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First butane drug lab found in Unicoi County

Sheriff Mike Hensley, right, and Chief Deputy Frank Rogers inspect drug paraphernalia believed to be used in a butane lab found inside a room at the Best Southern Motel. (Erwin Record Staff Photos by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

A new threat has made its way to the Valley Beautiful, according to local law enforcement officials.

On Monday, June 5, the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department discovered what Sheriff Mike Hensley described as the first “butane lab” to be found in the county in a room at the Best Southern Motel located on Jackson-Love Highway in Erwin.

Hensley said a deputy visited the room to serve a warrant for failure to pay fines and costs and spotted the lab, which led to the investigation and the arrest of Katrena Star Bowers, 36, of Erwin. Hensley said Bowers had been living there for approximately two years.

“They use wax to enhance the THC in marijuana,” Hensley said of the lab and its process. “It is highly flammable. We have called in the Meth Task Force to come and dispose of the materials.”

A UCSD meth technician, wearing protective clothing in order to enter the motel room and remove materials, was working the scene on Monday. The Erwin Police Department and Erwin Fire Department were also at the scene. Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson also confirmed that this was the first butane lab his department has seen in the county.

According to information available online from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a butane lab is used to create a marijuana concentrate that can have a THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) level of 40-80 percent, which is much stronger than the average 20 percent level of “high grade” marijuana.

“Being a highly concentrated form of marijuana, the effects upon the user may be more psychologically and physically intense than plant marijuana use,” the DEA reports in the publication “What You Should Know About Marijuana Concentrates” published in December 2014.

The drug created by the butane process goes by the street name “wax,” and is also known as “honey oil,” “budder” or “710,” according to the DEA publication. The DEA also reports that “wax” is typically smoked through a water or oil pipe, but it can also be ingested through food or drink products. Some users use an e-cigarette or vaporizer, according to the DEA.

“Many abusers of marijuana concentrates prefer the e-cigarette/vaporizer because it’s smokeless, odorless and easy to hide or conceal,” the DEA publication states.

Hensley said “wax” can also be used “like a cream.”

“You can rub it on your skin and absorb it that way,” he added.

The manufacture of “wax” is a dangerous endeavor, according to law enforcement officials.

“Our main concern is to ventilate the room to get the butane out,” Hensley said on Monday. “That will take care of the danger of an explosion.”

The DEA reports that a butane lab is “particularly dangerous because it uses highly flammable butane to extract THC from the cannabis plant.” The DEA publication also describes a butane lab, saying: “In this process, shredded or ground up plant material is stuffed into a glass, metal, or plastic pipe, with a filter on one end and then the butane is forced in the open end of the pipe. As the butane goes through the pipe, the THC within the plant material is extracted and forced through the filter usually into a receptacle. The receptacle is then heated to burn off the remaining butane creating a butane gas. Given the extremely volatile nature of heating butane and creating a gas, this process has resulted in violent explosions.”

Hensley said there are misconceptions about the dangers of “wax.”

“This is serious stuff,” Hensley said. “It is an enhancement of THC, which is the compound in marijuana that makes you high. It’s not just a little pot as some people like to think.”

The DEA publication describes the dangers of a marijuana concentrate thusly: “Being a highly concentrated form of marijuana, the effects upon the user may be more psychologically and physically intense than plant marijuana use.”

While the danger of using the drug is concerning, Hensley said his department is also worried about the dangers posed by the manufacturing process of “wax.”

“When this product is being manufactured people have suffered third-degree burns and places have actually blown up,” he added. “When you’ve got several cans of butane in, say, a motel room and you’ve got several people living on each side of you – maybe families traveling with kids – and the butane vapor ignites, it’s just like a bomb, it will go off. It’s very dangerous. When you have this product being made in a motel, it could be a disaster waiting to happen.”

According to Hensley, Bowers has been charged by the UCSD with two counts of felony reckless endangerment, one count possession of a weapon during a felony, one count of maintaining a dwelling where drugs are used or sold, one count of the manufacture of schedule I drugs, one count of possession of schedule VI for resale, one count of felony possession of drug paraphernalia, one count of the possession of a schedule VI drug and one count of possession of schedule VI. Investigators believe she has been manufacturing “wax” for approximately six months. Bowers is scheduled to appear in court on July 6.