British Columbia is encouraging the public to buy government-regulated cannabis instead of illicit products after finding contaminants in samples of marijuana seized from illicit dispensaries.

The provincial government announcement highlights the challenges of addressing unregulated cannabis sales in the West Coast province, which has a long history of illicit cannabis production.

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Vancouver, the province’s largest city, was last in per capita legal cannabis spending in 2020 among major Canadian metro areas.

B.C.’s Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Secretariat recently ordered laboratory testing on 20 samples of dried cannabis seized from illicit stores in the metropolitan Vancouver area, B.C. Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth told reporters during a Wednesday afternoon news conference.

“The samples went to a federally licensed lab for testing, and the results are concerning,” Farnworth said.

“The lab found 24 distinct pesticides, with almost every sample containing at least one.

“There were also unacceptable levels of bacteria, fungi or heavy metals in many of the samples.”

The illicit cannabis testing was a pilot study conducted with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health (NCCEH).

A blog post on the NCCEH website said the testing was conducted in February and involved samples from six different illicit dispensaries.

Only three of the 20 samples “would have been deemed immediately fit for sale had they been legal samples, meaning that they contained levels of microorganisms and levels of arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead below the (United States Pharmacopoeia) standards and pesticide residues that were either undetectable or negligible in terms of health risk,” according to the blog post.

Two samples contained no detectable pesticides, the NCCEH noted.

Myclobutanil, a fungicide, was present in 16 of the 18 contaminated samples.

Cannabis consumers might be “under the illusion that this is all produced in an organic, pesticide-free environment,” Farnworth said.

“The reality is, what we’re finding – it’s not,” he added.

“And the best way to avoid that is to shop at a legal retail store, where people are abiding by the rules, the product is tested, they pay the proper licensing fee, they’ve invested money into the business legally.”

Farnworth also warned against purchasing illicit cannabis edibles packaged to look like regular sweets, echoing a federal government warning in 2020.

“These are obviously attractive to children,” he said.

“But their content isn’t candy. It’s illicit cannabis, often with a THC concentration that exceeds legal product (THC) limits by 10 times or more.”

Farnworth said enforcement against illicit cannabis businesses in B.C. will continue, and he hinted at future announcements about further enforcement actions.

“We work with legal vendors on initiatives that are going to help improve their side of the business and to dampen down the illicit storefronts (and) online operations, and I’ll have more announcements on that in the near future,” he said.

British Columbians bought more than 41 million Canadian dollars ($34 million) of legal recreational cannabis in March.

“By making the public aware (that) more and more legal retail stores are in place around the province – 370 of them right now – that is making it easier than ever before to buy legal cannabis,” Farnworth said.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety said officers from the province’s Community Safety Unit (CSU) started carrying out “inspections involving seizures of cannabis” on July 31, 2019.

CSU officers have “seized nearly CA$13.5 million in cannabis from the illegal market” as of June 7, the spokesperson wrote, adding that “165 unlicensed retailers have either closed or stopped selling cannabis as a direct result of the CSU’s actions.”

Solomon Israel can be reached at solomon.israel@mjbizdaily.com.