Strict Testing Limits May Leave Massachusetts Dispensaries Without Cannabis Flower

testing lab

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 [email protected]

14 comments on “Strict Testing Limits May Leave Massachusetts Dispensaries Without Cannabis Flower
  1. MA patient on

    It makes no sense to say you want to me anonymous yet use a quote that was used in an WBUR interview. The DPH know.
    The MA test protocol has been changed a few times and the 10 ounce assumption is no longer in play. The new limit is based on a patient consuming up to an ounce.

  2. Herman Swarensen on

    The cited Colorado limits seem to follow the normal ranges for tobacco were levels for lead are commonly found between 200-12000 ppb dry matter, which would probably be acceptable levels for recreational.
    I think here it is a ploy by Mass DPH to forbid de facto smoking for mmj.

  3. Leo Beau---- on

    This state has mayors,senators and congressmen who are not abiding by the publics vote so remember that when election time rolls around again.This has been approved twice by public vote and still is not a reality.I feel sorry for the companies who are so close to offering a drug needed by millions of people and have spent millions of dollars to reach that point and now this is thrown into the fray.They keep changing the laws and requirements which in my opinion should not be allowed,you can’t keep changing the rules in a game which this appears to have become.

    • Jack Straw on

      Exactly. Imagine a state referendum allowing liquor stores to “dispense” distilled spirits 24/7? Wouldn’t The Chamber of Commerce which “dispenses” $150 million – virtually the same lobbying allocation as Verizon – rapidly and effectively reverse and “correct” any MA efforts to obstruct the right of business? Where are the organizational pillars of virtue on this vote?

  4. Rick Fague on

    Oh for crying out loud, leave it to the state to take the peoples simple and clear desire to legalize weed and completely screw things up.

    Washington state’s got its share of issues but at least you can get flower in MMJ and retail shops here.

    I think if I lived in Mass. I’d try to rally as many voters as I could to swamp the legislature with calls and emails until they get their program right.

    Twenty years from now people will look back on these awkward stages of legalization as even more ridiculous and ineffective than the War on Drugs was.

  5. Sarah G. on

    Massachusetts Testing Protocols for contaminant levels are based on the assumption that a person could ingest 1oz of marijuana per day NOT 10 oz. Please do some research for your articles….

    • Chris Walsh on

      Sarah – the state initially assumed a person could ingest 10 ounces a day, and then later revised that to 1 ounce a day. We have added more wording to make the distinction clear.

  6. rose on

    It makes no sense to assume we can use 1 oz per day because we cannot be dispensed enough medicine to consume that much at a time. The state allows 10 oz for 60 days. I would need to have 60 ounces dispensed to consume that much on a daily basis. Also, your program is a complete joke. Seriously considering moving to Colorado to work on helping others by joining the medical marijuana industry and spreading the positive message about this wonderful medicine!

  7. Sonny on

    Somehow i expected something like this. Since we have a democracy they couldnt outright refuse to implement the voters will so they keep coming up with ridiculous regulations nobody can follow and that way effectively forbid using flowers for medicine. most people perfer flowers smoked , waped or eaten and itsridiculous to deny the people the right to choose which form of cannabis to medicate with.people have smoked all kinds of unregulated cannabis flowers without any problems , certainly nobody died or got sick ftom lead poisoning and god knows what illegal growers use to grow cannsbis flower so its just a kegal way for them to deny us the cannabis flowers that we need.we should all rise up and demand that they change this ridiculous regulation

  8. Keefe J. Morrison on

    Alcohol kills more people per year than all of the illegal drugs combined, but the people working to obstruct go home and enjoy that gin and tonic then drive their kids to their soccer practice. Great Common Sense Massachusetts. Better yet, sell your flower without reporting to the DPH. I use plenty that do that now. We just skirt the laws since the government is not capable of doing a simple job. MA has a bunch of idiots running the state, alcoholic idiots!

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