Particularly in states that have legalized recreational marijuana use, there has been an increase in production of marijuana extract, usually called hash oil, in the past few years, causing concern among law enforcement personnel, as discussed in a recent piece by USA Today and one from its affiliate, Statesman Journal. Hash oil is made by pouring a solvent (often butane) over marijuana leaves. The mixture is then heated, to evaporate the solvent. Users like this process because it allows them to create the much more THC-potent oil from what otherwise would be unusable parts of the plant. The potential danger comes from the fact that butane sinks; it is heavier than air and will descend, where stove pilot lights or even the motors in refrigerators can ignite it. People also store hash oil in their refrigerators, where the butane continues to evaporate, which can create flammable build-ups of the solvent.
In addition to its explosive potential, hash oil often has residual butane, as well as the lubricants used to ensure butane moves smoothly through lighters. It can also often contain pesticides (which are more concentrated than when found in marijuana that is smoked), and plant waxes that may be safe to eat but are not considered safe to inhale. Plus, even in most places that allow recreational marijuana use, it is still illegal to produce hash oil. A recent profile by BuzzedNews provides an in-depth discussion of the drug’s potential hazards.
Recent testing and studies have showed that the drug can often contain pesticides as well as pathogens, including mold, mildew, E. coli and Salmonella. A study published in the Journal of Toxicology revealed that as much as 70 percent of the pesticides present in marijuana may be inhaled when the drug is smoked. These hazards are in addition to historically high THC levels and lower than normal levels of cannabidol, the chemical thought to give marijuana therapeutic properties.
While marijuana has become legal in several places, legislation regulating its production and safety is still catching up to legalization movements. And because it is still illegal at the federal level, the EPA has not created any regulations relating to which chemicals may be used to grow marijuana or their proper storage and usage. Using more concentrated forms of marijuana, such as hash oil also concentrates any pesticides in them, making the contaminants, often banned for human consumption by the EPA, that much more potent.
There has been great concern that with increases in the number of places that allow legal marijuana use, incidents of people driving while under the influence of marijuana would see a corresponding increase. A study in New Zealand found that people who frequently used marijuana, especially before driving, were more likely to be injured in car accidents than those who did not. Another study in France showed that, even controlling for accidents in which alcohol played a part, marijuana users were twice as likely to cause fatal accidents than non-users.
A newer study, done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and released in February 2015, concluded that there is no definitive link between using marijuana and an increased chance of being in an auto accident. When the study controlled for demographic variables, its results showed that marijuana users had a probability of being in an accident equal to that of drivers who had not used alcohol or other drugs. Regardless, the study still concluded that marijuana users have an overall 25 percent higher likelihood of being in auto accidents than non-users.
Guidelines regarding what level of THC is considered a DUI vary by state, and traces of THC may stay in the body for days or weeks after use (especially for frequent users). So avoiding driving soon after marijuana use is still a good idea.
THC levels in edible marijuana products have become a significant hazard of marijuana use, particularly for new users. Over time, the average level of THC in marijuana has increased (see article). On top of this, people have become more adept at distilling more concentrated THC out of the plant, particularly by making hash oil. This can be very dangerous for people ingesting marijuana, especially if they are not very familiar with it, because they may consume more than intended.
For frequent users who have built tolerances for the drug, ingesting something a little stronger than they are used to isn’t such a big deal. But for people who have never used marijuana, or only use it infrequently, these concentrated forms can be dangerous. Side effects can include hallucinations, panic, paranoia, and short-term depression. In more serious cases, THC can impair breathing and heart functions. In a recent story, New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd relayed her own experience with these side effects. She writes that she tried a marijuana candy bar, and when she felt no effects, ate a little more. She then “lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours” and “was thirsty but couldn’t move to get water. Or even turn off the lights… was panting and paranoid, sure that when the room-service waiter knocked and [she] didn’t answer, he’d call the police.” In her follow-up piece Dowd says that the founder of Marijuana.com contacted her to say that stories like hers are increasingly common.
While Dowd’s story fortunately ended without consequence, there have even been reports of people killing themselves or others after consuming far more THC than they realized, and there are increased reports of children unknowingly eating, and being sickened by, harmless-looking edible marijuana products. Edible products containing marijuana are also often not labeled as to their THC content or what appropriate serving sizes should be, increasing the likelihood of ingesting more than intended.