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Contaminants in your cannabis still a troubling, controversial trend

As more medical cannabis dispensaries come online across the country, and as a group of recreational shops are set to open in Nevada this summer, the cannabis industry is taking more steps to protect the cannabis consumer from the toxic products used to grow and process the plant by advancing the science and practice of testing.

The Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories (ACCL) recent assessment of the prevalence of pesticides and fungicides shows that around 50 percent or more of the commercially available flowers and concentrates may contain concerning levels of harmful chemical residues. “It is the most important quality issue regarding medical and adult use cannabis today,” Dr. Robert Martin, ACCL executive director, says. “Pesticide residues are not known to breakdown by heat of process or by biodegradation and remain toxic in the plant or soil for lengthy periods of time.”

“Testing is a very controversial piece of our industry,” Brett Roper, co-founder and COO of Medicine Man Technologies, said during his presentation at the Marijuana Business Conference in D.C. last week. “Colorado shut down the normal pesticide list two years ago. So Colorado is basically a no pesticide market,” he says. “So when you go to testing for microbial or pesticides or for potency, if you have just anything in it that is an off-the-shelf pesticide, you are likely not going to be able to sell your products.”

There have been cannabis product recalls across the U.S., with more cropping up in Canada, he says. “It’s an imperfect business and an imperfect marketplace,” he says. “There are always little opportunities for someone to slip through.”

There are some bad players in the testing side of the industry. There are some bad producers as well. But there are others that are faced with an issue in their young and promising business and simply react without considering the consequences.

“Think of the motivation behind an owner who watches a few hundred plants get hit by a sudden infestation of spider mites in the grow,” Dr. Donald Land, chief scientific consultant for Steep Hill Labs, during a medical marijuana presentation inside the Capitol building hosted by United Patients Group. Steep Hill is one of the country’s first cannabis testing companies. “There are hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake. And that business owner has got to make a decision about what to do. Should I put poison on it so I can still sell it? Well, the answer for some people is yes, unfortunately.”

Right now, most formalized state regulations require three types of testing: potency, which is the cheapest; testing for pesticides and other chemicals; and testing for microbials such as E coli and molds, which is the most expensive. Frequency and costs of the testing varies widely in the states, and states require that testing be done by an accredited third party lab.

Most extraction businesses have their own labs, because there is a greater need for certainty when a large volume of raw cannabis is used to make even relatively small quantities of an extracted product. Up to 60 pounds of cannabis is needed to make just two liters of oil. Much of the process of extraction kills any pesticide or microbial element, though if there is a small quantity of microtoxins left, the act of concentrating the product also concentrates that small quantity.

The promise of a completely safe product is still out there, but there are no federal regulations, and testing facilities can be hit and miss on accuracy, or completely winging it. What lab to trust has been a part of a growing industry conundrum still making up regulations and discovering problems. “There is a balance between doing the strictest testing you could possibly do, and having it cost a tremendous amount of money, and doing no testing.” Land says. “There is plenty of middle ground to explore.”

There have been cases cited by Steep Hill where one lab will pass all samples tested, while another lab will disqualify up to 40 percent of the same batch. “In California, 80-90 percent of the samples we tested were contaminated at some level,” Land says.

Questions about testing cause sleepless nights for cannabis businesses executives, because one bad batch, one bad experience of consumption, could result in thousands of dollars in losses and a public relations nightmares for the company – or black marks for the industry in general.

Part of the problem with getting rid of unwanted contaminants on the plant is the plant itself. It’s an accumulator plant, meaning it draws up nutrients and minerals from the soil into its leaves. This particular trait of the cannabis plant is a both a good and bad thing.

A cannabis sativa plant is a tall plant that grows quickly, extending its roots deep in to the soil. This makes it ideal for the phytoremediation process, which is the process of using plants to draw heavy metals out of contaminated soil.

Phytoremediation is still in the development phase, according to the findings of a study by researchers at the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Milano in Milan, Italy. But it’s widely considered a low cost and ecologically-responsible alternative to the expensive physical-chemical methods currently practiced, the study reported, adding that, with phytoremediation “the soil biological properties and physical structure are maintained and its fertility and biodiversity can be improved.”

