It was a recipe for disaster: A 3-foot-by-4-inch PVC pipe, a grocery bag full of marijuana and a half-dozen 16-ounce cans of butane open and filling the air of a small bathroom space.
Authorities discovered the makings of a clandestine hashish oil laboratory in an Auburn apartment late Tuesday night – after it had blown up.
The apartment's four occupants, three of whom were in the bathroom when it exploded, suffered burns, none life-threatening.
Though they rarely garner the public attention that methamphetamine labs do, some in law enforcement say such "THC-extraction labs" are just as dangerous and, as California's attitudes toward marijuana continue to change, growing in number.
"We do believe they're becoming more and more prevalent due to the unfortunate popularity of marijuana in this state," said Gordon Taylor, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Sacramento division.
Another local law enforcement officer said he believes hashish oil laboratories already outnumber meth labs locally and statewide.
"I have no doubt about it," said Jackie Long, who works for the state Department of Justice and commands the Amador County Combined Narcotics Enforcement Team.
Long was among the authorities to respond to Tuesday night's explosion at the Gateway Apartments, near Highway 49 and Bell Road.
The four occupants of the apartment – a couple in their mid-20s, a juvenile boy and a man in his 30s – were the only ones injured in the fire, which was contained to that unit, said Lt. Jeff Ausnow, spokesman for the Placer County Sheriff's Department.
No arrests have been made, but Ausnow said all four could face felony charges of manufacturing a controlled substance.
Although it appears to have been a novice operation, Long said it wasn't rookie in scale. The participants were trying to extract hashish oil – which has a greater concentration of the drug THC than the marijuana plant – from trimmings that filled almost three-quarters of a grocery bag, Long said. The PVC pipe also was half full of trimmings, Long said.
Hashish oil can be extracted several ways. The most efficient process, Long said, is to use a solvent like butane to cook the plant.
In the Auburn case, the participants were trying to fill the PVC pipe with butane but instead had saturated the air in the bathroom, creating prime conditions for an explosion.
"It was a pretty good boom," Long said. "It did some pretty good damage."
He said the damage would have been worse had it not been for the apartment's sprinkler system.
Hashish oil, which Long said can fetch anywhere from $100 to $200 a gram, is often smoked, via droplets on cigarettes or marijuana joints. It also can be used to make edible marijuana products, such as brownies and candies.
With medicinal marijuana dispensaries increasing the demands for those edible products – and therefore hashish oil – the DEA's Taylor said he expects THC-extraction labs to proliferate.
"It's labs like those that ultimately are the source for much of the products sold in dispensaries," Taylor said.
The National Drug Threat Assessment of 2009, published by the U.S. Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center, states that only 19 THC–extraction labs were seized across the country between 2002 and 2008.
However, "hashish production and hash oil laboratories may be underreported in the United States because such laboratories … are not easily identifiable," the report reads.
Long agreed. He said some firefighters have failed to identify labs that have exploded because they didn't know what they were looking at.
He estimated that "10 or more" THC–extraction labs explode in California annually.
The combination of a spark and chemicals puts the public at risk, said Special Agent Michelle Gregory, a spokeswoman for the state's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement.
Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.