Two parallel law enforcement investigations are under way this afternoon following Thursday's fiery gas explosion that injured two employees at NewMexiCann Natural Medicine’s cannabis dispensary in Santa Fe.
Santa Fe Police tell SFR they are vigorously working to determine the cause of the explosion that left Nicholas Montoya and Aaron Smith, both in their 20s, with serious third degree burns. At noon, both men remain hospitalized after being airlifted to University of New Mexico Hospital’s Level 1 Trauma Center last night. Montoya was listed in critical condition. Smith is listed in serious condition.
Police spokeswoman Lt. Andrea Dobyns tells SFR that investigators believe that butane gas was involved in the dangerous explosion, but it is still unclear what ignited the gas.
NewMexiCann staffers also use liquid ethanol to extract cannabis oils for use in edible and other cannabis-derived products, but it was not immediately clear if ethanol was involved in yesterday’s explosion.
“We are looking for any violations of building codes and ordinances,” Dobyns says, adding that agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency are also on scene and have "taken possession of all evidence."
Meanwhile, Assistant Santa Fe Fire Chief Paul Babcock tells SFR his investigators will launch their own probe into what ignited the explosion after law enforcement officials clear the scene.
During a brief telephone interview, NewMexiCann’s attorney Mark Lowry says Len Goodman, the founder of the nonprofit producer, is providing regulatory and law enforcement agencies full access to the facility on West San Mateo.
“Right now our focus is on the health and well-being of the employees who were injured,” says Lowry.
A dispensary worker who says he can't comment turned away a line of cars at NewMexiCann's closed facility on Friday afternoon, and patients reported that the nearby New Mexico Top Organics dispensary was crowded and running out of some supplies.
Butane gas is used in extracting potent levels of THC from dried cannabis flowers and making top-selling products called shatter, wax and dabs. But the manufacturing process is dangerous and requires expensive equipment and skilled staff.
After 30 gas-related explosions in Colorado, regulators there imposed strict new extraction rules July 1. While licensed producers are allowed to safely manufacture the products via gas extraction, amateur patients who attempt to use hazardous gases in private homes could face felony charges.
Jason Marks, an attorney who represents multiple cannabis producers, says that rules governing New Mexico’s medical cannabis program don’t prohibit the gas extraction.
During a recent review of the program's rules, Department of Health Secretary Retta Ward decided not to impose any new gas extraction restrictions. Ward's spokesman, Kenny Vigil tells SFR he is not aware of any similar accidents at any other locations.
UPDATED: Sean R Waite, the special agent in charge of the DEA in New Mexico, tells SFR the agency's investigation is ongoing in cooperation with the US Attorney's Office, but the agency won't comment about whether the evidence it seized includes medical cannabis products sold in the dispensary to qualified patients. While the federal government lists marijuana as an illegal controlled substance, the US Attorney General has previously told the DEA to stand down on medical cannabis producers as long as they follow state rules.