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Cannabis producer charged in explosion

 New MexiCann medical marijuana dispensary in Santa Fe was the site of two explosions over a five-year period. (Journal File)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The executive director and owner of New MexiCann Natural Medicine is now facing criminal charges for the October explosion that critically injured two employees.

Carlos Gonzales, 56, of Santa Fe was charged with two counts of felony negligent arson in Santa Fe Magistrate Court on Friday.

The explosion last October was the second at the dispensary and manufacturing plant on San Mateo Lane in Santa Fe. Two people were also badly burned in an explosion there in 2015, leading the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue fines totaling $13,500 against the business. New MexiCann’s license to manufacture cannabis-derived products was suspended, though its dispensaries in Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Taos have remained open.

A hearing on whether to permanently revoke its license is scheduled for March 10.

New Mexico Department of Health spokesman James Walton declined to comment about how the criminal charges could impact the license hearing. The New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce also declined comment for this story.

Gonzales is accused of altering the hot plate system used to extract THC from the cannabis plant at the facility. The two employees critically burned in October told investigators that neither of them received extraction training and each recalled Gonzales tampering with the extraction equipment before and after inspections.

Josh Alderete, who had burns covering 37% of his body from the explosion, told investigators Gonzales switched out the hot plates to an “open loop” system, which isn’t approved by the state Department of Health.

In a “closed loop” extraction system, the only system approved by the Department of Health, there is no manual collection of ethanol alcohol, court documents explain. The alcohol is used in the extraction process to remove THC from marijuana.

The explosion occurred when workers were pouring the ethanol alcohol onto the hot plate, which was set at 500 degrees Fahrenheit – hotter than what the Department of Health allows.

The alcohol hit the hot plate, immediately igniting and catching Alderete and another worker on fire. With a “closed loop” system this wouldn’t have occurred because the ethanol alcohol wouldn’t have been handled in this way, court documents say.

“Did we not learn from the last explosion? We cannot be skipping steps, this causes accidents,” Alderete recalled telling Gonzales, charging documents say.

Josh Martinez, who also suffered burns in the incident, said the process was changed by Gonzales to “push out more product.” Both Alderete and Martinez recalled Gonzales saying, “if it weighs it pays,” according to court documents.

Mark Torres, special agent in charge for the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance, said in a phone interview it was this decision to put production over safety that caused the explosion. He said the explosion was preventable.

“It’s unfortunate that this happened, and now that the findings are coming out, again, we believe that safety always has to be a paramount in lieu of production,” Torres said.

Torres said he believes Alderete and Martinez are still recovering and out of work from their injuries.