Cleaning up the soil of a site using phytoremediation is a long slow process, but it does work. In 1998, the Ukraine’s Institute of Bast Crops planted cannabis sativa plants to help clean up the soil from the Chernobyl disaster, with promising results.

That accumulating trait of the cannabis plant absorbing heavy metals is also a problem when that harvested plant is to be used for medicine.

The other issue with a cannabis plant is that it grows sticky trichomes, which produce the terpenes and cannabinoids as the plant matures. These trichomes are a defense mechanism of the plant, warding away some insects and animals because of their strong odor and bad taste.

But many growers are still using various pesticides that may be recommended for other plants from their local farm or garden supply store, not realizing that those pesticides stay on and in the plant and can’t be washed away, as with broccoli or lettuce or ornamental crops like chrysanthemums.

When a patient with a compromised immune system injests cannabis with even a low level of pesticide in it, bad things happen.

Such was the case at the University of California-Davis, where Dr. Joseph Tuscano, a blood cancer specialist, began seeing leukemia patients with severe lung infections that he suspected was related to their use of medical marijuana.

He put together a research team of investigators at UC-Davis and released a study with their findings in February. They used sophisticated genomics techniques to check for the presence of bacteria and fungi in 20 marijuana samples obtained from northern California dispensaries, discovering a diversity of microorganisms, many of which are implicated in serious lung infections, including cryptococcus, mucor, and aspergillus fungi and Escherichia coli and others.

But there is a third problem with cannabis and testing – this is a product that can be consumed by smoking, which means small particles can get directly into a consumer’s lungs. And this presents a new wrinkle for testing labs – creating different allowable standards for the same plant depending on how it’s consumed.

Regulators have done their due diligence, but more work is needed. Each state that sells medical marijuana has their own guidelines for pesticides and solvents in the plant. California lists 22 different solvents and allowable levels, differing for inhaled cannabis and infused cannabis products, with some – like heptane, a component of gasoline also used in paints and coatings, and ethyl ether, a highly flammable organic compound used used in waxes, oils and perfumes – up to ten times higher in infused than inhaled due to the method of injesting.

There are still states that have legalized medical marijuana still with no testing regulations, including Hawaii, Michigan, Rhode Island, Montana and D.C. And regulations in other states are still evolving. In Oregon last December, for example, new testing standards were announced after labs verified that 307 samples taken from dispensaries had failed tests for pesticides, solvents or both since October.

“We believe that full transparency in the lab operations is a big part of ensuring that labs are doing what they supposed to be doing,” Land said. “The regulators have to get the right sticks to go in there with the carrots, and have some real consequences for the bad players.”

On the horizon is DNA-based research that is seen as a significant leap forward in microbial testing that goes far beyond the standard culture-based testing. But in the meantime, it’s time to get better organized to address the controversial part of the industry. “There needs to be complete supply chain integrity,” Lauren Fraser, co-founder and president of River Collective, a medical cannabis distributor, says. “And that includes having multiple labs available, with federal oversight for accurate testing and labeling.”

There there’s this: A consumer should be able to sue a producer for a contaminated product, just like they would for any food product. “It’s really difficult to sue within the legal system of the U.S. related to cannabis. You don’t see a whole lot of lawsuits,” JMichaele Keller, the president and CEO of Steep Hill, says. “The product being federally illegal. But I think that will change over time. As a cannabis producer, product liability would be my number one concerned.”

David HodesDavid Hodes

David Hodes

David Hodes is based in the greater Washington DC metropolitan area. He is the former editor of seven different business magazines, and has contributed feature articles to several business/lifestyle publications and national cannabis magazines. Hodes is also a former field producer for CBS News, NBC, NFL Network, ESPN and other media outlets; worked as a news promotions producer for two network affiliates; and was the morning news editor for a third network affiliate.

He is member of the National Press Club, and deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.

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