Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 1, 2020.

Two Steps Back?

Legal pot proponents voice concerns following a Los Angeles blaze that injured a dozen firefighters


Advocates for the nation’s legal cannabis industry fear that a recent fire in Los Angeles could become a setback for companies and individuals who are conducting their operations safely and lawfully.

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On May 16, a fire broke out at Smoke Tokes Wholesale Distributor, a business in East LA that sold cannabis-related products. Footage shot by local television news stations and other outlets captured the challenge faced by responding firefighters. With fire already pouring from the front of a single-story commercial building, firefighters began to descend from the roof along an aerial ladder perched above the flames. In an instant, the fire shooting from the building quadrupled in size, engulfing the retreating firefighters. “Some of them … ran out onto sidewalks, where they tore off their burning protective equipment, including melted helmets,” Fire Engineering reported. Twelve firefighters were injured, including several who were severely burned. An incident report from the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) also said apparatus, tools, and equipment suffered significant damage.

A criminal probe has been launched by the city to determine what caused the incident, but many have speculated that it involved butane after firefighters reported seeing small, empty butane canisters outside of the building. Butane, an easily ignitable, odorless gas, can be used to extract ingredients from marijuana, creating potent and increasingly popular THC or CBD oils. Usually, canisters like the ones found at the scene of the fire are used in a dangerous and illegal extraction process known as open blasting.

RELATED: Read "Welcome to the Jungle"; read "The New Face of Pot"; explore more NFPA resources.

As damaging as the fire was, it could become even more so if it’s found that illegal activities were taking place at the facility. In recent years, experts say, the industry has gone to great lengths to improve safety through the introduction of stringent regulations and by distancing itself from practices like open blasting. Advocates fear the Smoke Tokes blaze could tarnish the industry’s safety record and undo the goodwill it had built in states that may have been reluctant to welcome the legal cannabis business.

“It’s a black eye on the entire industry,” said Dustin Mahon, director of consulting services for ExtractionTek Solutions, a Colorado-based company that manufactures extraction equipment. “It’s really important for people in our industry to understand things like this are still happening and to do what they can to prevent them.”

Overcoming a setback

Few industries have grown like the legal cannabis industry over the past two decades. In 2000, only seven states nationwide allowed medical marijuana. Today, that number has grown to 33, and 12 of those states, including California, have fully legalized marijuana to include recreational use. Estimates put the legal cannabis industry in the US at about $20 billion in 2020.

One of the most explosive areas of growth has been the rise in cannabis extracts, including THC products as well as non-psychoactive CBD products; a range of CBD offerings is springing up on grocery store shelves, including oils, lotions, and lollipops. Globally, the cannabis extract industry is poised to grow by nearly 17 percent over the next seven years, according to a market analysis report released early this year.

From the beginning, extraction has been among the chief concerns of fire safety officials—and for good reason. In 2011, when Mahon moved to Colorado from his home state of Wyoming to join the burgeoning medical marijuana industry, he started doing extraction using open blasting. Essentially, the technique involves stuffing marijuana leaves into a container and blasting the contents with butane or other solvents to force out the oils. It’s a dangerous process that can easily result in an explosion, but “that’s how everyone was doing it back then,” Mahon said.

Since then, as the industry has matured, its processes have become more refined. Now operators like Mahon crave regulation. “I struggle now when I go into a new state and they have a book of regulations that’s only 30 pages, when I’m used to 300 pages,” he said.

The company Mahon works for, ExtractionTek Solutions, has been a force in promoting safe extraction methods in particular, selling equipment that extracts marijuana through what’s known as a closed-loop system. “The gas gets recycled, and it’s a much safer and more efficient way to operate,” Mahon said.

Even so, open blasting, which Mahon referred to as a “Wild West approach to extraction,” hasn’t been entirely eliminated. “It’s inevitable,” he said. “Just as there are still people illegally making moonshine, there are always going to be people out there trying to skirt the rules. Open blasting is a cheap, quick way to make a high-potency product.”

It’s unclear whether the Smokes Tokes fire was the result of open blasting, the improper storage of butane, or something else altogether. Either way, the incident has already been labeled a consequence of the legal cannabis industry.

“Normalization and legalization fuels demand, and demand fuels these kinds of things happening,” Kevin Sabet, who authored a 2013 book arguing against marijuana legalization, wrote on Twitter in the days following the fire. “No drug dealer invented this increased appetite for ridiculous THC products—good old American capitalism did.”

Media reports also identified Smokes Tokes as a hash oil manufacturer, suggesting the business was part of the legal cannabis industry in California. But according to an article published in Forbes two days after the fire, a spokesman for the state Bureau of Cannabis Control confirmed there was no state-licensed cannabis business at the address. In other words, if extraction of any kind was occurring at the facility, it wasn’t legal.

That has representatives of the legal cannabis industry holding their breath. “Though it may be weeks or longer before arson investigators piece together the actual cause, the lesson for drug-policy reform advocates and anyone in the cannabis industry is that baked-in anti-drug biases will take much longer than that to fade away,” Chris Roberts, a reporter noted for his coverage of the cannabis industry, wrote in the Forbes article. “You can do everything right and still suffer a setback in the information wars.”

According to Ray Bizal, misconceptions over the legal cannabis industry existed among public safety officials and policymakers even before the Los Angeles blaze. Bizal, the regional operations director for NFPA, stressed that point in an interview for a recent NFPA Podcast, which he participated in just days before the Smoke Tokes fire. Many people unfamiliar with the industry assume extraction and other processes are conducted in an unprofessional manner, Bizal said in the interview. “And I think that’s a misconception,” he added. “The cannabis industry does want to do a good job. They want to be safe … They don’t want to jeopardize their business and create problems.”

Listen to NFPA's Ray Bizal discuss the legal cannabis industry on a recent NFPA Podcast.

For Mahon, the best way for industry insiders to overcome whatever hurdles the Smokes Tokes incident introduces will be by continuing to embrace regulation like he and so many others have done in recent years. “We need to be the leaders. We need to self-regulate,” he said. “The only way this industry can survive is with regulations and uniformity across the board.”

In 2018, a new chapter on marijuana growing and processing facilities was added to NFPA 1, Fire Code. Mahon described the addition as “a big step in the right direction,” and urged anyone in the legal cannabis industry who isn’t familiar with the chapter to study it. (The chapter, and NFPA 1 in its entirety, can be read for free online at

While growers and extractors can work to familiarize themselves with the current regulatory resources, it’s also critical for authorities having jurisdiction to learn more about the industry and to try and prevent future incidents like the one in Los Angeles.

“The cannabis industry changes quickly,” Bizal told NFPA Journal. “It’s important to inspect these facilities, make sure they’re code compliant, and note what they are doing now as a benchmark for the next inspection.” 

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images