ROD AMMON: Today, we’re going to hear from a lawyer in Colorado about what fire chiefs, fire investigators, and the legal system are seeing in a state with legalized cannabis in regard to fire cause involving marijuana. With us today to discuss this topic is Dave Perry. He’s a lawyer from Littleton, Colorado. Thanks for being with us, Dave.
DAVE PERRY: My pleasure to be here.
ROD AMMON: Well, we appreciate it, very much. You want to give us a little bit about your background, and then we’ll move into some of the questions?
DAVE PERRY: Sure. I’ve been an attorney here in Colorado for just over 31 years. My primary focus is in the area of large loss property claims. I handle a lot of origin-and-cause investigations, follow-up fraud investigations. I work with an extensive network of origin-and-cause investigators, and have handled probably, and evaluated probably, hundreds of fire cases.
ROD AMMON: That’s a great background for some of our conversation, and again, we’re focusing on the changes that have happened. We know there were fire causes related to marijuana in the past, and now that it’s legal, we’re interested in what’s going on with the changes. So prior to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, what were the typical fire causes you saw related to marijuana?
DAVE PERRY: Well, as you go back and do your research, you would see - you’d see one on occasion. I mean, they were about as frequent as the proverbial cigarette, someone falls asleep, and a bed starts on fire. They simply were not a dominant force in any respect anywhere in the state, and I think the issue has changed significantly since legalization of cannabis took place here in Colorado a couple years ago.
ROD AMMON: So let’s talk about that. Now that it’s been legalized since 2012, talk about the different fire causes in cases where marijuana was involved.
DAVE PERRY: Well, it’s interesting because any time that you pass one of these laws, people will try and figure out how they can use it to their benefit, and so what we have ended up seeing here is that just about everybody and their brother has thought, well, if cannabis is now legal, I am now going to start a grow operation. I’m going to start selling cannabis. I’m going to start selling marijuana. We’re going to put the cartels out of business, and I’m going to make a million, and no matter who you talk to, everyone kind of has that in the back of their mind, like, oh, I can always make my money selling marijuana. There will always be a marketplace for it so all I’ve got to do is put up a shop and we’ll sell it.
There’s a strip here on South Broadway. It’s an older strip of - south of Denver that used to be the - you know, a haven for tattoo shops, antique shops, old businesses, and now every other business is a pot shop, and so people have started to move into that arena. All of a sudden, 2013 was the first year that we went through fires after legalization, and we had 20 cannabis-related fires. In 2014, that jumped to 32, and there’s a common thread that runs through every single one of these, and that thread is in very few situations is it a commercial grow operation. In virtually all of these cases, it’s one of these individuals who has thought I’m just going to buy the stuff. I’m going to go online. I’m going to get everything that I need. I’ll get my grow lights, and I’m going to yell. I’m going to take off and make my million. That’s where the fires are coming from now.
ROD AMMON: Wow, that’s interesting. So even though it’s legalized, you have these - I’m guessing these are uncontrolled or non-legal operations that are being put up, or are they legal the way they’re doing it?
DAVE PERRY: Well, it’s illegal to do it this way, and I mean you have to go through a process to - under state law to become a commercial grow operation, and so what you have - people and groups of people who will just simply say we’re going to set up an operation in a basement, and what you inevitably get is the commercial operations are only allowed to sell cannabis. There’s a limitation on the number of - I mean, if I want to have my own operation, there’s a limitation on the number of plants I - as a personal individual wanting to grow my own pot, I have to - I can only have a certain number of plants, and I can only have a certain number of plants that are in bloom at any one time. So the limitations apply there. There are different limitations that apply to the commercial grow operations, but again, like all of these situations where now it’s become legal, someone is going to try and make more of it than it was ever intended, and that’s where we get into the fires.
ROD AMMON: It’s interesting. I mean, it sounds like with any industry when it’s new or when people are trying to do it with less capital upfront or they’re not following code, you’re going to have problems, so it’s not specific to marijuana.
