Canada’s Underground Weed Extraction Industry

April 23, 2016

Before the home in a quiet suburban neighborhood north of Toronto suddenly exploded and burned to the ground last month, there really was no way to tell there was a marijuana extraction lab inside involving flammable chemicals.

Neighbors did know that a family lived there. All five of them — including a baby and two toddlers — had to be rushed to the hospital for smoke inhalation and a range of injuries. A video taken by someone outside captures the panicked scene in the street, and endless billows of smoke coming from the house that’s almost entirely destroyed.

York Regional Police investigators later announced there was a drug lab in the house used to extract tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from cannabis and that the parents, and another man, have been charged with arson, and marijuana production and trafficking.

Police and fire departments across Canada confront at least a dozen such explosions linked to these extraction labs every year. In many cases, producers live at the home where they set up makeshift labs to create concentrated, highly potent, forms of cannabis, such as “shatter” — the most common extract on the market that can look like hard taffy. It’s smoked or vaporized, commonly known as “dabbing.”

Experts in the field say marijuana extractions are the fastest growing part of the Canadian cannabis industry, with many dispensaries claiming it comprises more than 50 percent of total sales. And over the last five years or so, there’s been a boom in commercial extraction ventures, especially in British Columbia, selling to individual customers and shops across the country.

In Canada, the only legal way to get marijuana is with a prescription directly from one of the companies licensed by the federal government to grow and sell medical cannabis — in either dried bud form, and, as of recently, a low-dosage oil. It’s these entrepreneurial extractors — many of whom showcase their wares on social media — who fill a massive demand in the market for extractions, which are preferred by tens of thousands of patients.

But it’s these explosions that the more reputable business owners say give them a bad reputation, and unnecessarily puts people’s lives at risk. That’s why they’re eager for the federal government to release a legalization framework that might finally bring everyone out into the open. In the meantime, a number of people working in extractions have come up with their own code of conduct and set of best practices, that they hope the government will one day co-opt and enforce on everyone else.

The owner of Maple Leaf Extractions, a medium-sized company that opened in the Greater Vancouver Area two years ago, told VICE News in an interview he’s having a hard time keeping up with the demand, which he says has increased 10-fold over the last year alone. He wished to remain anonymous for fear of possible legal ramifications operating in the grey market, so he’s referred to as John.

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