutor Jenny Durkan called hash oil production an "ongoing threat" and "incredibly destructive" at the time the charges were filed.
Though people affiliated with hash oil labs are being prosecuted -- including those connected to the explosions in Kirkland, Mount Baker and Puyallup -- none of the federal charges came down in each case until a home exploded.
Both medical and recreational marijuana laws lack clarity for law enforcement, some local authorities say.
Under I-502, people are allowed to possess 16 ounces of infused products, including those containing BHO. People may also posses 72 ounces of marijuana in liquid form.
People can bring their legally bought ounce of marijuana bud home and make their own hash oil, Whitcomb said, but not illegally grown or illegally bought pot.
Producing and selling the substance without being licensed and certified, however, remains illegal, said Mikhail Carpenter, spokesman with the state Liquor Control Board.
The board wouldn't issue a license to people extracting BHO in their homes, he added.
But, the three people connected to the Bellevue explosion brandished their medical marijuana cards when an officer paid them a visit before the fire. State medical marijuana laws only allow a patient with a proper medical card to use "medicinal use" as a defense against criminal charges, said Donn Moyer of the state Department of Health.
Medical marijuana dispersaries or storefronts for collectives remain part of a gray area of Washington's medical marijuana laws. The lack of clarity on what is and isn't legal for medical collectives has allowed them to become ubiquitous in the state.
Dave Rodriguez, executive director of the federal Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, says I-502 doesn't include a clear set of consequences for lawbreakers.
A recent threat assessment from the program says that firmer laws must be enacted to dissuade unlicensed BHO producers from cooking away at home.
"You need to give law enforcement the authority to go after these labs," Rodriguez said. "(Prosecutions) won't happen until the law is specifically cleared up that makes these types of activities illegal."
The threat report also indicated that the passage of I-502 seemed to fuel the proliferation of home BHO labs, though there are no numbers to back that up because such activities are not yet centrally tracked.
"It's a relatively new phenomenon," Rodriguez said. "The instances so far (of BHO labs) compared to the amount of illegal grows out there is few and far between, but by far it's the most dangerous thing they can be doing right now."
EARLY IN THE EVOLUTION
Tyler says there is little existing case law to guide police and prosecutors on how to prosecute hash oil labs.
"As that case law develops, the expectations will become more clear," he said.
He also said the Legislature will likely make fixes to the law to address public safety concerns - though he declined to say what might help officers in the field.
"We enforce the laws as they exist," Tyler said. "We don't influence policy or take sides."
The Bellevue Police Department has a legal adviser who keeps officers updated on new laws and briefs the force on the new marijuana laws, Tyler said.
However, a portion of the investigative file on the Bellevue apartment explosion illuminates some possible confusion in the instance of the drug activity reported weeks before the explosion, even among narcotics officers.
If you have lots of time on your hands, view the file here.
A report written by Bellevue Police Det. Steve Hoover, the lead investigator in the fire case, reads:
"I was told by initial units at the scene that there was known drug activity in unit KK 202. Lt. M. Jordon of the Eastside Narcotics Task Force came out to the scene to assist with the investigation. ...
"I asked Lt. Jordon if making hash was illegal and he said he didn't know. He said possession of marijuana was no longer illegal and the medical marijuana laws allow patients to manufacture and possess certain amounts of marijuana. He said hash is a byproduct of marijuana and he doesn't know if manufacturing hash would then be illegal."
But Tyler said the officer who investigated the drug activity did all he could do short of violating the tenants' civil liberties.
"There's very few reasons that we can go into a residence without a warrant. We'd have to have consent, exigent circumstances, we'd have to have a warrant. We didn't have any of these things when we went to investigate," he said, adding there wasn't sufficient probable cause to obtain a warrant. "At that point the patrol officers did a good job of documenting what they saw and documenting who they talked to, but they didn't have anything else at that point that would have allowed us to go into that residence any farther."
Hamilton hopes there will be regulation and enforcement of unlicensed hash oil production.
"It's won't get any worse than (it is)," he said. "There has been danger to the public."
But he is also concerned about overregulation that could hamper legal business -- as an example, he mentions the state Liquor Control Board's 11th-hour tightening of edibles rules to reduce their appeal to children.
It's that kind of backpedaling and law-tweaking, Hamilton says, that is causing other would-be pot entrepreneurs to wait to open shop until I-502 stabilizes with clear expectations.
But on the law enforcement front, the federal charges filed in the summer are a sign that prosecutors are paying attention to the clandestine labs and could provide a framework for future criminal cases.
"I'm glad that the Department of Justice has taken this stance," Rodriguez said, adding that he was "delightfully surprised" by the charging decisions. "... The message is out there: If you're going to engage in this type of manufacturing ... by people operating outside the state law, they're going to go after you."
Rodriguez likens hash oil labs to methamphetamine labs -- a comparison other local law enforcement authorities have drawn due to the public danger posed by the activities.
But like with meth labs, Rodriguez believes that consistent enforcement can curb the BHO labs eventually.
Statistics from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration indicate that meth lab "incidents" in Washington shrank from 954 in 2004 to 8 in 2012.
"It took a lot of enforcement. It took a lot of effort before we were able to curb that," Rodriguez said. "It's going to take a lot more effort before (illegal BHO production) is curbed."