BANGOR, Maine — A slight change in Maine’s medical marijuana laws earlier this year has sparked a new trend in this sudden growth industry: the manufacture and legal sale of highly concentrated liquid marijuana, better known as “honey oil.”
“A little dab’ll do ya, that’s for sure,” said Ryan, a Bangor medical marijuana patient, about the potent substance, which can be smoked or vaporized and inhaled. One hit of the marijuana concentrate feels equivalent to one marijuana cigarette, he said, speaking to the BDN on condition his last name not be published.
Known as “honey oil,” “hash oil,” “dabs,” “earwax” or “shatter,” among other names, homemade marijuana concentrates have caught on quickly because of the popularity and availability of e-cigarettes and vaporizer pens, which offer an easy, discreet way to use the drug.
Yet the rapid spreading of concentrates is a concern for law enforcement, as the potency of marijuana oil can be dangerous, especially for first-time users, and some ways of creating concentrates have led to deadly explosions, according to the National Drug Threat Assessment Summary 2014.
Recent explosions — i ncluding one in Rockland in November — have involved the production of cannabis concentrate with butane.
“Like [methamphetamine] labs, the production of the hash oil using this process can be extremely hazardous due to the chance of fire or explosion,” said Peter Arno, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency northern commander. “The [butane honey oil] process produces a hash oil which can have an extremely high THC content … If/when we run into one of these types of extraction labs, MDEA’s lab team will respond in a similar fashion to meth labs.”
Concern about marijuana concentrate is not limited to law enforcement.
Christopher Ruhlin, a medical marijuana patient and patient advocate who owns Herbal Tea & Tobacco in downtown Bangor, and Paul McCarrier, a former spokesman for Caregivers of Maine, said the concentrates are much stronger than leaf marijuana and new users should take note.
Patients should discuss the option with their doctors, Ruhlin said.
“Because it is more potent, there is more of a public health issue,” said McCarrier, who is now president of the Legalize Maine public action committee, which is seeking to make recreational use of marijuana legal statewide.
An amendment to the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act that allows the use and sale of concentrated marijuana went into effect in August.
Maine voters first approved medical marijuana in 1999, which allowed patients to grow their own supply or select a caregiver to grow it for them. In 2009, the law was expanded to include more permitted medical conditions and to allow patients to buy from eight nonprofit, government-sanctioned clinics and marijuana cultivation centers.
Maine’s medical marijuana law was amended again in 2011, eliminating the need for patients to register with the state, and again in 2013, adding post-traumatic stress disorder, inflammatory bowel disease and other illnesses to the list of conditions for which a physician may prescribe medical marijuana.
Earlier this year, physician was replaced with “medical provider” to allow nurse practitioners to prescribe the medication, and the definition of prepared marijuana was changed to include dried leaves and flowers of the marijuana plant and certain “byproducts,” such as tinctures and ointments, that don’t require “further processing.”
What this language means, said Kenneth J. Albert, director of the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services at the Department of Health and Human Services, is that outside ingredients can be added to dried marijuana, just like for food products.
Adding ingredients to create concentrated marijuana is not authorized by the law. But, according to Albert, “cannabis may be boiled in a solvent to form a viscous liquid that may be strained and evaporated to yield an oil, or liquid cannabis. This is not considered ‘further processing’ as contemplated within the law.”
There are no general rules about concentrates, said Albert, because regulation depends entirely on how concentrates are produced. However, butane is not authorized in the production of medical marijuana products or byproducts, he said.
“Given the associated and inherent dangers in both the use and production of [butane honey oil], the department does not recognize it within the [scope] of medical marijuana law or rule,” he said.
There are a variety of ways to make cannabis concentrates, some without volatile solvents.
A newly formed company in the Bangor area, Taffy Factory LLC, is creating marijuana concentrates using ice and water, not solvents.
“We just started noncommercial production,” said one owner, Chris, who spoke to the BDN on the condition of only using his first name.
Taffy Factory uses an ice-and-water closed-loop extraction system to break down marijuana plants, and then uses low, steady heat to evaporate the water, which leaves behind a greenish powdery substance.
The process strips the marijuana plants of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the ingredient that relieves pain and causes users to get high, as well as cannabichromene, or CBC; and cannabidiol, or CBD, which reduce anxiety and produce a calming effect.
Chris said he got into the business of concentrates because they are “much healthier for patients. They get their medicine in a much smaller dose — it’s one hit. They’re done.”
Remedy Compassion Center in Auburn, one of Maine’s eight nonprofit dispensaries, has purchased a $100,000 Apex carbon dioxide critical extraction machine to make concentrate they call “Honey Oil,” which has been for sale since Aug. 2.
The amber substance is made by applying pressure, low temperatures and CO2 to marijuana plants.
“It works effectively to strip the components off the plants and creates the oil,” said Remedy Compassion founder Tim Smale. “It basically drips out the other end [of the machine] and the plant matter is thrown away.”
“We have to test it so we know what level of THC, CBC and CBD there is so we have a measure of their potency,” Smale said.
Each batch will have different benefits for patients, he said. For example, “an indica-dominant strain or sativa-dominant strain will provide good pain relief,” he said. Batches high in cannabichromene and cannabidiol are good for nausea and inflammation.
Medical marijuana patients who buy from caregivers pay about $250 an ounce and about $380 an ounce from dispensaries, and concentrates cost between $25 and $50 a gram depending on potency. A typical dose of concentrate is one-tenth of a gram and is equivalent to a 1-gram marijuana cigarette.
Smale is a member of the American Herbal Products Association, a national cannabis committee that makes recommendations to regulators about cultivation, packaging and processing. The group is working on rules for manufacturing concentrates.
It appears the concentrate business could go mainstream.
“In the next six months we’ll be providing some recommendations for the commercial side for regulators,” said Smale.
Individual insurance policies that cover medical marijuana also should cover concentrates.
“Marijuana is marijuana is marijuana,” said Ruhlin, owner of the Bangor store and patient advocate.
The rise of concentrates comes at a time of shifting regulations around medical marijuana at the federal and state level.
Just recently, congressional leaders in Washington passed a provision — baked into an omnibus spending bill — that requires the federal government to respect state sovereignty over medical marijuana.
In Maine, however, the Department of Public Safety said it will seek a law enabling it to test marijuana users for OUI. And the state’s division of licensing said medical professionals soon will be required to certify medical pot patients using a state online registration form.
Patients and advocates hope that concentrated marijuana may resolve concerns over medicinal use of the drug.
Ben, another Bangor medical marijuana patient, said some concentrates are made with reduced mind-altering components for people “who are not looking to get high, but want the pain relief.”
“It’s a miracle compound,” Ben said.