Blasts blamed on hash oil lead to federal charges
The chemical process used to make hash oil — a method so fraught with volatility that police compare it to making methamphetamine — has come under attack by U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The chemical process used to make hash oil — a method so fraught with volatility that police compare it to making methamphetamine — has come under attack by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan’s office filed criminal charges against eight people in connection with recent explosions attributed to the manufacture of hash oil in Bellevue, Seattle, Kirkland and Puyallup. One case involved a massive explosion and fire at a Bellevue apartment complex in November that resulted in the death of former Bellevue Mayor Nan Campbell.
While possession and consumption of hash oil are legal in Washington. However, Durkan said its manufacture is not.
“Under state law, there is no legal way to make hash oil right now. Every one of these home systems is a violation of federal law and state law,” Durkan said during a news conference. “If you’re doing it you should stop.”
To make hash oil, a glass or steel canister is stuffed with dried marijuana. The canister is then flooded with a solvent such as butane, which strips away the psychotropic plant oils.
The resulting golden-brown goo is then purged of the solvent. Common methods include boiling it off in a hot-water bath, according to Wired magazine, or using a vacuum system to pull butane from the oil.
The danger comes mainly from improper ventilation. Butane is heavier than air and tends to sink and puddle in a closed room; sparks can cause explosions, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency says are sometimes misidentified as meth-lab mishaps.
Durkan said that when an explosion occurs “it’s like a bomb going off in a home.”
In their investigation, dubbed “Operation Shattered,” the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Seattle police, Kirkland police, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, Puyallup police and Bellevue police joined with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to focus on eight defendants in four separate cases.
David Richard Schultz II, Daniel James Strycharske and Jesse D. Kaplan have each been charged with endangering human life while manufacturing controlled substances, maintaining drug-involved premises and manufacturing hash oil and marijuana, according to U.S. District Court documents unsealed Tuesday morning.
According to charges, the three men were seen manufacturing hash oil, also known as “Butane Honey Oil,” in a unit at The Hampton Greens apartments in Bellevue.
Around 6:30 a.m. Nov. 5, witnesses reported hearing a loud boom before a fire erupted at the apartments. Flames quickly spread from the unit where hash oil was allegedly being made and caused more than $1.5 million in damage.
Campbell, 87, was injured escaping from the flames and later died. The three defendants and several others were also hurt.
According to the charges, Bellevue police had gone to the apartment Oct. 17 and spoken with Kaplan and Schultz. Both men presented their medical-marijuana cards but told police they were not making hash oil, the charges said.
An officer told the men that producing hash oil could result in a fire or explosion. He also said that making the oil inside the apartment “would be a violation of their rental agreement,” charges said.
When questioned about police having knowledge about hash-oil production inside the unit before the explosion and fire, Durkan said officers have struggled with how to handle many issues surrounding marijuana.
“It has been a very difficult terrain for local law enforcement to navigate when and how to enforce marijuana violations. We have to just be real about that,” Durkan said. “There are certain things that are past the line that anyone would draw; this is one of them. ... that people would do something that is the equivalent of a meth lab.”
Also Tuesday, Hugh Rodney Harris, 65, was charged with endangering a human life while manufacturing a controlled substance, maintaining drug-involved premises and manufacturing marijuana in connection with a suspected hash-oil fire and explosion in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood in January. The blast knocked a building 6 inches off its foundation.
Another case involves a fire and explosion in Kirkland in January that severely damaged two apartments. Defendants Robby Wayne Meiser, 46, and Bruce W. Mark, 62, are charged with endangering a human life while making a controlled substance, maintaining a drug-involved premises and manufacturing hash oil and marijuana.
The fourth case, in May, involves a suspected hash-oil explosion and fire in a Puyallup home where a 14-month-old baby lived. Kevin Weeks Jr., 24, and Seth M. Cleek, 31, were charged with endangering a human life while manufacturing a controlled substance, maintaining drug-involved premises and manufacturing marijuana.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, endangering human life while manufacturing controlled substances is punishable by up to 10 years in prison; maintaining drug-involved premises can bring up to 20 years; and manufacturing hash oil can result in up to five years.
Alison Holcomb, criminal-justice director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and prime mover behind Washington’s legal marijuana law, agreed that hash-oil explosions are dangerous.
“I think we’re up to six or seven hash-oil explosions in the state of Washington. People can get seriously hurt,” she said. “We need to explain to people what the risks and dangers are.”