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The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office said a 25-year-old man was burned in an explosion from a marijuana processing operation in a Commerce neighborhood.

Detroit Free Press

The explosion and fireball that incinerated a garage in a Commerce Township neighborhood on Saturday and sent a man to the University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center was no isolated incident.

It was the latest in a string of statewide explosions and fires, erupting when home marijuana processors used butane to refine cannabis into a concentrated form called called BHO — or butane hash oil.

The Commerce blast, in a neighborhood three miles north of Wixom, prompted Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard this week to call for stiffening Michigan’s marijuana laws. Under state law, using the butane process in residential areas is illegal. Yet, there is no penalty for doing so, Bouchard said.

A garage on the 2700 block of Phillips Avenue in Berkley collapsed after a butane hash oil production-linked explosion on Nov. 20, 2018. (Photo: Berkley Public Safety Department)

The process is so lucrative that home processors flock to it, often with tragic results. No agency tracks each butane blast, but a review of recent reports turned up these examples: 

Authorities say that the victims of severe burns often require more than $1 million in medical care and the fires they start with highly flammable butane are harder to control than ordinary residential fires. Michigan’s Legislature needs to stiffen state marijuana laws, Bouchard said.

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“The state just left a huge gap of what happens in neighborhoods,” he said.

“I’ve visited facilities that are doing it right, using butane in an extraction process. But these are commercial facilities, and they spend huge amounts of money for the proper equipment and training,” Bouchard said.

Those who pursue butane extraction at home are as bad as “someone distilling gasoline for re-sale in their garage — you wouldn’t want that happening next door,” Bouchard said.

He added: “All I’m saying is, these operations should be in community-approved and safety-approved facilities. The Legislature needs to take all marijuana production activity out of neighborhoods,” and deter it with “clear policy and penalties.”

The 25-year-old man in Commerce who suffered severe burns to his face and arms likely will face charges for other violations, but he can’t be penalized for using butane in the garage, Bouchard said. Police said several butane tanks that were in the garage exploded.

Michigan’s marijuana laws clearly prohibit using butane for at-home cannabis processing. One section prohibits “separation of plant resin by butane extraction or another method that utilizes a substance with a flashpoint below 100 degrees Fahrenheit in any public place, motor vehicle, or within the curtilage of any residential structure.” But there is no penalty for violating the provision, according to the statute’s wording. (Curtilage is a legal term that means the area around a home.)

The explosion in Commerce was in the district of state Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake. Asked to comment, Runestad sent this statement: “While the investigation is ongoing, the reality is something that needs to change. We can’t be having bombs going off in our neighborhoods.”

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, shown at a training day on Oct. 4, 2020 in Ortonville, says Michigan should add penalties to its marijuana laws to deter home cannabis processors from using hazardous butane. (Photo: Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)

Fewer of those “bombs” explode in warm months, when processors can take their production outdoors to let the butane disperse safely. Fall through spring are high-hazard months in cold-weather states like Michigan, according to online warnings.

The process of using butane to extract marijuana’s intoxicating component, called THC, aims to “get rid of the plant stuff and just keep the good chemicals,” said Rick Thompson, a marijuana podcaster and CEO of the Michigan Cannabis Business Development Group, which stages marijuana business conferences.

The butane acts as a solvent, dissolving THC from cannabis leaves, stems and buds to form a concentrated oil, after which the poisonous butane must be allowed to escape, Thompson said.

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“Sometimes, people try to rush that process and that’s when explosions happen,” he said. Butane is an odorless, colorless gas that is heavier than air, so as it bubbles out of the concentrated cannabis oil, it can build up on the floor of an enclosed space, creating an explosion hazard that awaits only a small spark, Thompson said.

“If butane gas hits a hot-water tank, it can fire up” from the tank’s pilot flame, he said. Some processors put their freshly extracted oil into freezers to accelerate the off-gassing of the butane.

“When you open the freezer door and activate the light bulb inside the freezer, you can cause an explosion, just from the freezer light coming on — that little spark,” Thompson said.

Contact: blaitner@freepress.com

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