GANJA JON has a pot leaf on his eye.
He'll pop it out and show it to you, if you ask. His left eye—the eye he was born with—was removed on his 25th birthday. He now wears a custom glass eye, and on it a tiny pot leaf is etched.
I met Jon when I was working on a magazine article about medical marijuana. I needed to talk to a marijuana "expert," something that, admittedly, is not very hard to come by in Portland, Oregon.
But Jon has a better claim than most to that distinction. On Conan last year, Brian Posehn told host Conan O'Brien a story about meeting Jon in a parking lot after a comedy show in Portland. "He's the super stoner," says Posehn. "He's got a stoner nickname, he calls himself Ganja Jon...." In 2012, Jon won a Cannabis Cup at the High Times Medical Cannabis Cup in Seattle, for the hash oil he produces from his Northeast Portland home. In the YouTube video of his acceptance speech—yes, Cannabis Cup award winners give acceptance speeches—he is visibly emotional. In the fine tradition of acceptance speeches everywhere, he thanks his parents.
Ganja Jon's birth name is Jon Hamm, so it's easy to understand why he goes by his nickname instead. His nom de pot (sorry) was coined by radio personality Russ Belville, with whom Jon for a time co-hosted the cannabis culture podcast NORML Show Live.
Jon has renal coloboma—a gene mutation that can affect cellular growth of the kidneys and eyes. He started smoking pot when he was in his early 20s, around the time he started kidney dialysis. (At age 27, he's had two kidney transplants so far.) The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act asserts that "Oregonians suffering from debilitating medical conditions should be allowed to use small amounts of marijuana without fear of civil or criminal penalties." Needless to say, Jon qualifies. He's a cardholding member of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP), and for the past few years he's manufactured hash oil for other OMMP patients.
Hash oil (also known as "honey oil" or "BHO," for butane hash oil) is a marijuana concentrate made by using a chemical solvent, usually butane, to strip the psychotropic elements from plant matter. The solvent is then boiled off, leaving a potent, highly concentrated oil. The advantage for patients is that a little oil goes a very long way; a single dab can last for hours. Plus it's easy to transport, doesn't have a strong odor, and delivers close to a pure dose of THC. (Some oils tests as high as 80-90 percent THC, though it varies considerably from batch to batch.)
BHO has been in the news recently, and not in a good way: In November, a 22-year-old Beaverton man was hospitalized after an explosion in his apartment caused by attempts to produce hash oil. More recently in San Diego, three people were injured in a hotel room explosion near SeaWorld. While it's perfectly possible to produce hash oil safely, the process requires caution, care, and concern for the integrity of the finished oil.
The first few times Jon encountered hash oil, he dismissed it as "like caviar"—good, but rare and hard to come by. But an experience at Portland's Cannabis Café led him to rethink its medical benefits. A man with Parkinson's came into the café, trembling so badly he couldn't speak. It took two people to hold him steady enough to smoke the oil. As soon as he did, his trembling stopped.
It was a profound moment for Jon, who would spend the next several years perfecting the techniques to make it himself. He got tips from people he met at the Cannabis Café, and later, as he traveled to various medical marijuana contests with the NORML Show, grilled other producers about their techniques. He's made more than 2,500 batches, he says, perfecting the product that won him that coveted Cannabis Cup.
The method he settled on involves using butane to strip the oil-containing cannabinoids from marijuana plants. He then uses a vacuum chamber and vacuum pump to remove as much butane as possible from his oil. He only works outside; he is careful and concerned about the safety of his operation.
His caution is warranted. Because butane is heavier than air, it tends to sink. It's also highly flammable: cue idiots trying to make hash oil at home and blowing up their apartments.
"My main concern when I started making it was cleanliness, cleanliness, cleanliness," Jon says, pointing out that under the current system, there are no quality controls in place. In addition to the possibility that you're smoking oil that still contains un-extracted butane, there's also no knowing what materials were used in producing it. Second-rate producers might use PVC pipe instead of stainless steel or glass, for example, which could leech toxins into the finished product.
I'd never seen BHO before meeting Jon. I'm not much of a pot smoker, and my interest in alternative methods of cannabis consumption is limited to brownies. (Mostly, I'm just interested in brownies.) So in his comfortable house in Northeast Portland, while a friendly pug named Milo sniffs my leg, Jon shows me his product.
It's pretty, photogenic stuff: There are pieces of wax that look like golden slivers of soap, with a brittle consistency that earns the nickname "shatter." Other batches are chunkier and cloudier, like wax roughed off the side of a candle, or a gob of earwax. (Accurately and disgustingly, "earwax" is another common name for BHO.)
Equally impressive is the collection of glass Jon has accumulated to smoke the stuff. He shows me how it's done: a titanium or glass nail is set into a special glass water pipe, and heated using a blowtorch. Once the nail is hot, a tiny dab of BHO is placed on the nail, where it immediately vaporizes. The smell is extremely faint, hardly noticeable compared to the clouds of pot that billow off a bong rip. (In the absence of fancy glass, oil is smeared into joints, added to bowls, or vaporized in a good old-fashioned knife hit.) One or two hits is sufficient for most people, making it ideal for marijuana patients who don't want to spend their whole day medicating.
Hash and hash oil are a bit of a sticky wicket under Oregon's marijuana laws—particularly for people who aren't medical marijuana cardholders.
"If you're in possession of less than an ounce of the dried buds and flowers," says defense attorney Pete Castleberry, and you're not an OMMP member, "you get violation treatment. Anything less than an ounce is a violation, like a traffic ticket. Anything more, you go from violation to B felony. It's like going from zero to 60."
The keywords there are "buds and flowers."
"The widely accepted position is that the violation treatment doesn't apply when you're talking about hash," explains Castleberry. "So the possession of any amount of hash is a B felony, automatically."
This is because, while state law defines "marijuana" as "all parts of the plant Cannabis family Moraceae," including "the resin extracted from any part of the plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the plant or its resin," the misdemeanor statute only refers specifically to "dried leaves, stems, and flowers of the plant Cannabis family Moraceae"—there's no provision for resin or alternate preparations.
The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act is based on the broader definition of marijuana, which is why advocates argue that hash oil production—despite the occasional explosion—is permitted under state law to OMMP cardholders. This doesn't mean a zealous sheriff in Washington County might not try to bust you anyway, but from a legal standpoint "it's pretty cut and dry," says Oregon lawyer Leland Berger, who specializes in medical marijuana cases. Adds Castleberry, "Some counties are going to go after you, and some might not. This stuff still needs to be ironed out. The reality is it's probably going to get legalized before we work through all this stuff."
With legalization comes regulation, and there's a good argument to be made that hash oil production, in fact, should be regulated—both to protect the integrity of the product, and to ensure that it's being produced safely. In the interests of making sure patients can get the product they need, "It needs to be regulated," Jon says. "People need to be licensed to do it safely."
In the meantime, Jon will continue trying to make safe, quality oil available to medical marijuana cardholders.
"The reason I care about taking care of the patient is because I am one," Jon says. "I'm not one of those people who broke my ankle a year ago and now has 'chronic ankle pain.' I wake up every day grateful that I'm not dead."