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Despite Los Angeles hash oil factory fire, legal, regulated butane extractions remain safe

May 19, 2020

An explosion attributed to a building that manufactured the cannabis concentrate known as honey butane oil rocked the downtown Los Angeles area this past weekend, injuring at least a dozen firefighters and placing two in critical condition, according to reports from several news outlets. The fire, which began around 6:30 on Saturday evening, occurred at a building owned by SmokeTokes, which describes itself as a distributor and wholesaler of smoking and vaping products. 

According to Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Erik Scott, firefighters, ran through a wall of flames that was 30 feet high and wide following a “significant explosion.” “[This] was one of the worst scenes I've seen," he said, according to the Associated Press.

Extract production involving butane, such as butane honey oil or butane hash oil, has long been considered volatile and deemed responsible for fires over the years. In 2017, for example, a man named Eric Scully set a storage facility on fire when attempting to make butane hash oil, resulting in a sentence of seven years in prison. With this weekend’s fire in downtown Los Angeles, anti-legalization groups have renewed efforts to place the burden of these dangers on the cannabis industry.

“Pot industry— this is on you,” wrote Smart Approaches to Marijuana’s Dr. Kevin Sabet on Twitter. “Thank God the firefighters will survive, but this never should’ve happened. Our blind acceptance of legal pot has dangerous consequences.”

However, experts disagree that making extracts with butane is as dangerous as the media frenzy would lead some to believe, especially with some modern advances in the legal cannabis industry. 

The PotNetwork spoke with Linn Havelick, the founder, owner, and operator of HAL Extraction. Based out of Colorado, Havelick began consulting with extraction companies in 2014, soon realizing that every facility would have to meet building and fire codes. At that point, he developed the HAL Extraction Booth, a turn-key extraction solution that provides a safe working environment compliant with regulatory and code requirements.

Havelick stressed that in the age of legalized cannabis, butane extractions are extremely safe processes when done correctly.

“The reason that this industry has not been safe in the past is that it was all underground and did not make use of engineering and industrial hygiene expertise and did not use the good practices and codes and standards,” Havelick told The PotNetwork.

He explained that butane hash oil is a mixture of tetrahydrocannabinol — THC — cannabidiol, and terpenes. Extraction facilities use liquid butane to leach oils from the marijuana plant, draining the resulting solvent from the plant material once the oils are dissolved. Everything is then separated with a butane solvent, which leaves purified oils, or butane hash oil behind.

Working with butane can be dangerous, for obvious reasons, and requires many safety precautions to be put in place. “One reason butane and propane pose particular hazards is due to the fact they exist in a liquid form in bottles,” said Havelick. “When the liquid evaporates into a gas, the volume of the gas is about 700 times the volume of the liquid. Therefore, a single bottle of butane can produce enough gas to make the air in several large rooms or an entire building flammable.”

According to him, butane poses risks at every step in the process, from solvent storage, transfer of butane liquid between containers, leaching, to spent biomass drying or degassing, and more. It can be especially dangerous during the distillation process, where, as part of the extraction process, liquid butane converts into a gas.

“Six or seven years ago, people were making BHO by releasing the gas into the air using a process call open blasting,” Havelick said, recalling the early days of extraction. “The butane was not captured or recycled.” 

“A large number of fires and explosions were a result of open blasting,” he continued.

However, Linn Havelick wrote the book on butane hash oil safety — or at least the white paper. In 2016 he authored an article for the industry titled “Building a Safer Butane Hash Oil Extraction Facility,” a 20-odd page guide which not only laid out how to specifics on equipment but told the cannabis industry how to prepare ahead of time for a fire. 

One of the most significant changes to have come in the past few years has been the development of the closed-loop system, which captures and recycles butane gas instead of allowing it to escape. According to Havelick, closed-loop systems are the basic premise of what’s needed for the equipment to be safe. Over the years, he noted, the equipment has significantly improved.

In addition, a safe facility will have proper ventilation and control for sources of ignition. “Electrical circuits, pilot lights, static electricity, or tools can ignite flammable mixtures,” he noted.

Butane hash oil and butane honey oil are also heavily regulated. Along with licensure that must be approved by state and local governments, facilities must be inspected by architects, engineers, fire departments, and building code officials. Everyone from OSHA to cannabis industry regulators has their say.

Havelick notes that the most important precaution one can take in a butane extraction is precautionary measures. “When you're working with a flammable material, the solvent and really any kind of a hazardous material, you need to take into consideration what those hazards are and how you're going to deal with them,” he told The PotNetwork.

His white paper includes a preparation checklist, with items such as signage & posting, emergency response, and hazard communication. As he told The PotNetwork, “the industry should always use appropriate equipment and build safe facilities.”

The fire in Los Angeles this past weekend was a tragedy — even more so considering the harm that came to the firefighters who worked so diligently to put out the blaze. But as industry experts like Havelick noted, what’s critical to preventing future tragedies like this isn’t banning butane extractions, it’s keeping it legal, safe, and regulated. Though he was not there, nor did he review the scene at SmokeTokes, Havelick speculates that once an investigation occurs, it will prove that all of the rules were not followed.

“Keep it legal,” Havelick told The PotNetwork. “The legalized portion of the industry is evolving rapidly and becoming just another safe chemical processing industry. The underground part does not observe these laws, standards, and codes, and so can undercut prices and put workers, building owners, and the public at unnecessary risk. More tax revenues should go toward enforcement to eliminate the underground market. This would quickly increase net tax revenue and increase public safety.”

Video: Linn Havelick talks extraction (HAL Extraction/Youtube)

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