• Neil Ide

The filthy price of cannabis.

Updated: Sep 10

Cannabinoids are a rapidly developing field of medicine that shows incredible promise. I've heard a lot of miraculous accounts of the positive health benefits and ability to treat various disease conditions. At this point, I'm confident that legal cannabis is more or less an inevitability, and this is a good thing.

But everything has a price.

Atomic Energy/Nuclear Weapons

Fossil Fuels/Climate Change

Internet/Information Crisis

Cell Phones/Tumors

It's the inescapable Yin Yang; there is no such thing as all upside.

Prohibition has the unfortunate consequence of generating outlaws and enabling illegal financial empires to grow. In legal markets when two companies have a dispute with each other, they are handled in the drawn out system of civil court. It's slow and painful but, it is most definitely not violent and bloody. The black market contains a libertarian spirit which is romantic and delightful, but it also shelters the violent and bloody demons of the world as well.

I'm often fascinated by the ingenuity of the black market. Unlike legal markets, the black market is not obsessed with degrees and academic accolades for the production and distribution of chemical products. The industry regularly collaborates in open-source chemistry aided by the internet. Open-Source is a boon to the knowledge of people who otherwise don't get academic access. The equipment and techniques that have been developed in the black market for cannabis production, extraction, and refinement are absolutely fascinating. However much of this equipment is built and run in a completely half-baked manner.

Solvent extraction

The solvent extraction process is prevalent in many industries, not just cannabis. For instance coffee is decaffeinated via solvent extraction. The way the process works is that the originating plant is immersed in solvent, which dissolves the natural oils produced by the plant producing a liquor. The liquor is then separated from the plant material and the solvent is boiled off.

The number of potential solvents is a huge list but I'll focus on the main ones in use:

  • Propane

  • Butane

  • CO2

  • Ethanol

The first 3 listed all boil at atmospheric pressure and temperature, and to this very day many processors will practice something called open-blasting. Open blasting uses no solvent recovery mechanism, and involves straight dumping hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.


Fortunately, open blasting is illegal, not that the black market cares.

In legal regulated labs, cannabis extraction equipment is required to be installed into a C1D1 rated extraction booth. The booth is where operators work. C1D1 means 'explosive atmospheric conditions', as an industrial engineer, and a veteran, I think the only time a person should work in a potentially explosive atmosphere, is if they are a soldier in an active war zone.

These 'C1D1' rated environments are nearly always equipped with a single door for entry and exit which is a terrible idea. If the egress route gets blocked by fire, an operator has to run through the fire receiving 3rd degree burns to escape, or die. NFPA or "National Fire Protection Agency" explicitly calls out that any space with specific energy hazards need have two access points on opposite sides. Apparently every fire marshal is overlooking this detail. WTF!

The majority of butane/propane/CO2 solvent extraction equipment being sold in the canna market today are column-loading machines. Column-loaders are the cheapest easiest way to build a garage extractor. I've never seen a column-loader that gave me a good feeling.


Because column loading machines require an operator to use hand tools to operate on a regular basis. Ask any industrial engineer that's worth a shit if an operator should be using hand tools to operate machinery and the answer will be: ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!


An operator manually assembling and disassembling the parts of a machine to operate it means that the machine is a ticking time-bomb. The operator is at inherent risk of making a mistake. Low and behold, there are several documented incidents of injury and explosion related to hand-tool operated extractors.

The grey market (came from black, sold to open market) designs have been regulated to include pressure relief valves on the column-loaders many vessels. However, there are no factory integration standards. Factory standards should dictate that the discharge from a pressure relief valve be ducted into a safety exhaust. So if a pressure relief vents, and they almost always inevitably do, the operator gets a face full of solvent from non-ducted reliefs. I spoke to an operator a couple years ago that skin grafts all over their arms and face. Their story was a familiar one:

"I was pulling the material sock (plastic sock) out of the column and a static discharge happened causing the butane rich sock of biomass to explode in my face. The explosion from the bag caused an adjacent pressure relief valve to lift and it ignited into a 6 foot flamethrower in the extraction booth. While receiving burns I flipped all the necessary valves to contain the incident."

Don't trust the fire marshal with your life. They have no clue what they are looking at. Get an engineer from an established industrial chemical industry to review your factory.

Almost all Solvent Extractors are built improperly

Black market open-source designers have come up with the fundamental designs in the cheapest ways possible; and those very designs have translated over to gray market equipment manufacturers sold to white market companies. White market equipment manufacturers have an unbelievably difficult time selling equipment because to build it right means the gear should cost like 4x more money than the grey market companies equipment.

Because the cannabis industry generally suffers from poor access to capital, legal operators are cornered into buying the shitty equipment and hoping for the best. Of course many of these business owners don't even know better and thus buy crap out of ignorance.

This one time I even got a bunch of bullshit back from the CEO of a CO2 extractor manufacturer who is a Ph.D Biochem after I tried to inform them that their machine was using all the wrong parts, had several non-federal code compliant design flaws and was inherently unsafe. Apparently he didn't want to hear it.

If your equipment doesn't kill you your operators just might do so anyway.

Since a huge number of people in the industry have "previous cannabis experience" it means that they we're trained by the black market on black market gear. So far off to a bad start. Don't hire people with previous cannabis experience, it could cost you your life. A new friend of mine in the industry was robbed and murdered by former employees of his. If you go to MJ biz con its a veritable whos-who of shady characters. Avoid these people. They are dangerous as they are reckless.

Businesses get in disputes all the time. In the legal markets like software and other stuff these disputes are handled in a civil manner using the court system. Black market people don't generally think like that. Get into a dispute with a black marketer and you had better be prepared to pay to make it go away. Because if you don't they might just come to your house and kill you. Don't fight that bull. It's not worth it.

Federal legalization is coming

Nobody can predict exactly when, but more voters believe it should be legal than not. When federal legalization happens 90% of these problems go away. Because these companies equipment and practices won't pass federal muster. This is a good thing.

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