Welcome to the Jungle
With the marijuana industry poised for a rapid expansion, Colorado — epicenter of the country's pot business — offers a host of lessons learned, including safety practices at commercial grow and extraction facilities, inspection protocols, and more
BY JESSE ROMAN
ON A SUNNY ROCKY MOUNTAIN AFTERNOON, Jay Nelson and I are standing outside a strip-mall on the outskirts of Breckenridge, Colorado, along a stretch of road locals call “the Green Mile.” We’re here to tour Alpenglow Botanicals, which from the outside looks like a boutique health food store catering to well-heeled tourists. When we step inside, though, the skunky smell of 1,000 marijuana plants hits my nostrils. “You’re going to smell like this the rest of the day,” Nelson, Breckenridge’s deputy fire chief, warns.
In a building it shares with a CrossFit gym, Alpenglow grows, harvests, processes, and sells a variety of marijuana products, including buds, concentrates, and edibles. Owner Justin Williams, a 33-year old former auto technician, turned his self-described “passion for marijuana” into a thriving business, which he proudly shows us. We walk through a clinical checkerboard-tiled extraction lab that churns out sticky hash oil concentrate, then a labyrinth of rooms filled with manicured plants and neon grow lights. Williams enthusiastically explains grow cycles, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations, humidity levels, and how the plants are trimmed and harvested. In one room, drying buds hang from racks like smoked trout, as three 20-somethings sit around a conference table trimming and weighing the plants on digital scales. My brain knows this is all legal, but I still have the uneasy feeling that a SWAT team could bust down the door at any moment. Nelson, on the other hand, is loose, and possibly bored. He’s seen it all a thousand times.
Colorado, after all, is the global cannabis capitol. The transformation began in 2009 with a rapid ramp-up of medical marijuana, accelerated in 2012 when the state became the first place in the world to allow legal recreational marijuana use by anyone over age 21, and surged again in 2014 with the opening of specially licensed stores for marijuana sales. There are now nearly 1,000 licensed medical and recreational pot dispensaries in the state, vastly outpacing the number of Starbucks (239). There are also hundreds of grow and extraction operations, most concentrated around Denver.
Public safety agencies have played a key role in shaping the evolution of this fast-moving industry, even as they were often forced to write the textbook while learning the material. “Our knowledge of the industry literally started at zero,” said Brian Lukus, a young fire protection engineer who has led the Denver Fire Department’s marijuana efforts. “Meanwhile, the industry went from zero to a hundred miles an hour in an instant.”
The work done in Colorado—as well as in Washington, Alaska, and Oregon, states where recreational marijuana is also legal—may provide a roadmap for other jurisdictions as the legalization movement continues its methodical march across the nation. Likewise, Colorado’s struggles, some of which are ongoing, could help other states better manage similar issues.
This year’s election could be a watershed moment for marijuana legalization and the pot industry, advocates say. In November, Massachusetts, Arizona, California, Maine, and Nevada will vote on whether or not to allow recreational marijuana. Several other states, including Florida, Arkansas, and North Dakota, will consider legalizing medicinal marijuana, joining at least 25 other states and the District of Columbia where it is already legal. Many states are intrigued by the possibility of a pot industry tax windfall; one estimate predicts that federal, state, and local governments could take in $28 billion annually if marijuana were legalized nationwide. Pot was a $1 billion industry in Colorado last year, and revenues are expected to eclipse that figure this year.
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As the marijuana industry continues to gain ground, NFPA has convened a task group comprised of marijuana industry leaders, equipment manufacturers, and fire officials, mostly from Colorado, to craft a new chapter for NFPA 1, Fire Code, on marijuana grow and processing facilities. The NFPA 1 technical committee thoroughly reviewed and discussed the task group’s proposed draft of the new chapter at its meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin this past October. The committee accepted the draft of the new chapter at the meeting and most recently achieved the necessary vote to pass the formal committee ballot. The new Chapter 38 “Marijuana Growing, Processing, or Extraction Facilities” can be found in the Second Draft Report available online. NFPA 1 is currently open for accepting NITMAMs and will be addressed at the Association Technical Meeting in June at the NFPA Conference with a publication date of 2018 to be released early fall.
“A lot of jurisdictions are looking for guidance and they need something now,” said Kristin Bigda, principal fire protection engineer at NFPA and staff liaison for NFPA 1, who has been guiding the task group. “At the same time, I think the industry also wants regulation. We are dealing with an industry that may be new to fire codes, and there is an education that needs to take place about who NFPA is. We want to work with them.”
