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The Great BHO Panic Was Weed’s Modern Awakening

Endless news stories once foretold of the horrors of ‘butane honey oil,’ a dangerous, meth-like product putting people’s lives at risk. A decade later, marijuana extracts are the most popular, mainstream product around. What changed?

A decade ago, the weed market in America looked nothing like it does today. The legalization of recreational marijuana was just starting to bloom in Colorado and Washington, and there wasn’t a rush of corporate money flowing to huge brands like MedMen. 

Indeed, there was still skepticism about what a future of legal marijuana could really mean for the country — and no single product captured the fascination and paranoia of mainstream America quite like the rise of BHO, or “butane honey oil,” a concentrated form of marijuana that rapidly gained controversy in the zeitgeist. 

To put it into the simplest terms possible, BHO is a modern form of concentrated hash, made by saturating ground weed with a solvent, in this case liquid butane, to release all the THC and related cannabinoids (responsible for the psychoactive “high”) from the plant. What’s left behind is largely organic matter, chlorophyll, plant fats and other materials that are inessential to getting high. Next, the puddle of cannabinoid butane is slowly cooked over low heat, evaporating all of the solvent until the only thing that remains is a glossy, sticky oil that can be vaporized and inhaled. 

Done correctly, it’s an elegant procedure that makes for an incredibly potent product that captures the pure aroma, taste and high of the marijuana plant. But done incorrectly, it can lead to a huge butane explosion — and that’s exactly what captured the consciousness of the country at the turn of the 2010s, becoming daily fodder for local news and leading to breathless proclamations that the Meth of Weed was on a rampage, sucking innocent young souls into a world of violence, addiction and bombed-out drug labs. 

It wasn’t just about the house fires, either. Critical voices claimed BHO was a threat to police, a gateway for using crack and other “harder” drugs, and a path for a rise in drug-related crimes and killings. “We’ve seen people smoking and having a good time at a party atmosphere, but when you start having people producing [BHO] next door to you, you’re going to have people who are going to try to take that marijuana or the profits of that marijuana,” Rick Ko of the Fresno Police Department told VICE in 2013. 

Looking back, the reality was a lot more complicated than all the fearmongering from journalists, concerned parents and scoldy law enforcement sources suggested. Yes, the explosions of apartments and basements and backyard patios all really did happen. And yes, there were a number of dumb people who, using shitty tutorials found on YouTube and Reddit, tried to get in on the BHO craze and ended endangering themselves for it. 

But it was the vanguard of a movement that has consumed the modern marijuana market in 2022, with marijauna concentrate being the hottest product for pretty much anyone who consumes pot, from newbies needing a casual toke at brunch to hardcore stoners who want the most flavorful, intense vaping experience that money can buy. It’s borderline impossible to imagine the American legal weed industry existing without the rise of BHO and its myriad extract cousins. Turns out, moral panics about drugs often fail to capture the reality and possibility of the situation at hand — and it feels almost quaint to revisit the hyperventilating over the specter of dreaded “honey oil.” 

Nowadays, nobody questions the use of solvents to make marijuana concentrates. There are still some arguments over whether hydrocarbon solvents like butane and propane are better or worse than options like ethanol or CO2, but all of them are very safe when used properly. It’s so safe that the once-hot debate over whether “solventless” extracts were superior in flavor and safety is now basically defunct. There once was a time when I would test my (illegal) extract by dabbing a little glob onto the hot titanium nail on my bong, listening and watching for any sizzles and pops — a dead giveaway for poorly purged wax that has some solvent still lingering within.

I can’t remember the last time I encountered any concentrate that I even suspected would have residual solvent. That’s partly because I live in California’s legal weed market, but it’s also due to the evolution of extraction tools and standardized procedures, and how this evolution has influenced amateur extraction projects, many which persist in states without legal weed. Not only is it easier and cheaper to get pro-quality equipment for making extract, including things like vacuum chambers to fully purge solvent out of the wax, it’s also easier to get pro-level guidance from people who have worked in the legal extract industry. 

We could’ve seen this coming for a long time — the making of marijuana concentrates is a nearly magical process with a huge range of possible uses. You can make budget-friendly extract from pot leaves, trim and other kinds of waste that would otherwise be composted, or you can make top-shelf sauce that captures a wonderful bouquet of aromas and flavors (courtesy of terpenes) from fresh buds. You can find extracts that are 99 percent pure THC, or more mellow concoctions that lean harder on CBD for its psychoactive profile. You can get extracts in textures as different as glassy “shatter,” sticky “budder” and sparkling white crystals.  

And all those vape pens that everyone, including their mother and father, are hitting in public? That’s all extract, made possible by the same exact method that became Public Enemy No. 1 a decade ago. So much for all the spooky comparisons to meth. Instead, it looks like everyone fell in love with the ability to get high off a small sip of clean-tasting vaporized pot, without coughing or making the room smell like burned plant matter. 

Of course, the occasional BHO lab explosion still happens — consider this commercial lab blowup from a month ago, or the story of a father-son operation that caught fire in December. But for the most part, the media and police frenzy is no more; the occasional explosions are rightfully considered outliers, not a referendum on the horrors of producing weed extract. It all reminds me of what famed marijuana lawyer and advocate Bruce Margolin told me last year: “The story of marijuana in America has always been one of hypocrisy. That was true in the 1970s, it was true around the debate for medical marijuana in the 2000s, and it’s true today with all these corporations getting rich off of something that our leaders once claimed would destroy us.”

There will always be a new drug panic, whether it’s due to blown-up garages or a mysterious rise in vaping hospitalizations. But the Great BHO Panic is more evidence that these cultural overreactions tend to overlook why people are so drawn to new, edgy and perhaps dangerous experiences. Marijuana concentrate really was that fascinating, for maker and user alike — and a decade later, it’s obvious that these powerful extracts are here to stay.