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It is true that no one has ever died from smoking cannabis. But through ingesting dangerous contaminants such as bacteria, fungus and pesticide residue that may be lying in wait on cannabis plants? That, unfortunately, is another story.
The Sad Case of Two Sacramento Cancer Patients
Sadly, this month saw the first reported and verified death of a medical cannabis user, not from the cannabis itself but from a toxin found on the plant, a form of the fungal mold aspergillus. Normally aspergillus consumption (or inhalation) would not lead to death. For cancer patients and other individuals with compromised immune systems, it most certainly could—and has.
Earlier in February, two men were undergoing intense cancer and stem cell therapy at the University of California, Davis Cancer Center. Both used medical marijuana to combat nausea and stimulate their appetites as they underwent chemotherapy.
Both were also fairly young and were supposedly in “win-able” cancer situations. That was why UC Davis doctors thought it was strange when both contracted a rare fungal infection.
“We thought it was strange to have cases of such a bad fungal disease in such a short amount of time,” said Dr. George Thompson for an article for CBS News, San Francisco edition. Thompson is a fungal infection expert with UC Davis Medical Center.
Eventually, one of the men pulled through. Unfortunately, the other did not.
A Long Time Coming: Testing Regulations in California and Elsewhere
Surprisingly, research into pesticide and fungal residue on medical and recreational marijuana crops is still in its infancy, even in California where medical marijuana has been around for over twenty years.
“For the last 20 years, [California] has been referred to as the ‘wild west’ of the cannabis industry,” commented Ben Bradley of the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA) in a recent UPG interview. “There have not been clear guidelines in place.”
As Bradley explains, Prop 215, the voter initiative that made medical marijuana legal in the state of California in 1996, created very loose documents that set up the collective model but it did not create standards in terms of testing and safety for the industry.
This changed somewhat in California with the passage of the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA), which was a set of bills signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2015 that would regulate the cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, transportation, sale and testing of marijuana in the state. MCRSA was also meant to put California into compliance with the Cole Memo, which outlines how the industry is able to function without Federal intervention. Some aspects of MCRSA went into effect in January 2016, but the testing regulations will not go into effect until January 2018.
Other states who have gone through similar regulatory back and forth, such as Colorado and Oregon, are currently seeing a trend of loosening testing regulations. Factions within the cannabis industry in some states claim that tougher regulations will hurt the industry, lead to loss of jobs and even threaten the quality of crops produced.
Last December, Oregon legislators temporarily eased testing requirements for cannabis in their state, giving in to pressure from business insiders who warned that new rules would cause tax revenue to drop and may even lead to more black-market marijuana sales. In a similar vein, in 2015 Colorado eased up on pesticide use regulations for cannabis growers. In 2016, the Colorado Department of Agriculture was working on a list of less toxic chemicals to use by marijuana growers when the process was stopped abruptly under pressure from the state’s cannabis industry.
Ben Bradley says that he does not see this trend happening as much in California.
“We are working with the regulatory commission of the MCRSA to develop these kinds of standards and to ensure that consumers have the best product possible,” says Bradley of the organization he represents (the CCIA).
Amount of Harmful Residue in Cannabis “Significantly Higher Than Expected”
Colorado growers sited the fact that toughing up on pesticides that they can use on their crops would lead to “devastating disease” for their crops. And here is where the catch-22 comes in: while not spraying with the right kinds and amounts of fungicides may open cannabis crops up to pathogens that can affect both humans and plants, exposing crops to the wrong kind of pesticides can be just as deadly.
A recent report generated by Steep Hill of Berkeley, California, the same lab that conducted the final analysis on the UC Davis Cancer Center case, investigated the prevalence of pesticide residue in California cannabis crops. What they found was alarming: roughly 90% of cannabis flower samples submitted tested positive for pesticide residue.
What is even more concerning is that approximately 65% of the samples tested high for Myclobutanil, a Schedule 3 substance (under the Chemical Weapons Convention) that is typically sprayed on commercial California almonds and strawberries. It is listed as a “general use pesticide” for these crops. However, when Myclobutanil is heated up, as is the case for smoked marijuana, it converts to Hydrogen Cyanide.
What Can Medical Cannabis Consumers Do?
“Those in the cannabis community who feel that all cannabis is safe are not given this data—smoking a joint of pesticide-contaminated cannabis could potentially expose the body to lethal chemicals,” said Jmîchaeĺe Keller, president and CEO of Steep Hill, in an October 2016 press release about the report. “As a community, we need to address this issue immediately and not wait until 2018.”
It appears that in California, safety will come in 2018 in the form of the MCRSA and its companion bills such as SB 113, introduced just last week. In the meantime, what can consumers do?
Steep Hill researchers and others look to tougher regulations in states such as Oregon and the City of Berkeley as models for the future. In the meantime, if you are using smoked cannabis for medical purposes, don’t be afraid to ask about the source of your medicine, especially if you obtain it from a dispensary. Contact the company that manufactures it and ask them about their testing practices as well as information about the growers they work with. If you run into a dead end in your inquiry, consider another cannabis source.
Luckily, there ARE growers and manufacturers within the cannabis industry who have taken it upon themselves to self-regulate and test using the latest third-parting sources. Don’t put your health at risk– be sure to buy from reputable sources only.
And if you feel called, don’t be afraid to put pressure on your state’s legislature and the cannabis industry alike so that they remember to put YOUR safety as a consumer first.