Once the NFPA 1 chapter is finalized, a separate marijuana facilities standard addressing all aspects of marijuana growing and processing could follow. In the interim, NFPA has put out a webpage collecting existing resources and documents that pertain to marijuana facilities in one place. “It took us six years to get to where we are now,” said Lukus, a task group member, “but other jurisdictions should be able to adopt something and hit the ground running.”
Many Colorado fire departments told me when I visited the state in July that they believe the substantial knowledge gap has mostly been closed. This year, Denver adopted a comprehensive chapter on marijuana facilities into its fire code. Many towns and cities from Breckenridge to Boulder also have robust rules, inspection and permitting processes, and enforcement practices in place to safeguard against some of the unique hazards present in grow and extraction facilities. Inspectors who knew nothing about cannabis in 2010 can now describe with the detail of a trained horticulturist the entire grow cycle of a marijuana plant and the equipment involved in its cultivation and processing. Fire marshals who hadn’t heard of marijuana extraction a few years ago can explain the process almost as well as some of the lab directors I met.
“There was a learning curve and there is still a lot of learning going on, but I think we’re in a good place now,” Jackie Pike, Breckenridge’s deputy fire marshal, told me.
The early days: ‘Where do we even start?’
In 2010, few fire departments would have said they were in a “good place” with the pot industry.
Though medical marijuana was legalized in 2000, the modern era of pot in the state wasn’t officially launched until October 2009, when the Obama Administration announced that it would stop interfering in state-sanctioned marijuana operations, a significant departure from the Bush Administration. Suddenly, a dormant industry that had languished under federal restrictions sprang to life, well ahead of a regulatory framework to govern it.
Boulder, a leafy, free-spirited college town in the shadow of the Flatiron Mountains, proved particularly attractive to pot entrepreneurs. Dave Lowrey, chief fire marshal of Boulder Fire Rescue, admitted that the city was caught off guard by the pot industry’s emergence. City fire officials stumbled across their first commercial grow operation during a general inspection in 2009, and within months found about 150 more—enterprises that, in the absence of permitting and licensing rules, nobody knew about. Many growers had rented warehouse, manufacturing, or office space, setting up shop in anonymity. A significant number of the grows, the fire marshal’s office soon discovered, were a jumbled mess of wires, hoses, extension cords, plastic tarp dividers, and non-compliant locks and interior finishes. “Without exaggeration, we just stood there and thought, ‘Where do we even start?’” Lowrey told me. “What we saw in those facilities scared us to death.”
Denver, which has by far the most marijuana facilities in the state, also had a surge of shoddy, under-the-radar grow operations pop up in 2010, overwhelming the department’s inspection group. Exacerbating the problem, many marijuana growers refused to address code violations, Jeff Fletcher, a lieutenant in charge of marijuana inspections in the Denver Fire Department, told me. As a result, marijuana-related summons and court appearances monopolized fire inspectors’ time.
Powerful hot lights hanging close to plastic room dividers, along with overloaded electrical circuits, led to a number of fires at the time, Lukus said. There were other problems, too. Many grow operations were using elevated levels of CO2 to increase plant growth, and toxic chemicals to fumigate grow rooms “without alarms, signs, or permits, and without respect to the neighbors next door,” Lukus said. Many grow facilities had non-compliant locks or bars over the doors and windows to keep burglars out—barriers that could also prevent egress in a fire, and also keep firefighters from getting in.
By 2010, commercial production of marijuana concentrate had also emerged. The production process typically involves using liquid butane or propane as a solvent to extract THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, from the plant. Butane is blasted through a cylinder packed with marijuana; the goo that drips from the opposite end is heated in a vacuum oven to remove the excess butane, leaving behind a sticky amber substance often called hash oil, which can be more than 80 percent pure THC—four times more potent than the average pot plant. It can be smoked or used to make a host of marijuana infused products, or MIPs, such as candy, drinks, and cookies. The term “MIP” has also become common parlance for an extraction facility.
Click to see the steps in Marijuana extraction.
Extraction Action: In addition to growing, the other principal activity of the pot industry is extraction, where THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, is separated from the plant and processed into a gummy substance known as hash oil. The material can be more than 80 percent pure THC—more than four times the potency of regular marijuana—and can be smoked or used in candy, drinks, and other pot products.
Extraction is done with specially made equipment that uses butane or propane, and can be fraught with potential hazards if not conducted properly.
