William “Chris” West and Jason Alexander Oei, co-owners of the Astoria marijuana processor that exploded in October, pleaded guilty today to felony assault in the third degree and misdemeanor reckless endangerment.
The case marks the first criminal prosecution in Oregon of a licensed butane hash oil facility involved in an explosion, Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said.
West and Oei originally faced felony assault in the second degree, a Measure 11 crime that would have meant a mandatory prison sentence, before reaching a deal with the District Attorney’s Office.
They were sentenced today in Circuit Court to three years of probation after pleading guilty.
“What makes it unusual is that to my knowledge this is the first time, in at least Oregon, and maybe in the United States, in which a legally permitted or licensed marijuana production facility — the people operating it — have been found guilty of a felony for injuries resulting from it,” Marquis said.
Oei and West would serve 20 months in prison if either violate probation. Both men did not have any criminal history before the explosion. Circuit Court Judge Dawn McIntosh said the district attorney’s willingness to not ask for guaranteed prison time, due to the lack of criminal history and because the fire was started accidentally, was unusual.
West, 41, and Oei, 44, owned and operated Higher Level Concentrates, a marijuana processor located in the basement underneath Sweet Relief Natural Medicine on the corner of Industry and Portway Streets in Uniontown. The October blast left West and Jacob Magley, a worker at the facility, with severe burns and the building in ruins.
The reckless endangerment charges stem from the danger caused to emergency personnel working to contain the fire, Marquis said. Secondary explosions occurred as fire personnel attempted to extinguish the blaze.
“This is not about cannabis. This is about a manufacturing process that is very dangerous,” Marquis said. “Nobody believes they intended to do this but that they acted recklessly with a dangerous weapon, in this case butane.”
West, Oei and Magley, who listened to the proceedings over the phone, declined to make statements to the court.
Magley, who spent several weeks recovering in a Portland burn unit, is suing the two men in Multnomah County Circuit Court for premises liability and violations of the Oregon Safe Employment Act. His attorney claims Oei was “dabbing,” inhaling the marijuana smoke from butane hash oil pressed against a heated surface, while West was using butane to remove tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, from marijuana leaves.
Butane vapors emitted from a cannister can quickly fill an enclosed space, where even a pilot light can cause a fire. Hundreds of previously punctured cannisters that contained butane were found during the fire investigation. The heat from Oei’s dabbing mixed with vapors emitted from the cannisters caused the explosion, Magley’s attorney claims.
The lawsuit is ongoing in Multnomah County after a judge denied a motion to move the case back to Astoria.
Marquis has been critical of the Oregon Health Authority for not inspecting licensed marijuana manufacturers, including Higher Level Concentrates. The state Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the company $5,300 in April for workplace safety violations. Had the same incident occurred in a building in downtown Astoria, it could have started a massive fire similar to the inferno that leveled the city in 1922, Marquis said.
“That’s, frankly, indefensible,” Marquis said of the state’s lack of inspections before the explosion.