Californians deserve safe, quality cannabis: an industry response to ‘dirty weed’ 

dirty weed

Recent reporting by the LA Times and SF Gate set off alarm bells in the cannabis industry when it recently reported that over half the legal cannabis products the newspaper tested had “alarming” levels of pesticides. That sounds bad. And it is. But it may not be as bad as the ‘dirty weed’ investigations suggest. 

For example, the LA Times tested just 42 products. Almost two-thirds of the product failures came from just five brands—out of the thousand or so brands in the legal California market. Equally important, the LA Times included products that industry whistleblowers had already identified as being contaminated and reported to the California Department of Cannabis Control (DCC). In other words, it (appropriately) tested products and brands that were most likely to be problematic. 

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How big is the problem? 

Working with March and Ash, a cannabis retailer where I manage regulatory affairs, we decided to tackle persistent rumors of lab fraud by conducting our own independent investigation last fall. 

We tested over 200 cannabis products, examining three aspects: pesticide contamination, THC potency accuracy, and the presence of (illegal) chemically synthesized THC. Our investigation covered a sample size four times larger than the LA Times’, encompassing the top 70 brands in the market. 

The good news is that 84 percent of our tested samples met California’s stringent pesticide standards. The bad news is that 16 percent exceeded California’s allowable pesticide limits and should never have been approved for sale by the testing lab. 

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THC potency inflation was also rampant, which should surprise no one given the implausible THC potency levels being advertised and the spate of class action lawsuits for false advertising. Furthermore, two products disappointingly contained unregulated, chemically synthesized THC, which is prohibited under state law. 

Of California’s three dozen licensed cannabis testing labs, five routinely understated pesticide contamination in our survey. Of these (and independent of our internal investigation), one has had its license revoked by the DCC; another has had its license suspended; and another is under DCC investigation. 

The path forward 

It appears then that a relatively small number of brands and labs are gaming the system at the expense of public health and safety. 

The path forward is clear. The state has the tools to address this problem. The whole point of “track-and-trace,” the state-mandated system that tracks cannabis from seed to shelf, is to bolster transparency and accountability. State regulators can view all test results. They can track adulterated products back to the source. They can independently verify test results. They can even view videos of sampling procedures. (None of these checks and balances exist for intoxicating hemp products, by the way.) 

Thus far, the DCC has been maddeningly slow in taking action against irresponsible actors in the industry. But that has recently started to change. In addition to the lab enforcement actions noted above, we’ve seen dozens of DCC product recalls and embargoes in the past six months. Hopefully, that trend continues. 

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California consumers deserve to be confident that regulated cannabis is safe and accurately labeled. But the state can and should take additional steps to close gaps in our testing framework, such as 

  1. Mandatory, Random Confirmatory Testing: The DCC should implement a robust random sampling program to identify labs that are misreporting results quickly. 
  2. Scheduled Off-the-Shelf Comparison Testing: The DCC should periodically select products for comparison testing to check for lab accuracy and identify unintentional process errors. 
  3. Publicly Available Certificates of Analysis (COAs): The DCC should make COAs publicly available to consumers to improve transparency and accountability. 
  4. Mandatory Trace-Back Investigations: When product is found to be contaminated with pesticide, the DCC should trace the biomass back to the supplier to identify other potentially contaminated products. 
  5. Expanded Testing Protocols: The DCC should expand testing protocols to include additional dangerous pesticides like those found in the LA Times investigation. And it should include mandatory testing for chemically synthesized THC, an unfortunate spill-over from the illegal intoxicating hemp market, which is rife with heavy metal contaminants and unnatural byproducts.

California has developed some of the world’s most rigorous cannabis testing standards to protect consumer safety and public health. The shoddy practices of a handful of players make a mockery of legal cannabis and its legacy as a medicine. It’s past time to weed out the bad actors. 

*This op-ed was written by a guest contributor to GreenState. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Tiffany Devitt Tiffany Devitt heads up Regulatory Affairs for March and Ash, a vertically integrated California cannabis company. She previously served as vice president of the California Cannabis Industry Association’s board of directors and was the long-term chair of the organization’s legislative committee.