Beginning in 2009, home explosions involving hash oil production were occurring all over Colorado. When commercial production began not long after, the safety precautions in place were often as rudimentary as a home operation. “This industry obviously grew out of an illegal one, and a lot of these guys started out doing this on their back porch, in the garage, or in the kitchen,” said Chris Witherell, an engineer and the owner of Pressure Safety Inspectors, a company that inspects marijuana extraction equipment for public safety agencies. “They were open blasting, just taking bottled butane and forcing it through an open pipe and basically standing in a pool of butane. When it went commercial, a lot of folks were still of the mindset, ‘I did this for 15 years and I didn’t die—I’m fine. What’s the problem?’”
Ryan Cook, a co-owner of The Clinic, which operates 11 marijuana facilities around Denver, including a large extraction lab, told me that equipment standardization didn’t exist in MIP facilities back then. Everyone had their own method, he said, adding that “what the equipment regulators were looking at in the beginning was sort of like a plumbing project you would do with your father in the garage.”
For fire officials trying to get a handle on the rapidly expanding grow and extraction facilities, the first challenge was simply understanding what it was they were looking at and the processes involved. There was also a steep learning curve that had to be overcome on the industry side. Only months before, many of these new marijuana operators had been home enthusiasts, unfamiliar with permitting and codes. Complicating things further, what rules did exist were loosely defined, and few people—enforcers or business owners—had a clear idea of which regulations actually applied to the industry, or of the required safety precautions. Relevant rules and guidance related to similar processes are tucked away in various codes and standards, fire officials found, but interpreting what should apply to marijuana operations, and how, was a challenge.
As the industry matures, observers say, more attention is being paid to training and safety procedures. Photograph: Kim Cook
“We worked with our building officials very closely and asked them, ‘How do we want to classify this? Where in the code is this going to fall? What safeties do we want to put in place?’” Nelson said. “We also had a lot of conversations with engineers about how to meet the best intent of the codes. It doesn’t fit in any one box.”
In Denver, the Mayor’s Office on Marijuana Policy began holding regular meetings with stakeholders, lawmakers, public safety agencies, and others. The meetings helped put everything on the table, the first step toward progress. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know; we were learning along with the industry,” said Nicole Skoumal, operations supervisor at the Denver Fire Department. “We were learning about what they wanted to do, and trying to figure out and communicate what [safety measures] they needed to have in order to do it.”
“It took a pretty progressive attitude from everybody there in 2009 to discuss things like this and figure out how to improve and advance,” said Cook, who was also a part of those early discussions. “Working with a lot of agencies and groups created this realization in the industry that if we did work together we could be happy with the regulations in place while also reducing liabilities and creating a consistent and better product.”
As those talks occurred, the Denver Fire Department created a separate marijuana inspection group, paid for in part by marijuana licensing fees and taxes. Inspection teams were out every day walking through facilities, talking to owners, gathering valuable insight, and often discovering issues that required more consideration. When inspectors noticed that the alarms in their portable gas meters were occasionally going off near extractors, for instance, “it immediately opened our eyes that the regulations we had in place [for the extraction process] were not working,” Lukus said.
While Denver fire officials were crafting their pot-industry codes and regulations, so were their counterparts across the state. Ideas were freely exchanged. “A lot of our code I’ve borrowed,” Caitlin Kontak, a detective with the Breckenridge Police Department, told me. “We’re all trying to see whose situation is working the best.”
‘From basement to boardroom’:The pot industry grows up
Back at Alpenglow, Nelson and I are in the company’s small extraction room going over the safety features Breckenridge now requires. While there are variations here and there, Alpenglow’s setup is typical of what many jurisdictions with extraction facilities in Colorado have settled on as a minimum requirement.
The extractor, tucked away in what appears to be a former coat closet, is a long, narrow, stainless-steel machine designed specifically for marijuana extraction. It is a closed-loop system, which means if all of the tubes and bolts are tightened correctly, no flammable vapors will escape. The solvent, butane or propane, travels from a tank through a piston-like cylinder filled with marijuana, extracting THC, which drips into a collection tank below. Most of the excess butane is then reclaimed and returned to the original tank. An extractor like this one with a recovery pump and all the options costs about $30,000. Extractors that use CO2 under high pressure instead of butane can cost $500,000, and are much less common.
