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DEA, state and local agencies probing blast at Santa Fe medical pot facility

SANTA FE — An explosion at a Santa Fe medical marijuana dispensary that severely injured two employees is being investigated by federal Drug Enforcement Administration and multiple city and state agencies.

Nicholas Montoya, 29, and Aaron Smith, believed to be 28, were severely burned while using butane and propane in a process to extract THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, from cannabis around 4:40 p.m. on Thursday at NewMexiCann Natural Medicine, one of the state’s licensed medical pot producers. A process using butane and boiling is widely used to produce concentrated hash oil.

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City, state and federal officials are investigating a Thursday explosion that severely burned two workers at NewMexiCann Natural Medicine, a medical marijuana vendor, in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Both NewMexiCann workers were taken to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center here before being flown to the burn center at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. Montoya was listed Friday in critical condition while Smith is in stable condition, according to Santa Fe Police Department spokeswoman Andrea Dobyns.

Friday morning, the city police, fire and Land Use departments all had representatives at the scene.

Dobyns said DEA personnel came to the building at the dead end of San Mateo Lane and seized evidence and that the agency is looking into why the explosion occurred. The police and the fire department are investigating to see if there were any ordinance or building or fire code violations, she said.

A spokesperson with the DEA had nothing to say Friday. City government’s Matt Ross said the Land Use Department was trying to determine “if there are any possible code or permit violations. We’re looking to see if anything is not in order.”

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Santa Fe\’s Land Use director Lisa Martinez was among the officials at the scene Friday investigating an explosion that injured two people at NewMexiCann Natural Medicine on San Mateo Lane. The explosion took place Thursday afternoon. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Allison Majure, of the New Mexico Environment Department, said the department’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau “has been notified and is conducting the usual on-site investigation.”

“We’re in wait-and-see mode right now,” she said. “We try to prevent conditions and situations like this.”

No NewMexiCann employees at the scene on Friday would comment to a Journal reporter, but they did provide a written statement: “We have experienced an accident at our facility. We are currently closed to patients. We hope to be available and open to patients early by next week. Please send thoughts and positive energy for our people.”

To make what’s known as butane hash oil, THC is extracted from cannabis when butane is strained through it. The butane is then evaporated or purged, typically through boiling, which leaves a waxy or honey-like concentrate that has a high THC concentration.

News reports indicate that BHO has become increasingly popular around the country, including at medical marijuana establishments. Home-brewing of BHO has become a dangerous offshoot. In Colorado, where marijuana has been legalized, there were 32 explosions from ignition of the butane or vapors at homes, motels or other places where people were trying to make hash oil in 2014, the New York Times reported in January. No one was killed, but dozens were injured and homes were wrecked.

Dangers known

Jason Marks, an Albuquerque lawyer who represents Cannabis Producers of New Mexico Inc., said the organization, which is made up of 19 of the state’s 23 licensed medical marijuana producers, is fully aware that making hash oil can be a dangerous process.

“The producers’ position is that it is safe to be done professionally,” Marks said. “It’s certainly not something that people should be doing at home. We’ll see additional measures to prevent this from happening. We can’t say what they are until we know what happened.

“Despite this accident, it’s still safer to be done in a professional environment.”

Marks said many medical pot patients rely on hash oil to treat their ailments and that it is important that producers provide it or else some patients might try the dangerous process themselves. “The extracts are medically very useful,” Marks said. “The use of these extracts provide immediate relief.”

Department of Health spokesman Kenny Vigil, which is in charge of the medical marijuana program, said hash oil production is allowed, but he had little to say when asked about any regulations regarding the oil’s production. “This is an active investigation, and the department will be cooperating with investigators as they gather facts about what happened,” Vigil wrote in an email.

Emily Kaltenbach, New Mexico director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for marijuana legalization, said knew little of the incident, but said it should be treated as a workplace incident.

“We will think about ways to regulate and prevent injuries to employees,” Kaltenbach said. “This should be treated like any other hazard in an employment setting. Our hearts go out to those employees who were harmed.”

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