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Hash Oil Burns A Growing Problem For California Hospitals

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Tracey Clark's two teenage sons landed in intensive care, enveloped in gauze and their faces raw and red from burns over 40 to 60 percent of their bodies suffered in a fire, which prosecutors say was caused by an illegal hash-oil lab at their uncle's duplex.

"I was scared they were going to die," said Clark.

Similar scenes have played out throughout California in recent years as intense fires from the illegal manufacture of butane hash oil - cheap and easy to make but extremely volatile - have exploded, the Sacramento Bee reported Sunday.

At two of Northern California's major burn treatment centers - UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento and Shriners Hospitals for Children, Northern California - injuries from butane hash-oil explosions account for 8 to 10 percent of severe burn cases, a larger percentage than from car wrecks and house fires combined, said Dr. David Greenhalgh, chief burn surgeon at both hospitals.

"It's kind of an epidemic for us," Greenhalgh said. There have been times when half of the 12 beds in UC Davis' burn unit were filled with patients injured in hash-oil explosions, he said.

Between 2007 and 2014, 101 patients with suspected or confirmed burns from butane fires were admitted to the two hospitals, most of them in the past three years, according to Greenhalgh. Most were adults, but six of the admitted patients were under 18.

Statewide, illegal manufacturing of hash oil has become a public health menace on a par with illegal methamphetamine labs in prior decades. While federal and state statistics on butane hash-oil explosions are not readily available, there are numerous reports of arrests and fires at the local level.

In Butte County, for instance, prosecutors said 31 illegal hash-oil operations were uncovered in 2014. "We're already on track to exceed that this year," District Attorney Michael Ramsey said. The numbers are similar to the annual count of meth labs the county was breaking up in the 1980s and '90s, he said.

Butane hash oil, a highly concentrated form of cannabis, is illegal to manufacture but is legal to sell under California's medical marijuana law, meaning dispensaries must get their supply from illicit operations, according to law enforcement officials.

Hash oil, made from discarded marijuana trimmings and used to make cookies and candies, sells for $800 to $1,300 per pound wholesale and can have a retail street value of $22,000 per pound.

The lucrative market is helping to drive hash-oil production, while the wide availability of online videos and inexpensive supplies is compounding the number of tragic fires, said law enforcement and medical professionals.

Lawmakers are looking at ways to regulate the sale of butane. A bill introduced in February would prohibit any individual from buying more than 400 milliliters of butane in a month and impose reporting requirements on retailers.

Similar limits on the cold medicine pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of methamphetamine, are credited with curbing meth production in California in recent years.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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