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LA Warehouse Explosion Possibly Linked to Unlicensed Cannabis Concentrate Producer

May 19, 2020

LA Warehouse Explosion Possibly Linked to Unlicensed Cannabis Concentrate Producer

An explosion has injured 12 firefighters called to tackle a fire at a hash oil manufacturer in downtown Los Angeles, California on Saturday, May 16. 

Firefighters were initially called to the building, the premises of Smoke Tokes, a smoking and vaping products distributor and wholesaler, following reports of a fire and light-to-moderate smoke inside.

After the fire crew entered the premises at around 6:30pm local time, Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Erik Scott said “one significant explosion” shook the neighborhood, and the firefighters fled the building.

As of the latest update, eight firefighters remain hospitalized after being injured in the blast, with three more being released after spending Saturday night in hospital. A twelfth member of the fire crew was also treated and released for a minor injury.

Two of the firefighters still in hospital are thought to be in a critical condition, though Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters at a news conference on Saturday night that all of the injured are “going to make it.”


The perils of illicit cannabis production

Over 230 firefighters responded to the explosion and were able to douse the fire in an hour.

Captain Scott revealed that the building concerned in the blaze was a warehouse for SmokeTokes, which he described as a maker of “butane honey oil,” or hash oil. Butane hash oil (BHO) extraction is one of the methods that cannabis producers can use to produce cannabis concentrates. It’s significantly cheaper than other methods of making concentrate, such as CO2 extraction, although the use of highly flammable butane solvent does make the BHO method more dangerous in the event that a failure occurs.

The California Department of Public Health has no record of SmokeTokes holding a manufacturing license. Other Los Angeles officials described the SmokeTokes location as a “ghost business,” as the business doesn’t appear in local regulatory records. The company is incorporated as a limited liability company with the state, the officials told NBC News, but the city has no record of it.

“The tragic events of Saturday’s explosion are a direct consequence of cannabis prohibitionist policies combined with lax enforcement against illegal retail and manufacturing operators,” said Wesley Hein, a licensed cannabis company executive at Mammoth Distribution, to Leafly. “The only plausible reason for a vape supply company in downtown LA to be wholesaling butane canisters is to serve the needs of illegal extractors.”

Detectives from the LA Fire Department’s Arson and Counterterrorism section and the LA Police Department’s Major Crimes Division have launched a criminal investigation into what may have ignited the blast.


The dangers of butane hash oil extraction

In 2016 a similar fire broke out at a business named Smoke Tokes, located at a nearby address. Reports from the time indicate that this blaze required more than 160 firefights to extinguish the fire and once again there were pressurized butane cylinders that exploded as the fire raged on, though nobody was injured. It’s currently unclear whether the two businesses are connected.

Regulators are aware of the dangers posed by BHO extraction operations, which is why licensed extractors in California are required to follow 107 pages of materials safety regulations in order to operate legally.

“Name one licensed manufacturer or a licensed wholesale supplier like AirGas where something like this happened. You can’t,” said Nate Bradley, a former police officer and the head of the Cannabis Consumer Policy Council, to Leafly. “This only serves to show that painful consequence of not regulating cannabis nationally.

Adam Spiker, executive director of the cannabis industry group Southern California Coalition, told the Associated Press that he didn’t know what kind of activities had been carried out in the building concerned in Saturday’s fire, however if SmokeTokes was using butane in cannabis extraction then it would be an illegal business, as the city has never issued a license for this type of activity.

“If they were doing volatile extraction with butane[...] they couldn’t be legal in the city of LA to do those types of activities,” Spiker said.

Even if a license had been issued, due to safety concerns these types of facilities would normally be restricted to industrial areas and kept away from urban centers.

“Something about this doesn’t pass the smell test,” Spiker added, saying that the information released so far “puts up a lot of alarm bells.”

 

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