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Investigation: Home hash oil labs exploding in Southern California

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Southern California is seeing an increase in the number of hash oil lab explosions.

"Breaking Bad" it's not. Legions of amateur chemists are cooking up a dangerous new high and sparking catastrophic explosions from Los Angeles to San Francisco and San Diego.

The "high" comes from a concentrated form of cannabis, or marijuana, that contains high levels of THC -- often from between 70 and 90 percent. The manufacturing process involves butane, a highly flammable, odorless gas commonly used as lighter fluid.

The end result is a highly-profitable drug known as butane hash oil, which can be ingested as an oil, consumed in edibles, or solidified to make concentrated forms of cannabis with names like wax, shatter and honeycomb. Marijuana dispensaries sell concentrated cannabis for about $45 a gram, but the price reaches even higher on the street, up to $100 a gram.

PHOTOS: Inside a SoCal hash oil lab

Twenty-three-year-old Colton Dorich was making butane hash oil in a motel room near Sea World in San Diego in January of 2013. He'd been at it for about six hours; he'd just finished the process of extracting the oil from the marijuana; butane gas was filling the room.

Colton lit what he planned to be a "victory cigarette" on his way out of the motel room. What happened next is seared into his memory.
"The whole room became a big fireball," Colton recalls. "As I hit the corner, the main explosion happened. The whole building shook, and all the windows on the second story blew out."

Colton stumbled into the first open door he could find, ran into the bathroom and turned on the shower to put the flames out. "I was on fire for, I think, about ten seconds," Colton told Eyewitness News. The room was on fire as well. Colton made his way downstairs. "I remember looking down at my hands and feet and my skin was in little curled pieces sticking up off my hands and I could see all the muscle underneath."

Colton was hospitalized with severe burns to his face, hands, feet and torso. Two other people at the motel that day were also injured. Three rooms were destroyed. Colton was put into an induced coma for a month.

Detective Frank Lyga, with the L.A. Impact narcotics task force, has investigated more than fifty hash oil labs around Los Angeles County. More than twenty of those labs exploded.

WATCH: Stovetop hash oil demonstration goes bad (WARNING: Graphic language)

"Butane is a flammable gas, it's very volatile," says Detective Lyga. "Static electricity will set it off, cigarettes, light switches. It's a flash fire, a combustion fire where the flammable vapors ignite and expand at a high rate of speed."

Lyga has seen burn injuries that are almost too horrific for words. "All the skin was burned off and all of the tissue was charred to the bone, so the muscles were like a burned steak," Lyga recalls of one suspect burned in a hash oil explosion.

Money is the driving force. Unlike meth labs, so prevalent in the nineties, hash oil labs are easy and inexpensive to set up. They don't require much space, the necessary equipment can be purchased at any hardware store and how-to videos for wannabe chemists are easy to find on YouTube. Neighbors aren't likely to notice anything amiss, until the lab blows up.

"It endangers not only the individuals manufacturing it, but endangers the neighborhood because it blows the house up. We haven't had an innocent victim hurt yet, but it's only a matter of time," says Lyga who investigated a lab in Sylmar last year that blew up while seven children were in the house. The children got out unharmed.
Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Ashley Rosen is assigned to the Major Narcotics Division. Prosecuting suspects connected to butane hash oil labs has become her focus in the last year and a half as the explosions become more widespread.

WATCH: Backyard hash oil demonstration ends with blast

"The sentencing range is 3 years, 5 years or 7 years," says Rosen who often has to wait to see if a suspect survives before she can take the case to trial.
"I think severe is a good way to describe the injuries. They range anywhere from 10% to 90% of the body being burned, anywhere from 1st degree burns to 3rd degree burns and other associated injuries. Shrapnel, smoke inhalation, we've had people in induced comas to facilitate treatment," says Rosen who adds that one suspect lost his leg.

Many of those injured spend months undergoing painful skin grafts and extensive reconstructive surgeries. The Grossman Burn Center in West Hills has treated more than a dozen butane hash oil makers with critical burns.

"Anyone can go on YouTube right now and anyone can be a manufacturer. The problem is people don't realize the potential devastating, life-long effects of an explosion like this," says Dr. Peter Grossman. "There's a blast effect, just like with a bomb. And sometimes with that you get other internal organ damage, brain injury, internal gastrointestinal injury from the concussive blast effect of the explosion."

Colton Dorich, the now-convicted hash oil maker in San Diego, is living proof. Raised, red scars riddle his hands and feet; his face is a patchwork of damaged skin.

"I remember looking in the mirror, that my entire face was scabs," says Colton who agreed to our interview in hopes of dissuading other would-be chemists. Colton spent months in the hospital before pleading guilty to the criminal charges against him. He was sentenced to two years in custody, plus three years of mandatory supervision by the Department of Probation.

"What you're doing is building a bomb in a room that is filled with butane gas," says San Diego Deputy District Attorney David Williams who prosecuted Colton's case.
"This is not somebody growing a plant in their backyard that they're using for medicinal purposes. These labs are dangerous, they're explosive and they absolutely endanger the community at large," says Williams.

Colton Dorich agrees. "Realistically, what I've done very well could have killed any number of people, or you know, brought them very close to death like I was. And that's the worst part of all this to me, that I endangered the lives of others."

Colton says a love of chemistry is what sparked his initial interest in manufacturing butane hash oil. He hopes to build on his knowledge and put it to good use once he's served his time in jail.

"I'd like to study chemistry in college and make a career out of it, so I can do something helpful for society, rather than helpful to me," says Colton.

Contact: Email Eyewitness News Investigative Producer Lisa Bartley
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