DAVE PERRY: And the driving force behind it is money because you can start your own grow operation in your basement. Like I say, you can have the total amount, number of plants you can have, you’re limited. Personal possession, you can only have six. What people will try and do is turn that investment, and it’s a relatively minor investment. You can pick these up for less than $100, and you can start a series of plants being grown, and you harvest the buds, and from there, that’s where the danger begins because you can turn around and sell that pot. That’s illegal. You can’t sell your personal stash so to speak, but what people are looking for is bigger bang for their buck, and how they get that is what is causing the problem.
What has happened is, uniformly, with these fires that we have seen, 20 in 2013, 32 in 2014, without - you know, coming from the background of virtually no fires to now over 50, what we have had is the distillation of the buds to concentrate the THC, and there’s a process. It’s a straightforward process, but it has to be done very, very carefully in order to get the maximum THC, and what they do is take a - like a polypropylene pipe, a PVC pipe. They will jam it full of buds. They will put a filter at the bottom. They’ll have a small outlet valve like leading to a pie tin. They’ll then pour butane through the top. The butane will remove the THC from the plant, and what comes out of the bottom is a very highly concentrated level of THC, and it’s called hash oil.
ROD AMMON: Oh man.
DAVE PERRY: So if you look at this from a long-term perspective - now, I grew up in the ‘70s. Little baggies of pot were showing up everywhere. What law enforcement here refers to that level of pot and THC is ditch weed, and you smoke it, do whatever you wanted with it, but the level of THC in the plants back then was about 3%. If you buy a normal bag of pot now from any legitimate producer or grow operation, that concentration is about 35%, so now you have a much higher level. You then go to the next level of distilling this down with butane and hash oil. That concentration jumps to anywhere between 85 and 95% THC.
ROD AMMON: Wow. I know some guys from college that are getting pretty excited right now, but I’m thinking oh my Lord, 10 times to 100 times the strength of what people knew back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and...
DAVE PERRY: It’s astonishing.
ROD AMMON: And at the same time, more probable fire cause coming from - I can’t believe they’re using - you said butane?
DAVE PERRY: Butane.
ROD AMMON: Great, so I think you’ve already answered this question, but I’m wondering, we had talked a little bit about are these going to be consumer-related fires or business-related. It sounds like it’s weighing heavier on the business side where people are trying to make a dollar.
DAVE PERRY: And it’s - yes, and it’s - the illegal operations that are the ones who are driving that desire for profit because what ends up happening is once you have distilled down the THC into hash oil, now you’ve got - well, you’ve got two problems. On the one hand, you’ve got butane, and we’ll talk about how we - how that’s the problem that we’re dealing with here this morning, but on the other side, what you can do is put this hash oil in a little vial, and you can sell those vials.
Now, it’s all illegal to do it this way, and the attorney general of the United - of Colorado has come out and said that in their opinion, distilling marijuana buds into hash oil is not processing, which is allowed under the act here, but is something else, and therefore, it’s illegal. But no court decision has ever come down making that distinction one way or the other, so what you have are people getting these small vials of hash oil, and they’re only about half an inch to an inch high, but the hit and the high that you get from that hash oil makes that vial worth anywhere from $3-$4,000.
ROD AMMON: So...
DAVE PERRY: So now you’ve converted a $100 investment into $3-$4,000 cash business.
ROD AMMON: Which is a whole lot different than the old-fashioned marijuana dealer I think was dealing with. They used to - I remember listening to people talk about it, and it was like cocaine was the big deal because it was small, and marijuana was a problem because you had giant bales, and now you’re talking about moving something down to a vial and exponentially increasing its value. So you’ve already talked a little bit about where I was going to go was relating to the growing and processing operations. Are there particular fire causes like the butane that are leading to fires?
DAVE PERRY: Yes, and that’s the problem you have with this entire operation is the butane is highly flammable. Most people will be doing this in their home, and you need strong ventilation because what happens is you’ve got to get - you’ve got a mixture of butane and hash oil. You’ve got to get the butane out. Well, the butane fumes will fill a room, and again, most people will do this in a basement. They’ll do it in a corner room. They’ll do it in a small bedroom in their house. That’s their little operation. You’ll fill the room with butane fumes. Any spark will set that off and cause an explosion. That’s what we are seeing.
