When word started to spread that an explosion at a South Austin apartment on
Wednesday was drug-related, the refrain from outside observers was immediate:
The blast caused $85,000 in damage, blowing out the windows and the bottom of an exterior wall. A man and a woman were flown to the San Antonio Military Medical Center with injuries that included broken bones and second-degree burns.
But police later explained that investigators had found evidence that the explosion was caused by a botched attempt to use butane to extract a psychoactive ingredient from marijuana -- tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
"Butane honey oil," a narcotics detective with the Austin Police Department's organized crime division called it. He asked the American-Statesman to withhold his name because he sometimes works undercover.
It is a kind of hash oil that can be made by saturating marijuana leaves in a pipe with butane, which pulls the THC from the plant, the detective said.
Officials initially said two propane tanks were found inside the damaged home, but a fire official clarified Friday that there were actually several canisters of butane.
The flammable gas drips through a filter at the end of the pipe and pools on a plate that's then placed into a container of hot water, causing the gas to evaporate, the detective said.
What's left is a concentrated oil, which can have a THC content of 40 percent or more, he said. Putting one or two pinheads of the oil on a joint increases the high someone smoking the drug would get.
Rose Habib, a chemist at a medical marijuana testing laboratory in Montana, compared the difference between a joint and the oil with the difference between orange juice and a vitamin C capsule.
Where it's legal to do so, professionals can safely extract THC from marijuana, but Habib said it requires expensive equipment to do so. She said the extract can be used in food, and that cancer patients use it because it's more potent.
Using butane is an efficient but risky method to extract THC that can end in tragic accidents, she said. Blogs and online forums are plastered with instructions detailing what to do, she said, but much of it is misinformation, and she guessed that none of it is written by chemists who extract THC professionally.
"What it usually involves is somebody who has no idea of the hazards of the process they're undertaking," she said.
Explosions like the one in Austin happen occasionally, Habib said, adding that she thinks they happen in states like Texas where marijuana isn't legal, even for medicinal purposes, because they lack regulations.
The Austin police narcotics detective said Wednesday's explosion is the first he's aware of in the city that resulted from someone trying to extract THC, but it has happened elsewhere in the country.
This year, authorities said a man and a woman were critically injured in an Ocean Beach, Calif., motel room trying to extract hash oil from marijuana using butane when the man lit a cigarette, causing an explosion, according to the Los Angeles Times. It took 45 firefighters half an hour to get the fire under control, the newspaper reported.
Days earlier, a man was rushed from his West Hollywood apartment after officials said he caused an explosion while extracting THC, according to news reports.
The Austin narcotics detective compared the butane-filled pipe with an incendiary device.
"Any little spark can do it," he said.
Police officials wouldn't comment on the condition of the two people injured in Wednesday's blast but said that they could face criminal charges. The department is working with the district attorney's office to determine the most appropriate charges, an official said.
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