Extraction Accident under Review

With few answers about how workers got burned at a medical cannabis facility, other producers are taking safety precautions

Making a new popular cannabis extract called shatter can be dangerous. (Steven Schwartz)

Medical cannabis producers in New Mexico are rethinking a potentially dangerous extraction process in the wake of an explosion that caused serious injuries at a Santa Fe facility.

Meanwhile, Santa Fe Police detectives have not ruled out criminal charges following the incident that burned two employees extracting tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) at New MexiCann Natural Medicine's cannabis dispensary on West San Mateo Road last Thursday.

Those men, Nick Montoya, 29, and Aaron Smith, 28, remain hospitalized on Tuesday morning.  Montoya is listed in critical condition, while Smith's condition has been upgraded from serious to satisfactory.

Local, state and federal officials continue to comb through evidence to determine if New MexiCann's equipment met laboratory manufacturing standards or had been altered in any way. There's still very little public information about what caused the explosion, although fire officials have said they suspected it involved butane gas.

Authorities could press criminal charges if they determine New MexiCann managers knew the equipment was substandard, had prior knowledge of any gas leaks or improperly set the lab up in an area that was improperly vented. But legal experts tell SFR criminal charges are rarely filed following workplace accidents.

Still, Santa Fe Police Lt. Andrea Dobyns confirmed the department's investigation will determine if there is a basis for either criminal charges or civil citations. There's also no word from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, which seized evidence the day of the explosion.

Butane gas is used in extracting potent levels of THC from dried cannabis flowers and making top-selling products called shatter, wax and dabs, commonly consumed using vaporizers.

The accident, which has shut down the dispensary until at least next Monday, has sent shock waves through the medical cannabis community. Attorney Jason Marks, who represents Cannabis Producers of New Mexico, said, "This is a wake-up call to the industry. Producers are anxiously waiting to see what happened and considering methods to make the manufacturing process safer."

The founder of R. Greenleaf Organics tells SFR he has temporarily halted extraction operations at his facility in Albuquerque and ordered a complete review of their process and setup.

"We found a few things we wanted to change," Willie Ford said.

To avoid the potential danger of sparks from its compressor motor, Ford added that his crews removed an electric refrigerator from the room where butane is used.

Ford claimed he is confident his employees are well trained and safely operating his gas extraction equipment. Still, he added that they've decided to order a laboratory-grade ventilation system and install an emergency shutdown button to instantly cut electricity to the laboratory. Eventually, Ford said, R. Greenleaf plans to install a foam fire-suppression system.

"But it's expensive and not something you can do overnight," he said.

Thinking about what happened in Santa Fe, Ford claimed that the Department of Health should be responsible for inspecting a producer's extraction operations and ensuring the equipment meets high-quality lab standards.

"Program managers need to ensure each producer has a set of policies and procedures in place to protect employees, patients and the general public," Ford said, adding that regulators also need to make sure each producer's employees are properly trained and familiar with the safe operation of extraction equipment.

SFR asked the Department of Health if Medical Cannabis Program Manager Ken Groggel had personally inspected and approved New MexiCann's amended license to extract THC, but our calls and emails were not immediately returned.

While his operation is closed in Santa Fe, New MexiCann's Len Goodman said that registered patients can still purchase their medication at his second store in Taos.

Santa Fe Reporter

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