Due to the lack of control and regulation of the cannabis market and the denial of cannabis medicines to patients in need, poor quality cannabis oil has started appearing for sale on the Internet and being sold to those in the most vulnerable and desperate of circumstances. Is prohibition really policy of protection or is it aiding greedy people take advantage of the less informed and ill?
Most people reading this will agree that most, if not all, of the harms associated with cannabis use can be attributed not to the plant itself; but directly to the effects of prohibition. Leaving the production and supply of the drug to criminals inevitably leads to an inferior product, and therefore greater potential for health risks. Its connections with more serious and violent crime come from the simple fact that the people who control it are involved in those things. The ‘Gateway Theory’, whilst being pretty nonsensical anyway, is only a barely feasible ‘theory’ in the sense that cannabis is often sold by the same people who sell harder, more expensive (and therefore more profitable) drugs.
In recent years a new element has emerged to all of this. A whole new way in which prohibition is causing more harm than it can possibly be preventing. Since around 2010 the use of concentrated forms of cannabis such as Butane Hash Oil (BHO), has soared in the UK. These concentrates are often smoked recreationally; however they are also used by patients utilising cannabis medicinally, due to the fact that they do not have to be smoked and contain a far higher concentration of cannabinoids per gram than herbal cannabis. Thanks to documentaries such as Rick Simpson’s ‘Run from the Cure’, many people are now more aware of the potential medical benefits of ingesting hemp oil, as it is sometimes known. Whilst this new found popularity is great news for those of us who can access concentrates easily or produce our own; it has created a whole new set of problems for medicinal users, who are often not in a position to grow their own medication and have to source it from elsewhere. Sadly, due to the current laws regarding cannabis use in this country, the only place these people can turn to is the black market and criminal gangs who are only too happy to take their money for an inferior, and often very dangerous, product.
It has long been observed that cannabis grown by gangs, who are more interested in profit than quality, is generally rushed, not flushed of nutrients or dried correctly, and sometimes sprayed to make it heavier. Although this poor quality bud is most definitely not going to give you the health benefits of some properly grown, top shelf, dispensary grade produce; it is usually quite easy to spot and avoid (and you definitely should be avoiding it). The big problem that arises when it comes to oil is that when you concentrate the cannabis; you concentrate the risks involved if it is made badly.
I was recently contacted by a medicinal cannabis user who had some questions about oil he had agreed to purchase over the internet. Although he hadn’t yet received the oil (despite having paid £400 for 8 grams), his suspicions had already been raised by the description he had been given of an oil that was unusually dark in colour (it should be amber), and that had apparently been made using an extraction tube, an oven and some kind of gas. This might not sound so bad in itself; it is, after all, perfectly possible to make cannabis oil safely using butane, a glass extraction tube and a vacuum pump and chamber. What worried me however was the description of the colour, and the mention of an oven. This suggested that a vacuum-purge had not taken place, and that instead the person who had made this oil was simply using an oven to remove the butane from the oil. This was worrying for a number of reasons. First and foremost, if a vacuum-purge is not used when producing BHO you can be sure that the resulting oil will contain many contaminants from the butane used, not to mention a large amount of the butane itself. Ingesting this oil would therefore be dangerous, especially to someone with a pre-existing medical condition. I have witnessed BHO being vacuum-purged and it takes hours and many runs for it to be almost free of all contaminants (it is impossible to remove 100% of the solvent, although vacuum purging can bring it to below 100 parts per million), something that is simply not possible in an oven. Secondly if oil is purged in an oven, unless the temperature is absolutely perfect it is more than likely that many of the THC and CBD molecules will be turned into CBN, making them essentially useless. It should go without saying that you don’t want to be spending £50 a gram for oil that does not even contain these two essential cannabinoids.
These two things were worrying enough, but there was worse to come. The lack of a vacuum-purge had got my interest, and it got me thinking – if the people responsible for making this oil (for a patient, it’s worth repeating) had neglected to carry out this simple yet fundamental step, then what other corners had they cut? After finding out who was responsible (I won’t name names, I still hold out some hope that they might change their ways) I did some digging. It seems very likely that the extraction tube used was not glass, as it should be, but was in fact made from recycled plastics. Again, the harm here may not be immediately obvious, but is potentially great. When butane is passed over recycled plastic the risk of unwanted chemicals from the plastic itself leeching into the final product is extremely high; it is for this reason that glass has always been the preferred material for extraction tubes. It may be possible to remove these new contaminants with a proper vacuum-purge, but as explained before, this is not what had been happening in this case.
