Out of the Ashes…

With the pending legalization of recreational marijuana sales in Colorado as of January 1, 2014, the overall apparent shift in the United States toward relaxing marijuana laws, and because accidental fires started by cigarettes coming into contact with upholstered furniture and mattresses result in significant property damage and multiple fatalities each year in the United States, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has advocated for legislation that only “fire-safe” marijuana cigarettes be sold.

The NFPA was successful, and today only “fire-safe” or reduced ignition propensity (RIP) cigarettes are marketed, distributed, and sold.  The idea behind the RIP-type cigarettes is simple – if left unattended (i.e., not smoked), they self-extinguish. As described on the NFPA’s “Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes” website,  “The most common fire-safe technology used by cigarette manufacturers is to wrap cigarettes with two or three thin bands of less-porous paper that act as “speed bumps” to slow down a burning cigarette.”

RIP-type cigarettes will not totally eliminate fires started when they are accidentally and unknowingly dropped onto a bed or couch but they certainly will reduce the occurrences.  The recent legalization of marijuana in the “green states” of Colorado and Washington State brings up many interesting questions from the standpoint of fire safety and fire   investigation. How do marijuana cigarettes compare with tobacco cigarettes in their ability to initiate smoldering combustion in upholstered furniture and mattresses? Will there be an equivalent        requirement for the distribution and sale of RIP-type marijuana cigarettes? If there will not be an equivalent requirement, will fire investigators see an increase in fires caused by people falling asleep on the couch or in bed while smoking a joint?

One thing is for sure, fire investigators working in these two states will now have more questions to ask when investigating fires that are thought to have originated on couches or mattresses.  The typical line of questioning still applies.  Are you a cigarette smoker?  Are you a cigar or pipe smoker?  Were you smoking cigarettes, cigars, and/or a pipe prior to the fire?  When and where were you smoking?  How often?  Where did you dispose of your cigarette butt?  The new series of questions starts with the line from Meet the Parents, “Are you a pothead, Focker?”  You may expect the following answer to that question, “No!  No.  What?  No, no, no, no, Jack.  No, I’m – I’m not – I – I pass on grass all the time.  I mean, not all the time.”  After that, the questions related to marijuana are very similar to cigarettes, cigars, and  pipes.

By John L. Schumacher, MChE, PE, CFI, CFPS and Zachary J. Jason, PE, CFEI

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