An engineer has reviewed and signed off on the machine’s design, and a certified industrial hygienist has checked it again during installation at the facility. There are signs on the walls of the room alerting occupants to the hazards. The former coat closet where the machine sits has been retrofitted as a lab hood, sucking air up and out. The extractor and Alpenglow’s handling of the solvent are compliant with NFPA 58, Liquefied Petroleum Gas. A large book containing operating procedures and safety measures sits on a table next to the machine. An air monitor is mounted on the wall, as is an alarm with red lights, set to sound and flash when flammable gasses in the room reach 25 percent of the lower flammable limit. The room is Class 1, Division 1 compliant, meaning all of the electronics are safe around flammable vapors, as mandated by NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®.
The Clinic’s extraction facility in Denver is a larger version of Alpenglow’s. Inside a whitewashed extraction room roughly the size of a typical residential garage, four closed-looped machines pump out thousands of grams of concentrate per day. A large ventilation system exchanges the air inside the room seven times each hour. Several alarms monitor air conditions. All electronics are banned from the room, and employees receive a month of training in the facility before operating the machines, Cook said. “We are in an entirely new world now than we were in 2009,” he added. “The evolution of the industry, in general, has been fairly amazing. We’ve seen decades worth of technological advancement in just a seven-year period, and it continues.”
Across town, the plain and nameless industrial façade of The Clinic’s 32,500-square-foot growing operation belies the sophistication inside. Each of the multiple grow rooms is wired with CO2 alarms and detectors that monitor and maintain gas concentrations and alert workers if there is a leak or other problem. A staff member with an iPad can monitor and adjust conditions and light levels in individual rooms with a push of a button. Automatic pumps feed water and nutrients from centralized tanks to plants throughout the facility. There’s a genetics lab to create new strains, a room dedicated to drying and curing, special automated machines to trim buds, and constant experimentation with lighting and soils. It’s light years from where The Clinic was in 2010 when it started in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse, Cook told me.
It’s clear that there is a lot more to the industry’s transformation than regulation. While agencies made progress devising safety rules and catching up on a backlog of non-compliant facilities, the free market lent an enormous assist. Seeing that there were millions to be made, manufacturers began building modern, sophisticated equipment designed specifically for marijuana growing and extracting. Closed-loop extractors, like those at Alpenglow and The Clinic, are now mandated across the state.
Meanwhile, the approval of recreational marijuana use in 2012, and the advent of retail sales in 2014, cracked the market wide open, producing even more new technology and efficiencies that have led to higher yields and a greater supply of product. As a result, marijuana prices in Denver were cut by more than half in less than two years, from upward of $80 for an eighth of an ounce to $40 or less today, according to reports. Narrowing profit margins and increasing costs have resulted in significant industry consolidation. In a report last May, The Denver Post found that 10 people now control nearly 20 percent of Denver’s 1,046 active medical and recreational licenses. “The numbers tell a story of a consolidating industry, as big operators buy small ones struggling to keep up with more government regulations, tax rules, and other pressures,” the Post concluded. In essence, the industry has successfully transitioned from the basement to the boardroom.
"With the requirements, a lot of guys couldn't afford it—they literally had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in mechanical and electrical costs to get up to code," Lowrey, the Boulder fire marshal, told me. "The people who were very serious about it were the businesses that survived."
Bolder Cannabis and Extracts is one of the Boulder businesses that began in 2009 and is still thriving. Co-founder Spencer Uniss told me that his company had only $10,000 and six lights in the beginning. “Now you need a million dollars just to start out in this business,” he said.
While some mom-and-pop shops in the state have decried the trend toward consolidation, safety officials have welcomed the maturation of the industry, which they see as having brought an equilibrium and professionalism to the trade that didn’t exist six years ago. Boulder now has about 80 licensed marijuana facilities, just over half the number it had in the absence of regulation. The ones that remain are diligent and focused when it comes to safety issues, according to Mike Rangel, Boulder’s assistant fire marshal. “They’ve transitioned to become some of the better folks out there to work with,” Rangel told me. “If there is any violation, they take care of it quickly, because they have a lot of money invested and they don’t want to lose it.”
The most common violation Rangel sees these days: burnt-out bulbs in exit lights.
Lingering problems, and the need for consistency
While regulation of the commercial marijuana industry in Colorado has come a long way, the situation remains dynamic as the burgeoning industry evolves. There are nagging issues Colorado hasn’t yet solved. For one, while larger and more affluent districts such as Boulder, Breckenridge, and Denver have spent a great deal of time and resources bringing the industry up to code, that is not the case everywhere.
