Trio faces amplified drug charges Manufacturing charges filed for trio in pot case

September 12, 2006

Bruce Gerstman, Contra Costa Times

A fire and explosion in a suburban San Ramon garage in February exposed a lesser-known form of marijuana and ignited a debate about its safety.

Prosecutors say three men were mixing butane with crushed marijuana leaves to extract what is known as honey oil, a concentrated form of cannabis, which was going to be used in a medical marijuana dispensary.

In what county prosecutors call a first for a marijuana case, the District Attorney's Office has filed charges against the three men for manufacturing a controlled substance -- a charge usually associated with methamphetamine and rock cocaine. A conviction on the charge carries a penalty more than double that of cultivation charges.

"If you're going to say this is medicine, then the public has a right to know how it's made," said deputy district attorney Dana Filkowski

The District Attorney's decision brings out a dispute between law enforcement officials who say the manufacturing process might harm sick people and medical marijuana advocates who say butane use poses no health risk and patients know about the process.

Prosecutors say William Stoeckel, 20, Ashley Stoeckel, 24, and Eric Hughes, 23, caused a fire on Feb. 7 on Joree Lane. The are charged with manufacturing a controlled substance, cultivating marijuana, possessing marijuana for sale, conspiracy and poisoning.

The trio appeared last week in Contra Costa Superior Court in Walnut Creek where a judge reduced their bail from $1.2 million to $620,000 each.

They have pleaded not guilty. Their attorneys did not return calls to the Times.

Filkowski said they were making oil for Ken Estes, owner of a Richmond medical marijuana dispensary, who was arrested last month when police pulled his truck over on a routine traffic stop and found 27 pounds of marijuana inside.

Honey oil is produced by extracting THC from marijuana leaves. Butane is added to crushed marijuana to separate the chemical from the leaves. Users consume the oil in food or smear it on cigarettes or marijuana joints.

Butane is a flammable gas often used in cigarette lighters and in canisters for cooking and camping. It evaporates almost immediately after hitting the air.

Filkowski said the men were working with dozens of canisters of butane, which could have been ignited by even a small spark.

She said the idea behind the manufacturing charge, which carries a sentence of up to seven years in state prison, is that the men used the butane to transform one material into another with different properties. "It turns the marijuana into another substance," she said.

Filkowski compared the process to making methamphetamine, where cooks change pseudoephedrine, contained in medications like Sudafed, to methamphetamine.

Texas-based chemical toxicologist Thomas Dydek said the butane causes no change.

"It's more like extracting the essence of the marijuana into an oil, like getting peanut oil out of peanuts," he said.

Health risks are unclear, Filkowski said. Patients who use cannabis for their ailments might not know that people who make the oil use butane.

"If you're making medicine for sick people, you must let them know that it's being made with butane," she said.

But patients are aware of it, said Jeff Jones, executive director of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club. Clubs promote the process as risk-free.

"Yes, they know," said Jeff Jones, executive director of the Oakland Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club. Clubs promote the process as especially risk-free. "It's popularized as a butane process. It's usually advertised as such."

A half-dozen doctors who prescribe medicinal cannabis contacted by the Times said they were aware of the oil, but did not know how safe it is.

Sausalito-based physician and psychiatrist Eugene Schoenfeld said butane might pose a threat of explosion to the makers, but not to the patient.

"I don't think there would be enough butane in the hash oil to affect people," he said. "I don't think the butane is much of a danger to the consumer."

Dydek said people who consume the oil are not at risk.

"(The butane) would tend to dissipate. It doesn't tend to hang around very long," Dydek said. "The toxicity of butane is not very great.

"I think there would be more problems with people manufacturing it," he said.

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