Humboldt Bay Fire Chief Bill Gillespie gave a presentation on butane hash lab explosions on Oct. 18, urging the Eureka City Council to pass an ordinance that would cap sales and possession of the volatile fuel within city limits. (The council will vote on the ordinance next month.) Gillespie said local city and county lawmakers are watching Eureka closely, and may introduce their own ordinances in due time.
Gillespie's presentation included photos of makeshift labs encountered by his firefighters, with one depicting hundreds of 600 mL butane canisters piled in a room adjacent to open flames. In February, the department made a controversial policy change, deciding its firefighters would no longer enter active fires if there is a hash or honey oil lab inside. To illustrate the dangers faced by fire personnel, Gillespie showed the council a video of an explosion in a medical marijuana dispensary in Santa Fe. The footage, captured by the dispensary's security camera, shows flames erupting in an employee's face. The explosion caused the roof to collapse as he frantically tried to escape the room, his hair alight. The New Mexico laboratory was later found to be in violation of several codes related to employee health and safety, and its owners eventually paid $13,500 in fines to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
While the video underscores the danger and power of such explosions, it also inspires fresh questions related to the legalization of recreational cannabis, which California voters will decide next month. Locally, Gillespie and his colleagues have seen a host of unprofessional labs go up in flames, with Humboldt Bay Fire estimating at one point last year that hash lab explosions accounted for almost 20 percent of its structure fire calls. Will legalization — and a new regulatory framework for extract operations — stem the tide of explosive operations?
In a phone interview with the Journal, Gillespie said he and his colleagues can see several benefits to legalization. The permitting process may mean fewer fires due to electrical shorts, for one thing.
"Bringing things more mainstream, it means they will have to follow building and electrical codes," he said. "This is versus what I've seen in the past, where they just knock out a wall."
Does this put firefighters on the opposite side of law enforcement, which in California has largely come out against Prop. 64? Not necessarily. Legalization has had a diverse array of impacts on firefighters and first responders.
"In some statistics I've been seen, there have been changes or increases in traffic collisions," said Gillespie. "In Colorado, there was an increase in medical aid calls for people taking in too much concentrated cannabis, and they end up passed out, falling down, getting hurt."
Colorado has also seen an increase in explosions at extract labs, at least according to a report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which says that between 2013 and 2014, "when retail marijuana businesses began operating, there was a 167 percent increase in explosions involving THC extraction labs." The Journal was unable to confirm with the Rocky Mountain HIDTA how it gathered these statistics, or whether the numbers have changed in the last two years. The Northwest HIDTA office — which confirmed its branch had no central reporting system for these incidents, relying instead on self-reporting, newspaper articles and individual law enforcement agencies — has documented a different trend in Washington. There, the number of explosions took a sharp nosedive after July 1, the agency reports, when the state's recreational and medical cannabis systems were merged, apparently removing the gray-market profit driver for amateur scientists. This may end up being the case in California, as well.
"We're going to respond or treat whatever ends up being passed," said Gillespie. "We're going to continue to do our jobs."