LA Explosion Sparks Fear of Anti-Industry Backlash

By Hilary Corrigan
May 19, 2020

After a fire and explosion at a headshop warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, industry insiders raised concerns of an anti-cannabis backlash. Twelve firefighters were injured at the scene; all are expected to survive. 

The Saturday evening blast ripped through Smoke Tokes, described on its website as a distributor and wholesaler of smoking and vaping accessories. Smoke Tokes carries several brands of butane, an explosive gas used to fuel dabbing blowtorches and to manufacture some cannabis concentrates. 

Smoke Tokes could not be reached for comment. A recording at its phone number wasn’t accepting messages.

The Los Angeles Fire Department has not determined the fire’s cause, or whether it was set intentionally. Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said he did not yet have information on whether the business was in compliance with regulations, what its operations entailed or what materials were on site.

“This fire may not be at all related to the cannabis trade,” he said.

The explosion occurred as firefighters responded to a blaze at a one-story commercial building in “bong row,” a collection of pot-paraphernalia wholesalers. A massive fireball engulfed 11 firefighters, according to an Los Angeles Fire Department statement. “The searing heat melted helmets, burned through protective coats and hoods and blistered and charred nearby fire apparatus.” 

The department is still learning the unique challenges associated with the cannabis industry, Humphrey said. That includes understanding how the businesses operate, where they are clustered and how people move through them. “We’re learning as we go,” he said.

Industry concerns

Erik Hultstrom, a board member of industry group Southern California Coalition and founder of L.A. cannabis producer Legacy Strains, said incidents like this can make the industry look bad, when a legal cannabis industry could actually reduce accidents.

Hultstrom urged government action to incentivize the legal market and disincentivize the illegal market. Safety procedures and regulations govern the former; the latter operates without oversight. He said he did not know Smoke Tokes and noted there hasn’t been any indication of illegal activity. 

Morgan Fox, spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), said he did not know the details of the incident or the business involved. In general, he echoed Hultstrom that legalizing and regulating the industry reduces the risk of accidents. “Accidents happen in every industry all the time,” he said.

Fox suggested federal regulation would give states guidance and uniform safety controls.   

Fire department reviews

As part of its probe, LAFD is reviewing Smoke Tokes’ records. It’s also working with the Los Angeles Police Department and the  federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on a joint criminal investigation, a common step after such an incident.

Opening a criminal investigation ensures the use of formal procedures for gathering evidence, Humphrey said. It doesn’t mean charges will necessarily be brought. There’s no way to know how long the investigation will last, from as little as a week to more than a year. 

On Monday, LAFD Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas told FOX 11 Los Angeles the department will look at this type of business citywide to ensure safe business practices. Oil, butane or excessive storage may have ignited the fire, he said.

Ensuring proper storage of such materials and proper signs on businesses could help make firefighting safer, he said. The department plans to identify similar businesses and inspect any that do not appear in its system.

The 11 firefighters were taken to Los Angeles County + University of Southern California Medical Center. The 12th was treated and released with a minor extremity injury. As of Monday morning, six remain hospitalized in stable condition and five had been discharged.