Butane, used as a solvent in making hash, is among the more controversial substances for medical marijuana users. Experts like Westword medical marijuana reviewer William Breathes, believe butane extracts are safe when done properly. But Wanda James, co-owner of the cannabis edibles company Simplypure.com, is 100 percent anti-butane, and she's encouraging fellow manufacturers to stop using it before something terrible happens.
James and her husband and partner, Scott Durrah, are prominent members of Colorado's medical marijuana community. For instance, both appeared (along with Breathes) in The Daily Show's May 2010 segment on the state's pot scene. She's also not afraid to speak out against what she sees as problems in the industry, as opposed to taking an it's-all-good approach. And that's led her to target butane.
"We've done a lot of research," James says. "We're a chef-driven company, and Scott has taken a look at what edibles are and who's eating them. We're concerned about how we can continue to help patients heal.
"We know butane hash is very popular. Lots of edible companies and dispensaries use it, and there's lots of disagreements going back and forth, with people who like it saying that if it's done correctly, there's less than 1 percent butane left in the finished product. But people throw out these percentages without being able to say if they're accurate or not, and without knowing if even 1 percent butane might be harmful."
This concern is heightened for patients whose immune systems have been compromised, James maintains. "If you're going through chemotherapy, anything that's reducing your body's ability to deal with chemicals and solvents is the last thing we should be giving to people," she believes. "There's no way of knowing if there's a problem until someone has an adverse reaction to it, and then, the only way the consumer would know if it wasn't done right is if every batch was lab-tested for what's contained in it. And I don't know of any edible company out there that's testing every batch of butane hash that's made."
Another potential factor "is how many edibles you're eating," she continues. "If someone with lung cancer or someone going through chemo is eating a lot of these edibles with solvents, what does that 1 percent mean over the course of a week? And the last thing we want in this industry is for anyone -- even one person -- to be harmed by an edible."
For these reasons, Simply Pure eschews butane hash in favor of bubble hash, "where we do a cold extraction of the cannabanoids from the plant material," James explains. "It's done with ice and water. There are no solvents, nothing added to it."
Why doesn't every company take a similar approach? "It's extremely labor-intensive," James says, "and it's also expensive, because you have to buy the equipment to make it happen. Quite frankly, making edibles with butane hash leads to a dramatically cheaper product, which is why it's been popular in the marketplace. But it's popular without consumers understanding what they're doing. So many people say it's safe, but we don't really know that."
What about the potent jolt butane hash offers? James thinks "a lot of the high you get from a butane extraction may not always be from the quality of the cannabis. Some of that may be from the butane that's in it."
Besides, "the point of medicinal edibles is not to be high. The point is to get the THC and the cannabanoids into your system so that they can do the most good when it comes to pain relief, relaxation, relieving muscle spasms and so on. A lot of people do eat edibles to get a sustained high, but if your high is coming from a solvent-based gas, then it becomes the opposite of what medical marijuana is supposed to be about."
James knows taking such a public stance against butane may bother some of her peers. "A lot of people are afraid to stand up, because they don't want anyone to think they're attacking other people in the industry," she acknowledges. "And we're not attacking anyone in the industry. We think it's phenomenal, and we want to see it continue to be phenomenal. But our concern is that if anyone is harmed by something containing butane, it could bring down the entire edibles industry. And we want to make edibles safe for every patient: younger people, older people, people on chemo, people with HIV."
Her bottom line? "The medical marijuana movement is supposed to be about natural healing. And if we're talking about holistic, natural healing, there's no place for butane in that equation."