The second side - or the other side of that and the second cause is that when the butane is still mixed in this pie tin, oftentimes what these individuals will do is take it over to the stove and they’ll hold it over heat, and if you hold it over heat, there’ll become a flashpoint. The butane will flash, and you have an immediate explosion, and we’ve had a lot of those. Now, you’ve got fire that’s blowing all over the inside of the house. The major butane explosion from fumes will actually knock the walls out, and the home will collapse, but these smaller concentrated fires, those flash fires, will result in a lot of personal injury to people who are doing it. You’re standing over a stove trying to boil off butane. They don’t care. They want to get to the end product as quickly as possible, and they don’t seem to understand this needs to be a very slow process to get that removed.
ROD AMMON: It’s interesting. I did a podcast months ago with an ATF agent talking about meth labs, and you know, it’s the processing and the purification, and in some cases, it sounded like it was just trying to make it look better that were causing fires, and some pretty serious ones. So what should fire investigators working these fires be alert to, regard to the marijuana and the related causes?
DAVE PERRY: Well, you never know what you’re going to find when you get into the home. I mean, there could very well be bottles, jars, cans - we don’t know what they keep them in, of butane. All of these may be open. You’ve got sub-explosions that can take place once you’ve got the fire going because you don’t know what chemicals are in the house that could trigger a secondary problem, and so you’re coming in. You don’t know whether or not someone has been in there. More than likely you’re going to have injuries that you’re going to have to deal with, so you’re going to have to get people out of the home.
These fires - they’re very intense fires. They burn very quickly, and they burn very hot, so you’ve got to be very careful as you approach that scene. It was interesting, and I can’t recall where I saw it earlier this week or last week, and I think it was on LinkedIn there was a photograph in Denmark of a row of houses, and they said which one of these houses do you think there’s a grow operation in? And you could look at it, middle of winter, and all of these houses had snow on the roof except one right in the middle, no snow whatsoever, and the reason for that, and one of the - again, a secondary problem that you see is there is an enormous amount of electricity that’s taken to operate these grow lights.
On top of that, you need an enormous amount of water to keep the humidity up. For insurance carriers, now you’re looking at potential mold, and in fact, in Colorado, you start to see mold cases, and yeah, there’s a limitation on the amount of coverage, but this is a dry, semi-arid environment out here, so mold really should not be an issue, but these homes have a lot of mold in them. And when you see from - and we’ve got countless photographs that will show this, you can go into one of these homes, and you can see they bypassed the breaker box, and you’ve got one plug and then you’ve got a surge protector, and they have 15, 20 different plugs into the same receptacle.
ROD AMMON: So you’ve got an overload setup.
DAVE PERRY: You’ve got a tremendous overload setup, and that’s causing us issues, and of course, they do the bypass wiring themselves. They call a friend. Hey, I need to bypass this so I can get a continuous flow of electricity. I don’t care about the breaker box, so you get electric fires, and it’s all the same thing, and that’s keep the grow lights on; keep the water and humidity flowing.
ROD AMMON: So what you’ve seen or heard about, and I know that you’ve got some connections with the fire investigation community and you’re paying - you’re alert to what’s going on out there. Have you heard other things that you might want to share with some of the folks out there listening that are tips for a fire investigator that’s coming to a scene or is dealing with an investigation?
DAVE PERRY: Well, I think you need to take a look at - the question that we always get is does this constitute arson or doesn’t it? And we out here in Colorado have to balance the legality of pot here in the state versus what these folks are doing to cause these fires. So is it and does it actually constitute an arson? Is that what we’re looking at? Is that what’s happening here? So you have to do a very thorough investigation to find out what you’ve got. You’ve got the attorney - like I say, the attorney general’s opinion indicating that making hash oil is not covered under Colorado law and remains illegal, which means you’ve got an illegal act going on in the home, but as of right now, there have been no appellate decisions that have come down saying one way or the other. My advice is to err on the side of caution. There are a number of different ways these fires can start, start with the electricity. You can start with the butane. Are there other chemicals that they’ve got in the house that are also potentially explosive chemicals? And you really have to be careful going in.
