Django Broomfield wasn’t even supposed to go to the pot shop that day. It was his wife’s birthday, back in January 2013, and he should have been spending the day with her, but one of the Northern California dispensaries where the longtime marijuana grower sold his seeds had called that morning, asking for a re-up.
So Broomfield headed over, completely unaware of the fact that he was about to bump into Matt Rize.
The last time they’d seen each other, nine months earlier, Rize had accused Broomfield of selling an unsafe product and gotten him fired from managing another dispensary. In the intervening time, Rize sent out hundreds of messages warning people in the cannabis industry to avoid Broomfield.
He’s a dangerous guy, Rize told anyone who would listen. And the hash oil that he’s selling will make you sick.
Broomfield had done his best to ignore the smear campaign, blocking Rize on Facebook and Instagram, but now Rize was here, in person, calmly buying edibles with his girlfriend.
“Hello, Matt,” Broomfield said, visibly flustered.
“Hi, Django. Nice to see you.”
Broomfield turned around, walked out to his car, took something out of his trunk, and waited. After months of Rize trashing Broomfield and his product online, seeing Rize in person, smug and acting like nothing had happened, was infuriating.
The dispensary, Peace in Medicine, stands at the northwest corner of a Sebastopol strip mall that looks like a frontier-town train depot, populated by barnlike buildings in sage-green clapboard siding, with rust-red accents, engraved wooden signs, and corrugated metal roofs.
When Rize and his girlfriend walked outside, they saw Broomfield standing next to Rize’s Prius. It wasn’t until they were almost at the car, however, that they noticed Broomfield was holding a 18-inch-long metal bar. Rize swiveled and took off running, with Broomfield close behind.
“I was going to beat the crap out of him,” Broomfield told BuzzFeed News.
He chased Rize around the plaza and threatened to hit his girlfriend, but when Rize called the police — the last thing anyone in the drug business is supposed to do — Broomfield jumped in his car and took off.
This is how product safety disputes sometimes get settled in the barely regulated marijuana market. In the past five years, no product has perplexed, mesmerized, and divided the cannabis world quite like the increasingly popular and incredibly potent form of concentrated marijuana known as butane hash oil, or BHO. Demand for the intense high BHO delivers has birthed a massive underground industry, with federal and state governments at a loss for how to regulate it and potheads and entrepreneurs accidentally incinerating themselves trying to make it. Several pot-shop owners in California, where selling BHO is legal but making it is not, told BuzzFeed News that it now accounts for about 40% of sales. But while many stoners take BHO’s presence on dispensary shelves as a sign that it is just as safe as weed itself, others find the noxious goop inherently suspicious, and the people who are making, selling, and regulating hash oil admit they know very little about the product.
As the cowboy entrepreneurs who built the cannabis industry step out of the shadows, no one is quite sure which companies, practices, and products will survive the transition to legitimacy.
There is hardly any peer-reviewed research on cannabis, and absolutely nothing on BHO. Marijuana is undergoing an awkward transition between an illegal drug and a mainstream pharmaceutical product held accountable for quality and side effects. In the absence of trustworthy information, unbiased experts, and an effective regulatory scheme, stoners are left with self-appointed whistleblowers like 33-year-old Matt Rize, whose concern for public health conveniently coincides with his bottom line. Over the past few years, this frenetic and sarcastic know-it-all has become famous in marijuana circles as butane hash oil’s most vocal critic, the one person warning consumers about its potential risks — except for when it comes to the butane hash oil that he himself is now making.
That stuff, he says, is perfectly safe.
Macey J. Foronda for BuzzFeed News
For as long as humans have been aware of the psychoactive powers of cannabis, we have been trying to create more efficient ways to get stoned. The marijuana of today has been bred for THC content, and regularly tests at potency levels of 15–20%. And yet as recently as the 1970s, most pot was less than 5% THC, which meant that turning weed into hash was one of the only ways to guarantee a long-lasting buzz.
Unlike sieved hash, records of which date back as far as the 13th century, or black blocks of pressed hash, which turned up around the 16th century, hash oil seems to have been a 20th-century invention. In 1970, after American hippies had been smuggling hash home from abroad for almost a decade, a group called The Brotherhood of Eternal Love set up hash oil factories in California and Afghanistan. But by the end of the decade, mass production had ceased.
In his 1998 book Hashish!, marijuana historian Robert Connell Clarke described hash oil as causing health problems, saying, “Knowledgeable Cannabis users feel that making hashish oil is overkill, and simply a method for passing low-quality Cannabis products off on unsuspecting and uninformed consumers.”
Rize first tried hash oil in Milwaukee in the late '90s, when he was a rebellious, tie-dye-wearing high school student named Matthew Ritz. He was already growing pot in his closet and using the silk screens he’d found in his grandmother’s garage to sift out a more traditional form of marijuana concentrate, now known as “kief” or “dry-sift.”