The final straw for me in this instance was when I discovered that the producers of this oil appear to be using a brand of butane that, although cheap, is definitely not cheerful. It is hugely important when making BHO to use the most refined and pure butane you can, preferably Newport brand or, if you can get it, food grade n-butane. The less refined brands contain very harmful chemicals such as benzene and toluene which can end up in your oil if not purged correctly. All of these factors added together led me to the inescapable conclusion that the oil this poor man had spent £400 on was not only not fit for purpose, but was in fact extremely dangerous and could well have done far more harm than good if ingested.
It is up to you whether you choose to believe that the people involved in making this oil are doing so in the knowledge that their product is harming people, or are just naive to the dangers and are genuinely trying to help. What is clear in either case is that prohibition has led to a situation where patients in dire need of professional, medical help are being forced to turn to people who either don’t have a clue what they are actually doing, or else are deliberately selling them ‘medicine’ that will in fact harm them. What I will say is that the only producers of oil I have met who had the patients’ needs at heart were certainly not charging £50 a gram. It should be mentioned here that GW Pharmaceuticals who are licenced by the Government sell Sativex at £125 a bottle which contains just about half a gram of cannabis oil – but thats legal and it makes a corperation money so it’s more than OK. Please read our report of Sativex being moved to Schedule 4 status meaning it has medicinal benefit but tries to explain the distinction between Sativex and Cannabis (not much).
This is not an isolated case. Every day I hear more and more stories of patients who are being sold oil that is in no way fit for human consumption. These people often meet their would be saviours on the internet and are assured that the oil they will receive is medical grade. It rarely is. As a general rule I would never recommend buying any kind of cannabis online without getting a good look at it before you pay, especially when it comes to oil. If you haven’t seen it being made you have no way of knowing what equipment has been used, or even what starting material. For good quality oil you need to start with good quality buds; not old buds or trim that’s been swept up off the floor. The only real option if you don’t know and trust the supplier well enough is to grow your own.
Not only is prohibition forcing the most vulnerable members of society into the hands of unscrupulous criminals; it is, at the end of the day, criminalising them, and that is the really sickening thing. By enforcing a law that treats users as criminals, you protect nobody. Medical users are being used for a quick profit by those who clearly lack a moral compass, and then hung out to dry by the government – they have nowhere to turn when the medicine they think they’ve bought turns out to be dangerous or, as is often the case, non-existent. The real criminals here are the ones producing this oil and fleecing people who don’t know any better; and yet the law essentially treats them as one and the same.
Even if your name is Peter Hitchens, and you blindly and against all the evidence cling to the belief that cannabis has no medical value, it must surely be obvious that protection comes not from prohibiting something, but from controlling and regulating it.
In the 50 or so years since the war on drugs began, no government has ever come close to stopping the use of these ‘illicit’ substances; all they have succeeded in doing is to ruin countless more lives than drugs (especially cannabis) ever have. NORML-UK and The UKCSCs offer a far more sensible and safety conscious solution to all of this. By allowing adults to possess cannabis legally – as well as allowing them to produce, buy and sell it – you allow people who need their medication to access it from a safe and reliable source (either their own garden or a dispensary/doctor). Regulations can then be placed on the production of extracts that will ensure that only the highest quality refined butane is used, the oil never comes into contact with any unnecessary contaminants, and the resulting oil is thoroughly vacuum-purged until an expert is absolutely sure that no butane remains. Under the social club model it will even be possible to take your bud to your local club to have its levels of cannabinoids tested and to make sure it does not contain any contaminants.
Not only would this result in a much higher standard of medication, it would also bring the price down. Currently cannabis oil is more valuable than gold – a state of affairs which is patently absurd and is only possible due to the effects of prohibition. A higher risk equals a higher price, and for those unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of some of this low-grade oil, the price they pay could well be their health.
NOTE: Butane is not the only solvent that can be used to make cannabis oil. 99% Isopropyl alcohol or organic ethanol can be used to produce the same results and can be much safer. Make cannabis extracts at your own risk and always seek experienced advice.
By Alvah Goldbook