People don’t just smoke marijuana. They vaporize it, bake it into brownies, use it in eye drops, and rub extracts of it onto their skin. Some people use the drug as medicine, others for the fun of getting high.
In states that have legalized pot, regulators have struggled to make sure the bewildering array of products on dispensary shelves are safe to consume. States where the drug has been legally sold for several years such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington are still trying to figure out standards and laboratory testing rules for potential toxins such as pesticides, solvents and mold.
“The big challenge with this industry is the speed at which it innovates and evolves,” said Danica Lee, director of public health inspections for the city of Denver. “It continues to be a bit of an adventure.”
DANGERS OF BAD WEED
The link between illness and tainted marijuana isn’t well established. But anecdotes have emerged of vulnerable consumers, such as cancer patients, contracting dangerous infections after smoking bad weed.
States and cities are trying to head off a health crisis before it can happen. They’re balancing public safety concerns against some marijuana growers’ and manufacturers’ reluctance to pay for testing that’s expensive and not proven to improve safety, and some laboratories’ eagerness to run additional tests.
Lori Ajax, California’s chief of cannabis regulation, said earlier this year that writing regulations for lab testing was probably the biggest challenge her team faced in writing medical marijuana regulations. The medical marijuana rules have since been folded into rules for the adult use market, which opens Jan. 1.
State regulators have had no guidance from the federal agencies that usually set health and safety standards for agriculture, food and medicine because the federal government considers marijuana to be illegal. They have been hampered by the fact that there’s little research on how marijuana tainted with potential toxins affects humans, partly because the federal government funds limited marijuana research.
COST OF TESTING
And they’ve also had to adjust testing regulations to reflect the costs and amount of tests fledgling legal marijuana markets can handle.
In Oregon, for instance, initial rules rolled out in October 2016 for marijuana testing and laboratory accreditation contributed to backlogs at laboratories and shortages of product on dispensary shelves. Regulators, seeking to ease the pressure on the market, issued new rules that December that reduced the number of times a harvest, or a batch of chocolates or candies, would have to be tested.
Donald Morse, a dispensary owner and chairman of the Oregon Cannabis Business Council, a trade group, said too much testing would have raised the price of marijuana too far. “It would have been out of reach to most people, and they would end up going back to the black market.”
CROP OR DRUG?
States have adopted a range of testing requirements and standards for marijuana, from testing medical marijuana like a medicinal drug in Massachusetts to not requiring medical marijuana to be tested at all in Arizona.
“Some states are regulating it as if it’s a pharmaceutical, and some states are regulating it as if it’s an agricultural product,” said Julianne Nassif, director of environmental health for the Association of Public Health Laboratories, a membership organization based in Maryland. Her organization hosts a monthly conference call on marijuana issues for officials who work in state public health, environment and agricultural labs.
More business coverage of North Coast cannabis commerce: nbbj.news/cannabis