Then a friend found instructions on Overgrow.com, an early marijuana web forum, about how to use butane to spin their schwag, or low-grade weed, into gold.
All they had to do, the Overgrow thread explained, was release a canister of lighter fluid over a pipe stuffed with marijuana, and they would chemically wring every drop of psychotropic and palliative compounds out of the plant. Throw the snotlike result in a Pyrex dish on top of some boiling water on the stove to purge out the residual butane, and voilà! A product that's over 60% THC.
“It tasted terrible, and it was the strongest thing I had ever smoked in my life,” Rize said. “I was like, I hope nobody finds out about it, because it’s fucking strong and we made it from garbage.”
As a junior in the chemistry department at North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College, armed with a master key to the lab, Rize decided he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experiment with hash oil extraction on professional equipment. He started coming in late at night, when no one else was there.
“I thought it was butane that was the problem,” he said, “[so] I kept trying to do it with different solvents.” He poured or released whatever was lying around — hexane, ethanol, ether, isopropyl alcohol — on his cannabis, just to see what would happen. Most of it was gross, and he still preferred his private stash of sieved hash to hash oil.
Rize didn’t see or smoke other people’s hash oil until 2009, when he moved to Northern California and started working at the Peace in Medicine dispensary.
“All the employees smoked BHO, and they treated it like crack,” Rize said. “No one would talk about how they made it, and they were all like, ‘Don't tell the patients about it. It’s too powerful. Only sell to the patients if they bring it up.’”
The quasi-legal medical marijuana market in California had been booming since 2003, when the state passed a law allowing dispensaries to distribute weed to anyone with a doctor’s prescription. With more cannabis being sold, it was only a matter of time before the farmers figured out that BHO was the best way to profit off of their trim — the leaves and stems that are too weak to smoke.
In the early aughts, when hash oil was still an obscure fad among those who worked with pot, those caught making BHO in California were given the minor charge of marijuana processing. Then, in August 2008, an appeals court decided butane extraction is so prone to causing an explosion that it should be prosecuted under a statute written for methamphetamine and PCP labs. Anyone caught extracting could now be sentenced to up to seven years in prison.
The change did little to stop BHO from spreading. After all, lighter fluid is cheap, and in Northern California, trim is plentiful. And once pipe makers began mass-producing the new equipment and tools necessary to vaporize hash oil, around 2009, the drug began to get popular outside of the insular world of those who had turned cannabis into a profession.
Soon, instead of throwing trim away or cooking it into butter for edibles, more cultivators were selling it to whichever BHO chemist could pay the most. To conceal the use of butane and legitimize the drug’s variety of textures and colors, dispensaries came up with names for every possible consistency, ranging from the sheet of brittle, translucent amber known as “shatter” to the golden sap known as “honey oil” to the soft green fudge known as “budder.” Many people, however, refer to all BHO as “wax.”
Hash oil also began serving as a form of crop insurance, as growers found they could recoup their losses on any moldy, mite-infested, or unattractive cannabis by making it into hash oil.
“Moldy weed does not become moldy shatter,” said David Babtkis, who makes BHO under the brand StuckUp Extracts. “The majority of growers that come to me come to me when they fuck up their crop.”
But because hash oil manufacturing remains illegal almost everywhere, the majority of self-styled “extraction artists” make their own as unsafely as Rize did in high school: dripping out of an open-ended tube in a steady stream that Babtkis compared to the sound of someone peeing, and allowing invisible, flammable butane gas to escape into the air.
During the year he worked at Peace in Medicine, Rize said he started to hear rumors about how easily this process, called “open blasting,” could cause an explosion. However, firefighters weren’t yet trained to recognize the signs of a hash oil lab, so few were reported that way. Rize said he even heard that one of Peace in Medicine’s suppliers had had a fire at his home (Peace in Medicine denied this in an email).
With thousands of BHO tutorials now posted online, every state that has legalized or decriminalized marijuana is arguing internally over how and whether to stop people from making hash oil at home. Plant extraction is a complicated process understood best by chemists with advanced degrees, but nearly all of the people making hash oil have no chemistry background whatsoever, and therefore very little understanding of what they are actually doing.
Even in Washington and Colorado, which began regulating hash oil and offering licenses to extract in 2014, weed is so widely available and BHO so simple to make that many people choose to make their own. Though there are now a handful of licensed extraction labs in Washington and a few hundred in Colorado, including popular brands like TC Labs and Mahatma, butane explosions in both states are on the rise. Nationwide, hundreds of BHO-related fires occurred in 2014, up from dozens in 2013. According to Special Agent Gary Hill, who led a handful of raids on BHO labs in San Diego last summer, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has no idea how to disincentivize people from doing something so easy and so cheap.
