Marijuana lab testing under scrutiny amid recalls, differing rules

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Image of a chemist examining dry cannabis under a microscope

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State marijuana regulators, producers and other stakeholders are grappling with how to safeguard consumers at a time when lab-testing requirements and enforcement differ dramatically nationwide and large-scale product recalls are common.

Each state currently takes its own approach to medical and adult-use cannabis lab testing for potency and contaminants as well as production standards and inspection – a situation that has led to inconsistent testing regulations and questions over whether consumer safety is a top priority for companies and regulators.

Steph Sherer, founder of Washington DC-based medical cannabis advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA), said the patchwork approach to testing is a symptom of federal prohibition.

“If this was a legal commodity in the United States, it would be subject to standard testing,” Sherer told MJBizDaily in an interview.

Instead, in many states, lab-testing and consumer safety regulations remain under debate.

The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission recently decided to allow the sale and transfer of products that test positive for aspergillus – a type of mold that has led to product recalls in several markets – after cultivators filed a lawsuit arguing they would go out of business if the state’s new zero-tolerance policy for the mold policy was enforced.

In Maine, medical cannabis producers said their products are safe and shouldn’t require testing, even after two separate analyses showed a high percentage of samples contained contaminants and pesticides and would not be allowed for sale in the adult-use market, where testing is mandatory.

And in Arizona, some experts say major changes might be needed after multiple recalls this year for potential aspergillus and salmonella contamination in both cannabis flower and manufactured products such as edibles.

These experts suggest recalls could perhaps be prevented through improved cannabis lab standards as well as the use of a statewide track-and-trace system or certain standards such as Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP).

If, as many expect, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reschedules marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug to Schedule 3, it would mark an “important first step” toward federal oversight of cannabis testing and other production standards, industry advocates contend.

“Rescheduling literally just means that we start a conversation, but it also means that there will be federal oversight,” Sherer said.

ASA hopes rescheduling would offer the opportunity to create an Office of Medical Cannabis under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that would work with state governments to create marijuana testing requirements.

In a July report about disparities in state marijuana testing programs, the group also recommended that more product safety inspections and certifications be implemented in markets where medical cannabis is legal and that comprehensive testing protocols be adopted.

But, as evidenced by the slow progress on federal oversight of CBD since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, regulation of products containing cannabinoids is complicated.

And it’s far from clear how lab standards would change in the wake of rescheduling.

Oregon contends with aspergillus

Sherer of ASA labeled as “criminal” the Oregon commission’s recent decision to allow marijuana products with aspergillus mold – including 2,500 pounds of cannabis and 65,000 infused pre-roll units that were being held – to be sold to consumers.

“There’s no other way to say it – that is criminal,” Sherer said.

“Aspergillus is a big deal, especially when it’s smoked.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aspergillus mold isn’t harmful to healthy people.

But those with compromised immune systems or lung diseases are at risk of developing aspergillus-caused infections.

Marianne Cursetjee, the co-founder and CEO of Portland-based indoor cultivator Alibi Cannabis, told MJBizDaily via email that she and other members of the Cannabis Industry Alliance of Oregon support marijuana testing.

She also acknowledged that people undergoing organ transplants or chemotherapy could be particularly at risk to aspergillosis.

But Cursetjee said those individuals would likely be advised not to smoke while undergoing and recovering from treatment.

The Oregon Health Authority hasn’t reported any cases of aspergillosis tied to cannabis use.

One option for addressing the situation could be the use of irradiation, which kills contaminants such as mold.

Cursetjee, however, contends such processes could decrease the quality of products – although not everyone shares such a view.

“When devising regulations, we need to be careful to think about consumer safety, but temper that with personal responsibility,” she said.

“Bringing the entire craft cannabis industry to a halt because of a few at-risk patients who have likely been advised by their doctors to not smoke anyways doesn’t make good policy.”

The presence of aspergillus in the air, especially through the record-breaking temperatures in many states last summer, is common, said Milan Patel, the CEO and co-founder of Arizona-based agriculture testing and software company PathogenDx.

But he said it’s not yet known what the impact of regularly smoking cannabis containing aspergillus over the course of many years could have on the lungs.

“We will ultimately see what the outcome of all of this is,” he told MJBizDaily.

“And that could be potentially catastrophic. It could be a public health crisis at that point.”

Maine medical marijuana under scrutiny

Two analyses of medical marijuana in Maine, where MMJ is not required to be tested, showed a high percentage of samples contained contaminants and pesticides.

An analysis by the state’s Office of Cannabis Policy examined 127 samples and found that 45% had at least one banned material or substance and would have failed testing requirements for adult-use products.

A second analysis by Maine testing facility Nova Analytic Labs compared 3,200 adult-use samples to 1,400 medical samples.

Only 3.8% of the adult-use samples failed the test, compared with more than 20% of the medical samples, and pesticides were the No. 1 contributor to test failure.

Chris Altomare, Nova’s founder and CEO, said he’s been subjected to online trolling from the medical cannabis caregiving community since going public with the test results, but he said consumer safety is too important to stay quiet.

“Cannabis already has a negative connotation,” he said in an interview with MJBizDaily.

“To be putting material out there that could get people sick, that just gives those naysayers even more ammunition.”

Medical cannabis is not currently required to be tested for contaminants in Maine, nor is it part of the state’s proposed MMJ legislation.

The Office of Cannabis Policy has previously attempted to implement basic testing standards and to have public-policy conversations about the need for broader testing, Alexis Soucy, the agency’s director of media and stakeholder relations, told MJBizDaily via email.

“To date, however, those efforts have been stymied by stakeholders opposed to such changes and meager legislative engagement on issues related to the science behind medical cannabis testing,” Soucy said.

Recalls common in Arizona

Like Oregon, no illnesses connected to cannabis products in Arizona have been reported.

Instead, regulators have recalled multiple batches of marijuana flower and manufactured products over the past year for potential salmonella and aspergillus contamination.

Some products were deemed safe after more testing, and those recalls were lifted.

In June, for example, three live resin products made by the Cannabist brand (operated by The Cannabist Co., formerly knowm as Columbia Care) were voluntarily recalled for potential salmonella contamination while Cherry Punch plant trim was recalled for potential aspergillus contamination.

Further testing revealed the products actually tested negative, and the recall was lifted.

In addition to reviewing cannabis lab-testing standards, implementing GMP standards could help prevent recalls in the future, said Kim Stuck, founder and CEO of Colorado-based Allay Consulting.

Stuck said GMP standards – which are required in Florida and New York, while Michigan grants certain benefits to companies that adopt them – lead to a greater focus on consumer safety before products leave the facility.

That would mean fewer products could be recalled, she added.

“It would have stopped at the door and not gone out at all,” Stuck said in an interview with MJBizDaily.

“It would have been destroyed in the facility.”

Kate Robertson can be reached at kate.robertson@mjbizdaily.com.