Business

New ‘fire bible’ includes rules specifically for marijuana facilities

Marijuana-growing operations have several features that pose potential fire risks, including hot lights, labyrinth layouts, and highly flammable compounds such as ethanol used to make marijuana concentrates.
Bob Pearson for The Boston Globe/file 2016
Marijuana-growing operations have several features that pose potential fire risks, including hot lights, labyrinth layouts, and highly flammable compounds such as ethanol used to make marijuana concentrates.

The NFPA 1 is the bible of American fire safety — a widely adopted rule book from the National Fire Protection Association that governments use to regulate everything from fuel storage to foam television props to how much vegetation can be allowed to grow in a yard of wrecked cars (none).

While the three-year process of updating the fire code typically attracts little outside attention, the upcoming 2018 edition is the subject of unusual buzz, at least by the staid standards of the fire prevention community. That’s because the NFPA, a Quincy nonprofit whose work underpins most US fire codes, has included for the first time a chapter of regulations specifically for marijuana cultivation and processing facilities.

With their high electrical loads, hot lights, labyrinth layouts, and use of super-pressurized carbon dioxide or highly flammable compounds such as ethanol to make marijuana concentrates, cannabis operations present potential hazards to people and property, according to fire experts.

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Those risks, plus the rapidly growing number of marijuana firms and a series of headline-grabbing explosions related to amateur pot extractions gone wrong, prompted the NFPA to take up the issue.

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“Code enforcers and fire inspectors were coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, we have these facilities in our jurisdiction and I don’t know what to do with them,’ ” said NFPA principal fire protection engineer Kristin Bigda, who led the drafting of the new chapter. “This industry is flourishing, and we decided that we had to get involved as a safety organization.”

Many of the rules in the new marijuana section of NFPA 1 have been in the code for years — and already apply to common marijuana processing techniques because of the chemicals involved — but they were scattered among other chapters geared toward different industries. Consolidating them under the marijuana heading should make it easier for officials and cannabis business owners to know which existing standards apply.

The chapter also adds new requirements, including one mandating that certain marijuana extraction processes be performed in a dedicated room constructed with flame-resistant materials. It also bans most marijuana processing in structures that contain gathering spaces, as well as day care centers, hospitals, nursing homes, and residences. Another rule says processors must provide fire officials with documentation detailing equipment that hasn’t been approved by testing groups such as UL, which have been reluctant to certify marijuana devices.

The measures are unlikely to be put into practice immediately. Most jurisdictions lag several editions behind the NFPA’s latest guidance, as local fire officials customize the rules and seek feedback from companies, firefighters, and the public. For example, Massachusetts on Jan. 1 is scheduled to adopt a modified version of the 2015 edition of NFPA 1, replacing a code based on the 2012 edition.

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But with recreational pot sales set to begin in July, Massachusetts fire officials said they will study whether to implement the marijuana chapter sooner by tacking it onto the upcoming code as an amendment.

“We’re not going to weigh in on whether we think marijuana is a good thing or a bad thing,” said Peter Ostroskey, the Massachusetts fire marshal, “but these facilities present risks to the fire service that are different from other buildings in the Commonwealth, and we want to be proactive rather than reactive.”

Some marijuana industry business people want the state to adopt the new rules immediately. They say such regulations help to legitimize their business — and further differentiate sophisticated, regulated processors from backyard enthusiasts who may have learned how to extract and concentrate THC, the plant’s primary psychoactive ingredient, from watching online videos.

Marijuana operators and attorneys say that a single fire or explosion at a licensed operation in Massachusetts could severely damage the reputation of the entire industry.

Adam Fine, a lawyer for marijuana companies, called the new rules “reasonable and not unduly burdensome.”

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“There are several instances of overregulation in the marijuana industry,” Fine said, “but fire and life safety are not areas where we should accept skimping.”

‘There are several instances of overregulation in the marijuana industry, but fire and life safety are not areas where we should accept skimping.’

For their part, Ostroskey and other fire officials acknowledge that existing medical marijuana facilities in Massachusetts are generally safe. The operations are tightly regulated under the current fire code and laws, and frequently inspected by local fire chiefs, the state fire marshal’s office, and the Department of Public Health. Many have even voluntarily added nonrequired safety features at the request of officials.

Bigda said NFPA researchers found similar compliance in other states, including Colorado.

“When the thing you’re producing is illegal at the federal level, the last thing you want is other issues,” Bigda said. “These places were impeccably clean and very safe.”

The real danger, Bigda added, is “someone using lighter fluid in the garage and blowing it up.”

That’s why the new code would ban extractions in residences. Such extractions are already sharply limited by existing rules that require permits for the use of most solvents in a manufacturing process.

While much has been made of the sometimes tense relationships between marijuana firms and local officials, state fire authorities and the authors of the new code discuss the topic with a certain enthusiasm. After all, here’s a dynamic industry that’s generally eager to be regulated and whose unique buildings and processes present challenges that are, well, just plain interesting.

“Welcome to the jungle,” proclaimed the headline of a breathless article published last year in the NFPA’s official journal detailing the development of the marijuana requirements.

“We’ve been a little bit bold,” Bigda said. “The cover of the journal was this big marijuana leaf. It definitely raised some eyebrows.”

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.