When home meth lab explosions became a problem a few decades ago, the DEA made it almost impossible to access precursor chemicals like methylamine, which is what Walter White and Jesse Pinkman siphon out of a freight-train tanker on Breaking Bad.
“But a pipe? Butane gas? I mean, that’s virtually impossible to regulate,” Hill said. “We wish we could.”
Even though he himself had studied chemistry for only three years in college, Rize said he grew more and more alarmed about the idea of people with no scientific background doing advanced analytical chemistry in their houses. This should be done in a proper laboratory, he thought. And why would anyone release lighter fluid over weed to extract the THC, he said, when there were more natural ways to separate the THC-rich resin glands from marijuana?
Though sieving and pressing hash had long since fallen out of fashion, in the 1990s hash makers began vigorously stirring marijuana in ice water to loosen the resin from the buds and then pouring the mixture into several layers of nested mesh bags. Eventually this created a dust that was even more potent than sieved hash and could be smoked on its own or sprinkled on top of a pipeful of pot for an enhanced high.
Rize began devoting all of his time to making water hash after being fired from Peace in Medicine in the middle of 2010. It frustrated him to no end that hash oil, which he saw as a nasty, inferior product, was making more money than hash. So he decided to figure out how to make ice-water hash that had the same look, feel, and cost as BHO.
Macey J. Foronda for BuzzFeed News
Maybe you've seen people at concerts or bars discreetly taking hits of hash oil in vaporizer pens, but serious stoners consume BHO by doing “dabs” — dropping globs of hash oil onto a surface that’s been heated electronically or with a propane torch, and then inhaling the resultant vapor through a bonglike device called a rig. Even a small dab packs the same punch as smoking a fat joint by yourself in 10 seconds flat, and the process looks more like smoking crack than what smoking cannabis has long looked like to most Americans. Back before vape pens became popular, Rize thought the act of dabbing itself was part of hash oil’s appeal.
“It instantly vaporizes, it gets you higher than you've ever been, and it feels like fucking drugs,” he said. These days, hundreds of accounts on Instagram, the weed world’s social media platform of choice, are devoted to young men and women dabbing and provocatively exhaling for the camera.
Rize spent months in the middle of 2010 tinkering with existing water-hash technology and ultimately created one of the first forms of water hash that could be dabbed. He achieved this effect by collecting the granules in a folded piece of parchment paper and pressing them together into a dab with a hair straightener or a hot knife. And while most water hash at this point was black or brown, Rize figured out how to make his into a light golden color, just like high-quality hash oil.
He called his water hash “ice wax,” and brought a jarful to Peace in Medicine, hoping to charge more than he had before.
“Unless you make a brand, and have a following, and deliver these prepackaged and labeled, I can’t pay you more,” he said the buyer told him.
It was then that Matthew Ritz decided he needed to create a new persona for himself, one that proved he was smarter and better than everyone else in the cannabis industry. He began posting online under the name “Professor Matt Rize” as a way to highlight his chemistry background and the fact that he taught a few classes at an outpost of Oaksterdam University, an Oakland-based school for marijuana cultivation, business, law, and science.
At first, he came off as earnest and friendly, putting ice-wax tutorials on YouTube and every cannabis website he could find. He felt he had invented something new and special with this dab-able water hash, and everyone in pot should sit up and take notice.
But in the brusque world of anonymous internet forums, where members of the cannabis community had been comparing notes and talking shit for many years, his naked self-promotion didn’t last long. It was like a home brewer was trying to post photos of his latest batch on the internet and claim his beer was better anything sold by a well-known craft brewery.
“He was trying to write himself into history. People would tell him to go fuck himself,” said Marcus “Bubbleman” Richardson, a Canadian hash maker who became famous in the 1990s as one of the first to mass-produce the mesh bags necessary for water hash. High Times published a handful of fawning profiles and photo spreads illustrating the high-quality water hash Bubbleman’s bags could produce, and to this day some people still call water hash “bubble hash,” in honor of Richardson.
So Rize turned to scare tactics. Instead of trying to claim his innovations were just as good as that of established hash makers like Bubbleman, he compared himself to the backyard chemists making BHO. In the context of the centuries-long history of hash, Rize was still a nobody. But when he positioned himself as an activist and compared his water hash to hash oil, the stuff he was making looked a lot safer, and his following grew. He called anyone who open-blasted a “BHOtard,” and said that the homemade hash oil on dispensary shelves had a lot more residual butane in it than anyone realized.
Instagram celebrities like @DabulousChandler gain followers with photos and videos of themselves dabbing BHO. (She boasts nearly 37,000.)