The increasing number of cannabis ordinances being passed at the local and state level has created a patchwork map of legality. In some areas, cannabis consumption is permitted for both medical and personal use; in other areas, only medicinal use is allowed. As of late 2020, marijuana is legal for medicinal purposes in 36 states and completely legal in 15.(1) Even where ordinances have been passed, their scope varies dramatically; for example, growers may be legally allowed to have only a few plants at a time, or operate fully commercial grow facilities.(2) Regardless of your personal opinions on marijuana legalization, the rapid increase in grow facilities across the country present both fire code compliance and firefighting challenges. Here’s what you need to know:
Fire Code Compliance Challenges
First, it’s important to familiarize yourself with applicable cannabis laws in your local area (note that individual state laws may differ from federal laws). Check out “Legality of cannabis by U.S. jurisdiction” for a breakdown of each state’s laws in regard to recreational/medicinal use, transportation, and cultivation. An increasing number of states are changing their laws on medical and recreational use. If marijuana grow operations are allowed in your area, determine what form(s) they might take, and what the operations might look like.
For example, does your area allow home-based growers? How many plants are permitted for personal use? Are commercial operations legal in your area? What about extracting hash oil? Laws about hash oil extraction can vary greatly from state to state. For example, according to Politico, some states ban the use of butane to extract hash oil in professional operations. Other states might allow extraction only when the agent used is carbon dioxide or alcohol unless approval is received. Some states ban extraction of hash oil except in some medical situations.(3)
If commercial operations are locally permitted, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with what those operations look like in practice (a great example of that is provided in this Internal Fire Protection article) and understand the general hazards of cannabis cultivation.
You should also familiarize yourself with any compliance requirements applicable to your area, as well as the most up-to-date guidance documents available to you. For example, if you live in Colorado, the Fire Marshal’s Association of Colorado (FMAC) site offers a Marijuana Facility Guidance document provided by their special task group, who reviewed the applicable requirements in the 2015 International Fire Code (IFC) as well as other applicable codes and standards that apply to the marijuana industry.
Be sure to review other important industry resources that can help you stay informed and up-to-date on the latest in cannabis-related facilities and fire code compliance, such as this free download from the NFPA that gives an overview of the different types of cannabis-related facilities and the unique hazards and related safety issues they present.
A few other NFPA resources worth reviewing:
- Chapter 38: “Marijuana Growing, Processing, or Extraction Facilities” of the NFPA 1, Fire Code
- NFPA Podcast: Regulating the Legal Cannabis Industry
- NFPA Journal: The New Face of Pot
- NFPA Journal video: Marijuana Safety Road Trip
Firefighting in Marijuana Grow & Extraction Facilities
Beyond marijuana grow operations’ fire code compliance and enforcement, it’s important to consider the reality of fighting a fire in this type of facility. While we all know that firefighting is generally an inherently dangerous job, marijuana grow labs (especially illicit ones) introduce even more dangers that can result in serious injury or death for firefighters.
Firefighters must be educated and aware of the unique added risks that can be found in both legal and illegal marijuana grow facilities. NFPA Journal published an informative article on the “Hazards of the Trade,” which breaks down the general hazards associated with cannabis growing, as well as those associated with the THC extraction process.
Examples of potential hazards in marijuana grow facilities:
- Flammable/combustible gases & liquids
- CO2-enriched atmospheres
- Chemical compounds generated by the combustion of fertilizers or fumigation materials, as well as smoldering plastic pots, sprinkler systems, etc.
- Compromised egress routes due to high densities of plants
- High electrical loads required for lighting systems, sprinkler systems, etc.
- Illegal locks or barriers and homemade security systems that may include illicit booby traps(4)
Education is vital for all involved – including fire officials as well as regulators, government agencies, and those who operate the facilities (whether illegally or legally). According to an article in MarijuanaVenture.com, when the NFPA first began interacting with the cannabis industry, regulators, and government agencies, it became apparent that many had minimal knowledge about marijuana production: “Tours of grow facilities opened regulators’ eyes to issues they were unaware of: the use of CO2 to enrich the atmosphere for plants; the use of butane, propane and other flammable solvents for extraction; the need for safety when fertilizing and fumigating,” the article states. “This also brings up an important point about the illicit market: There are still thousands of people operating illegally and they, too, need to be educated about fire safety and the dangers of open blasting. By no means should this education be solely for state-licensed operators.”(5)
Whether or not marijuana is currently legal in your area, grow operations may exist and are continuing to increase at a rapid pace across the country. Familiarizing yourself and staying up to date on ever-evolving cannabis grow operations and fire code compliance as well as staying well-educated on the unique firefighting hazards and challenges these facilities present will help keep you and your crew safe.
Photo by Los Angeles Fire Department