The explosion in Los Angeles reveals the risks of the unlawful hashish market


David Downs May 18, 2020

(AP / Ringo H. W. Chiu)

Yesterday's explosion at the center of the illegal cannabis wholesale market in Los Angeles shows the price of the ongoing ban in the United States.

Los Angelenos consume thousands of pounds of cannabis extracts each year. These products are made with industrial gases such as butane or carbon dioxide. But in the four years since legalization was passed in 2016, the city and county of LA have not yet approved a single cannabis manufacturer for the safe manufacture of butane extracts such as vape cartridge oil and hash.

Instead, a national, multi-billion dollar illegal market is supplied by local "hash blasters" who buy volatile gases from wholesalers who operate downtown alongside Skid Row in a long-neglected area called the Toy District.


This official neglect exploded on the face of the city on Saturday when an unlicensed butane wholesale supplier to the illegal market – SmokeTokes – detonated and injured 12 firefighters.

"The tragic events of Saturday's explosion are a direct result of cannabis banning policies linked to lax enforcement against illegal retail and manufacturing companies," said Wesley Hein, a licensed executive of a cannabis company at Mammoth Distribution. "The only plausible reason for a downtown LA vape supplier to sell wholesale butane canisters is to meet the needs of illegal extractors."

Police and fire investigators launched a criminal investigation into the cause of the explosion on Monday, reports the AP.

Detective officers from the Los Angeles Police Department of Serious Crime worked with investigators at the LA Fire Department to set fire to what could have caused the explosion, which fired a flame ball from the building on Saturday night and a fire truck over the Street scorched, police spokesman Josh Rubenstein told the AP.

"We are in a very early stage of the investigation … to understand what happened and to find out how we can get on with it," he said.

Experts said the illegal market has a long history of explosions and other harm to consumers.

Explosion in the epicenter of VAPI

In 2019, Leafly identified LA's Toy District as Ground Zero for America's vaping-associated outbreak of lung injury (VAPI). The 12 square meter area is a huge marketplace for the production of wholesale cannabis.

The companies there have redirected cosmetics and nutritional supplements into the lungs of illegal THC vapers – thousands have been ill and at least 64 have been killed.

Experts say a huge butane explosion in an unregulated warehouse is exactly what can happen if city guides neither regulate legal cannabis production nor face the massive illegal market.

“Legal cannabis manufacturers go through a variety of security checks and inspections. Illegal manufacturers, on the other hand, operate in a way that resembles bomb factories, ”said Hein.

"The only reason there is even an illegal production market is because far too many jurisdictions within and outside California maintain bans on commercial cannabis activity, thereby completely ceding the market to illegal operators," added Hein. "Even in Los Angeles, where there are approximately 180 licensed pharmacies, there are far more illegal pharmacies and delivery services that create a large market for illegal manufacturers, creating the conditions for the more devastating events we saw on the weekend."

Nobody blows up when selling ethanol to illegal whiskey distillers because Jack Daniels is legally supplied, said Nate Bradley, a former policeman and head of the Cannabis Consumer Policy Council.

“The demand for extracts from consumers does not decrease. The city has to regulate all aspects of industry, otherwise things like this will continue to happen, ”he said.

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

The second major fire in the Toy District for 4 years

According to AP, there was another major fire in a company called Smoke Tokes at a nearby address in 2016. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that more than 160 firefighters were required to extinguish the fire and that they came across pressurized gas cylinders that exploded in the fire. No one was injured in this fire. It is unclear whether this business and the one that was burned on Saturday are linked.

This time the firefighters first thought they were fighting a routine structural fire, city fire captain Erik Scott told KNX Radio, but when they were a bit further into the building, they heard "a loud hissing and a distinct noise rumbling that you can hear all over the area could vibrate. "

He said "a major explosion" shook the neighborhood around 6:30 pm. Firefighters inside had to run through a wall of flame, which he estimated to be 9 meters high and wide, and which on the roof climbed down a blazing ladder.

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

Everyone should survive.

"It could have been much worse," said Los Angeles Fire Department medical director Dr. Marc Eckstein, who helped treat the injured at the medical center at Los Angeles County University of Southern California.

Firefighters caught fire

According to AP, there was light to moderate smoke when firefighters entered the one-story building in the city's Toy District and went up on the roof – normal procedures for quickly putting down flames.

Ralph Terrazas, fire chief of Los Angeles, told the AP that one of the firefighters in the building thought things were wrong – the pressure from smoke and heat coming from the back of the building increased. He instructed everyone to get out and they quickly left the building when the explosion shook it.

Firefighters on the roof climbed over ladders with burning protective coats. The wall of flame shot out of the building and burned seats in a fire truck across the street.

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

Regulated markets are inherently more secure

Illegal hash laboratories routinely explode in banned states. This is in contrast to statutory extractors, for which 107 pages of material safety regulations apply. Since 2017, the state of California and many cities have approved hundreds of cannabis producers who have worked safely, Bradley said.

“Name a licensed manufacturer or licensed wholesale supplier, such as AirGas, where something like this happened. You can't, ”said Bradley. "This is only to show the painful consequences of not regulating cannabis at the national level."

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David Downs heads news and lifestyle reporting as Leader of the California Bureau for He has written for WIRED, Rolling Stone and Billboard and is the former cannabis editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of several cannabis books, including & # 39; Marijuana Harvest & # 39; by Ed Rosenthal and David Downs. He is the co-host of the hash podcast. TW: @davidrdowns | IG @daviddowns