Los Angeles explosion shows perils of illicit cannabis market

Published on May 18, 2020 · Last updated July 28, 2020
la butane fire
(AP/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Yesterday’s explosion in the center of Los Angeles’ illegal wholesale cannabis manufacturing supply market illustrates the price of ongoing prohibition in the United States.

Los Angelenos consume thousands of pounds of cannabis extracts every year. Those products are made with industrial gases like butane or carbon dioxide. But in the four years since the passage of legalization in 2016, the city and county of L.A. have yet to license a single cannabis manufacturer to safely make butane extracts like vape cartridge oil and hash.

'Saturday’s explosion is a direct consequence of cannabis prohibitionist policies combined with lax enforcement against illegal retail and manufacturing operators.'

Instead, a national multi-billion dollar illegal market is supplied by local ‘hash blasters,’ who buy volatile gases from wholesalers operating out of downtown storefronts next to Skid Row in a long-neglected area called the Toy District.

That official neglect blew up in the city’s face Saturday when an unlicensed, wholesale supplier of butane to the illicit market—SmokeTokes—exploded, injuring 12 firefighters.

“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. “The only plausible reason for a vape supply company in downtown L.A. to be wholesaling butane canisters is to serve the needs of illegal extractors.”

On Monday, police and fire investigators launched a criminal probe into the cause of the explosion, the AP reports.

Detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department’s major crimes division were working with the L.A. Fire Department’s arson investigators to determine what might have sparked the blast that shot a ball of flames out of the building Saturday night and scorched a fire truck across the street, police spokesman Josh Rubenstein told the AP.

“We’re in the very early stages of the investigation … to understand what happened and figure out how to move forward,” he said.

Experts said the illicit market has a long history of explosions and other harms to consumers.

Blast at the epicenter of VAPI

In 2019, Leafly identified L.A.’s Toy District as ground zero for America’s vaping-associated pulmonary injury outbreak (VAPI). The 12 square-block area is a huge marketplace for wholesale cannabis manufacturing supplies.

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Businesses there diverted cosmetics and dietary supplement ingredients into the lungs of illegal THC vapers—sickening thousands and killing at least 64.

Experts say a huge butane explosion in an unregulated warehouse is exactly what can happen when city leaders neither regulate legal cannabis manufacturing, nor confront the massive illicit market.

“Legal cannabis manufacturers undergo a litany of safety reviews and inspections. Illicit manufacturers, on the other hand, operate in a manner that is akin to bomb factories,” said Hein.

“The sole reason there is even an illegal manufacturing market is because far too many jurisdictions inside and outside of California maintain bans against commercial cannabis activities thereby ceding the market entirely to illegal operators,” Hein added. “Even in Los Angeles, which has approximately 180 licensed dispensaries, there are far more illicit dispensaries and delivery services in business creating a large market for illegal manufacturers thereby setting the stage for more devastating events like we saw over the weekend.”

No one is blowing themselves up selling ethanol to illegal whiskey distillers, because there is a legal supply of Jack Daniels, said Nate Bradley, a former police officer and head of Cannabis Consumer Policy Council.

“The consumer demand for extracts is not going away.  The city needs to regulate all aspects of the industry or these kinds of things are going to keep happening,” he said.

Smoke Tokes sits in the Toy District— the epicenter of a national wholesale market for illegal cannabis manufacturing supplies including butane. An explosion rocked the building Saturday, injuring 12 firefighters. (David Downs/Leafly)

Toy District’s second major fire in 4 years

According to the AP, in 2016 there was another major fire at a business called Smoke Tokes at a nearby address. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that it took more than 160 firefighters to put out the blaze and that they encountered pressurized gas cylinders that exploded in the fire. No one was injured in that fire. It’s unclear whether that business and the one that burned Saturday are connected.

This time, firefighters first thought they were battling a routine structure fire, city fire Capt. Erik Scott told KNX Radio, but as they got a little farther in the building they started to hear, “a loud hissing sound and a significant rumbling that you could feel vibrating throughout the area.”

Firefighters inside had to run through a wall of flames he estimated as 30 feet (9 meters) high and wide.

He said “one significant explosion” shook the neighborhood around 6:30 p.m. Firefighters inside had to run through a wall of flames he estimated as 30 feet (9 meters) high and wide, and those on the roof scrambled down a ladder that was engulfed in flames.

Three firefighters were released after spending the night in the hospital, fire department spokesman Nicholas Prange said Sunday. Of the eight who remained hospitalized, two were in critical but stable condition, he said. Officials initially announced that 11 firefighters were injured. But Prange said a 12th was treated and released for a minor injury.

All were expected to survive.

“Things could have been so much worse,” said Los Angeles Fire Department Medical Director Dr. Marc Eckstein, who helped treat the injured at Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center.

Firefighters caught fire

According to the AP, there was light to moderate smoke when firefighters entered the one-story building in the city’s Toy District and went on the roof—normal procedures to try to quickly knock down any flames.

Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas told the AP one of the firefighters inside the building thought things didn’t seem right—the pressure from the smoke and heat coming from the rear of the building were increasing. He directed everyone to get out, and they quickly started exiting the building as it was rocked by the explosion.

Firefighters on the roof scrambled down ladders with their protective coats on fire. The wall of flames shot out the building and burned seats inside a fire truck across the street.

More than 200 firefighters rushed to the scene, and dozens of engines, trucks and rescue vehicles clogged the streets. The fire spread to several nearby buildings, but firefighters were able to douse it in about an hour.

Regulated markets are safer by design

Illegal hash labs routinely blow up in prohibition states. That stands in contrast to legal extractors, which face 107 pages of regulations for materials safety. Since 2017, the state of California and many cities have licensed hundreds of cannabis manufacturers who’ve operated safely, said Bradley.

“Name one licensed manufacturer or a licensed wholesale supplier like AirGas where something like this happened. You can’t,” said Bradley. “This only serves to show that painful consequence of not regulating cannabis nationally.”

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David Downs
David Downs
Leafly Senior Editor David Downs is the former Cannabis Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. He's appeared on The Today Show, and written for Scientific American, The New York Times, WIRED, Rolling Stone, The Onion A/V Club, High Times, and many more outlets. He is a 2023 judge for The Emerald Cup, and has covered weed since 2009.
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