ROD AMMON: Well, thanks so much...
DAVE PERRY: Because you don’t know what you’re getting.
ROD AMMON: Thanks very much for your time, and I did hear you. You said you never know what you’re going into, and I think that’s the case in a lot of these different fires, and we’ve seen that in a lot of lab situations as well. We appreciate your time, Dave, and it will be interesting to see how this issue develops as marijuana sales roll out in states where it’s now legal, and legalization happens in other states. Once again, thank you very much from all of us at CFItrainer.Net and the IAAI. You be well.
DAVE PERRY: My pleasure, thank you.
ROD AMMON: And now some news from around the IAAI. The IAAI is looking for attorneys to guide our investigators through the IAAI expert witness courtroom testimony course. Each EWCT class is limited to only eight students, and we are filling them as quickly as we can schedule them. We have the students, but we lack the attorneys. One of the requirements setting IAAI apart from other agencies is the IAAI CFI certification. To quality as a certified fire investigator, the applicant is required to testify twice as an expert witness in regard to the origin and cause of a fire. Given the nature of the profession, however, an investigator can go many years without being called to testify. Recognizing this limiting factor, the IAAI developed the expert witness courtroom testimony class designed to provide otherwise qualified investigators with a realistic courtroom experience.
The critical aspect of creating a realistic courtroom experience for the investigator is having attorneys conduct the examination, cross-examination, and redirect. The IAAI recognizes and appreciates the commitment our students and the volunteer attorneys make in agreeing to participate in the EWCT program and their contribution to the professionalism of the fire investigation community. If you or an attorney you know are interested and would be willing to help in this endeavor, we welcome your participation. Please contact the IAAI training coordinator, Kate Reed, at IAAIemail@example.com, or call (410) 451-3473 for more information. The IAAI CFI certification program was originally accredited by the Pro Board in 1996 and has maintained accreditation since that time.
At the January 2015 education conference, the IAAI received their accreditation certificate after having undergone the rigorous re-accreditation process. The certification is now accredited to NFPA 1033 2014 edition. The IAAI’s advocacy committee chair, Roger Krupp’s recent email and message in the journal reminds us of the importance of the upcoming CFSI symposium and annual dinner April 15 through the 16. The cost is $325, and we ask anyone attending to notify Roger at roger.krupp - that’s with a K, K-R-U-P-P - .firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s roger.krupp - K-R-U-P-P - .email@example.com. The IAAI supports the CFSI barbecue on Wednesday night, and we will provide you with a complimentary ticket.
For those attending, there will be a special IAAI meeting designed for the first-time attendee prior to the meeting. Representatives of the IAAI will be on hand at some of the upcoming industry conferences. If you are attending any of these conferences, we hope that you will look for us, the PLRB, Property Laws Research Bureau, booth #914. That’s in Anaheim, California, March 29th through the 31st. CFSI has discussed the Congressional Fire Service Institute symposium that’s in Washington, D.C. April 15th through the 16th. The IAAI will also be at FDIC, the Fire Department’s Instructor’s Conference, booth #3679 in Indianapolis, Indiana April 23rd through the 25th. We hope that you’ll stop by, introduce yourself, and bring us up to date on what’s important to you and what you’d like to see happening with the IAAI.
You might also learn about the Fire Scene Evidence Collection Guide app from the International Association of Arson Investigators. It’s designed for the iPad, and it puts detailed proper procedures for collecting more than 30 types of evidence at your fingertips. Each type of evidence includes a step-by-step written collection procedure. Many of the collection procedures are also demonstrated in video. The IAAI’s ITC for 2015 is in Chicago this year. It’s at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, and it’s happening May 17th through the 22nd. Registration is now available. The member price is $795. Please go to firearson.com for further information on the ITC and all upcoming training classes. For the International Association of Arson Investigators and CFItrainer.Net, I’m Rod Ammon.