“Realistically, a lot of communities don’t have a handle on this yet, and don’t know where to start,” Lowery said. “They might not be as familiar with the code, because they don’t have the resources; maybe they’re part-time, if not full volunteer departments.” As a result, Lowrey believes shoddy, if not illegal, pot operations remain across the state, similar to the hazard-filled grows he encountered in 2009. In March, the Fire Marshal’s Association of Colorado put out a 25-page reference guide covering regulations related to marijuana facilities to help jurisdictions with fewer resources.
In Boulder the situation is acute. Just across the city line, in Boulder County, there are several grow operations that one marijuana purveyor I spoke to referred to as “Frankenstein grows.” He described a maze of plants, spreading out through room after room; plastic tarps; and jumbles of wires and overloaded electrical outlets. The county, lacking the resources of Boulder, is far behind the city in adopting regulations and oversight, Rangel told me. As a result, the city fire department has decided not to enter marijuana facilities located in the county during a fire. “My preplans are defensive because I don’t know what’s in there,” he said. “It’s all about extreme caution.”
Competition in the burgeoning pot industry means businesses are increasingly willing to devote resources to protecting their infrastructure, employees, and products. Photograph: Kim Cook
Consistency of rules and enforcement remain big concerns in extraction facilities, according to fire officials and industry people. Unlike equipment used in other industries, none of the cannabis extraction machines on the market have been extensively tested or listed by Underwriters Laboratories or similar organizations. While the solution in many jurisdictions has been to require third-party engineers to review and approve extractors, it’s hardly a perfect system. For one, the codes and standards the engineers rely on to conduct their assessments were written for other processes and industries. Secondly, which codes apply hasn’t been agreed on, meaning some engineers are following a different playbook. In other communities, rules don’t exist at all and the whole extraction process is still more or less unregulated. “In a lot of outlying areas in Colorado, fire departments have no idea what they’re even looking at, and don’t understand the requirements in the existing code,” said Witherell, the owner of Pressure Safety Inspectors.
Witherell is one of the first engineers to work exclusively in the marijuana industry reviewing extraction installations for public safety agencies. He has clients in several states, and said there is a startling variety of rules, equipment, and knowledge, a condition that also applies to public officials, business owners, and even other engineers. It points to the need for NFPA to develop a separate code on marijuana facilities, extraction processes, and equipment, he said. NFPA 58, which provides the code base for much of his review process with the extraction equipment, is insufficient.
“NFPA 58 was written with a totally different industry in mind, so it is all open for interpretation, which causes problems,” he said. “We have a couple of engineers that compete against us who interpret the code differently. Somebody does a peer review of a system, and then we go to a facility and say we can’t sign off on that. The equipment manufacturer says it’s fine, then we come in and say no, it’s not fine. We need consistency. We need something to point to that applies to everybody across the U.S.”
Manufacturer Matthew Ellis, the president and founder of ExtractionTek Solutions, agrees. Since 2012, he has sold about 400 of his marijuana extraction machines, mostly in California, Colorado, and Washington. But he told me he is frustrated with the patchwork regulations. He wants all jurisdictions to enact and enforce rules to ensure certified people install his machines, employees are properly trained, and equipment is properly maintained. Ellis offers a daylong training to customers on the machine, and shares documents on basic requirements for extraction room setups, but he has no legal authority to ensure his equipment is being used properly, which makes him nervous. “No matter what we do, if there is no enforcement or rules then it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “But if there is an accident it’s going to really matter because it might cost all of us our jobs. If they shut down extraction, I don’t have a viable company anymore.”
Potential new problems are emerging, too. As in craft brewing or wine making, growing and extraction has become an art form, with myriad variables that can be tweaked to create different products for discerning palates. There are emerging techniques to extract purer forms of THC, including high-pressure CO2 extraction, and methods of further refining concentrate using alcohol distillation. In an effort to maximize space, some grows are building up, stacking plants in racks 30 feet high. Others have begun burning sulfur dioxide inside grow rooms to kill mildew, which could create a health hazard for employees and first responders.
As manufacturers continue to innovate, fire officials struggle to keep up. “Like any industry, we need to be adaptive,” Nelson said. “If we start to think we know everything and have it all under control, that’s when you can end up with a false sense of security.”
When I asked Lukus to reflect on the current state of the marijuana industry in Denver, he allowed himself and his department only a fleeting victory. “I’m comfortable with where we’re at,” he said, then paused. “But if you asked me six years ago if I was comfortable, I might have said yes then, too. The reality is that every few months there is something new.”