Strict Testing Limits May Leave Massachusetts Dispensaries Without Cannabis Flower

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By Tony C. Dreibus

The first dispensary in Massachusetts may not have any marijuana to sell when it opens – at least not in flower form.

Alternative Therapies Group is hoping to start serving patients in the next two weeks, but it might only be able to sell edibles and concentrates at first because of strict testing requirements, according to several observers.

Other dispensaries that open in the coming months will likely face a similar challenge unless officials tweak the regulations, adding to a string of setbacks for the state’s oft-delayed medical cannabis program.

Aside from limiting patient access to medicine, the issue could dampen revenues for dispensaries that desperately need to start generating sales to recoup their startup costs.

“This is just another in a myriad of examples of (the state health department) treating cannabis as if it’s highly radioactive,” said Bill Downing, chairman of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, the state affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “People who want to operate dispensaries … have been laying out tens of thousands of dollars, or in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it’s been more than two years since the bill was enacted.”

Regulations imposed on the industry by the Department of Public Health (DPH) stipulate that lead levels in cannabis flower can be no greater than 212 parts per billion, which is so strict that no grower can meet them, according to several testing labs. By comparison, Colorado allows up to 10,000 parts per billion.

One testing lab owner, who didn’t want to be named for fear of repercussions his company could face by the DPH, told Marijuana Business Daily that organic potatoes contain about twice the amount allowed in Massachusetts.

The main issue, he said, is that state officials originally set the level with the assumption that a person would consume 10 ounces of marijuana in one day.

“You would need to smoke a joint every two minutes for 24 hours straight to consume 10 ounces,” he said. “It’s physically impossible. A potato has 400 parts per billion (of lead) – according to Massachusetts regulations, fries aren’t safe to eat.”

Health officials later revised their assumptions to estimate that a person would consume one ounce a day (medical cannabis patients in Massachusetts are only allowed to purchase 10 ounces every 60 days).

But the lab owner said that’s still unrealistic, equating it to the way prescription drugs and alcohol are sold. A pharmacist dispenses 90 OxyContin pills at one time, and vodka is sold in 1.75-liter bottles, but nobody is assuming a person will use them all at once.

Marijuana industry experts in the state said the lead standard is another example of the DPH’s “obstructionist” policies. Residents voted to legalize medical cannabis more than two years ago, yet not a single dispensary has opened yet thanks to legal wrangling thanks over flawed licensing procedures and hints of impropriety.

Alternative Therapies Group in Salem did not return calls or emails. But without flower to sell to patients, it’ll be a watered-down grand opening, Downing said.

DPH spokesman Scott Zoback said in an e-mail that the department “continues to evaluate all aspects of the Medical Use of Marijuana Program, including testing protocols, to address a balance of patient safety and access.”

Jill Brzezicki, the lab director at CMT Laboratories in Denver, said because there are no studies on how much lead is safe to inhale, Massachusetts health officials are likely just being cautious. Also, growers may be able to get their lead levels down by leaching – or rinsing – their soils using a water and acid solution, she said.

“When they’re setting these limits they’re going to toxicologists and other health care workers and asking what are the lowest levels we should allow,” she said. “They’re asking `what happens over the next month or year? Is that going to accumulate in your system?’ There are a whole lot of downstream effects we may not know about yet with inhalation as a route of entry. So do I think they’re being extra cautionary because there are no studies about neurotoxicity of lead in cannabis? Absolutely.”

The DPH could change the regulations with the stroke of a pen, said Richard Evans, a Northampton attorney who works in marijuana law. He doubts it will, though, and the first few dispensaries will likely have to open with no flower on hand.

“The lead standards are in the regulations, not in the state statute, so the DPH can change its regulations anytime – it’s within their authority to solve this issue,” he said. “They’ve talked over and over about science-based rules, but that term has just become a cliché. I’d be interested in the science behind this regulation.”

Tony C. Dreibus can be reached at