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Cheaper is Not Always Better: The Risks of Illicit Mail-Order Marijuana

Published: Apr 26, 2022   
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Canadians have been consuming cannabis in one way or another for generations. From flowers to oils to edibles, cultivators and manufacturers have been coming up with ever more creative ways to market this popular drug, especially since legalization in late October of 2018.

The introduction of the Cannabis Act aimed to regulate the production and consumption of marijuana in Canada. Since then, the legal market has gradually begun to succeed its illicit counterparts. 

The Canadian government has stated that in 2019, one year after national legalization, “52 percent of Canadians obtain (at least some of) their cannabis from a legal source (compared to 22 percent prior to legalization)”.

These data suggest that nearly half of all Canadian consumers still purchased their cannabis exclusively from the black market at that time.

And according to the Associated Press, the legal sale of cannabis in Canada totaled $1 billion in 2019, while the black market generated over $7 billion.

There are many potential aspects that contribute to the decision-making process consumers go through before determining their source of choice for cannabis related products. Some of which include but are not limited to, ease of access, price, product variety, and other special offers. These factors allow the gray and black markets to have a competitive edge over their legal counterparts in many cases, especially when price is the main concern.

A perfect example of such market advantages can be directly seen in the Mail-Order-Marijuana (MOM) industry, which has been booming in recent years. So much so, that dedicated subreddits have been created to keep a record and review the different options available to consumers.

MOM providers appear as great alternatives to the legal market at first glance. They offer their products at much lower rates than their legal counterparts, have, on average, more product variety, and will mail an order directly to a person’s front door.

So, the real question is, why would consumers choose the more expensive option?

An illicit issue

A major critique of the illicit cannabis market is the lack of responsibility for regulatory activities. Although some providers operate within the bounds of the law, the majority of MOM companies avoid regulations by keeping their operations within the gray and black markets. 

Unlike these MOMs, the government must ensure that the cannabis it provides falls below very specific concentrations for a list of toxic compounds. This requires extensive regulatory testing within licensed laboratories, which can make the resulting products more expensive.

Meanwhile, the majority of MOM organizations provide limited regulatory data, which in most cases only covers THC and CBD concentrations. The lack of regulatory audits and quality control systems within these organizations also suggests that these already limited data may be inaccurate as well.

There are many types of fertilizers and pesticides that can promote the growth of healthier, more flower-producing plants. However, many of these chemicals have been linked to adverse health effects in the past. In addition, marijuana vaping systems have been recalled recently for producing aerosols containing metals derived from components inside the device. The data are clear, as stated in a 2017 article monitoring the illegal international indoor cannabis plantations: “Illegal cannabis cultivations should be considered a serious health risk”.

In most cases, contaminated cannabis products do not possess any visible features that could alarm users of their inherent danger. Though visual markers such as rotting or moldy flowers can be a strong indicator.

The role of regulatory agencies such as the Canadian government is to ensure public safety. By regularly requiring batch testing of cannabis products for pesticides, mycotoxins, heavy metals, and other contaminants, the government can ensure that Canadian citizens are protected from long-term exposure to toxins.

What can consumers do?

Obviously, the best and most direct solution is to limit potential exposure to such contaminants by avoiding black market drugs altogether. Simply put, the potential hazards associated with illicit MOM products far outweigh their price benefits. 

It is understandable, however, that many cannabis enthusiasts prefer their tried and tested MOM providers to the more expensive, regulated legal market. Whether due to price, limited access to dispensaries, or availability of specific strains, many consumers will likely continue to shop online and risk the potential health hazards associated with the industry. Not to mention, many MOMs actively incentivize consumers by promoting discount coupons, 420 sales, bulk discounts, and much more.

Needless to say, consumers are at the center and the most important part of the profitable operation of these illicit markets. Without demand, these organizations cannot stay relevant and will be forced to change their practices to regain the trust of their client base. Therefore, the first step many consumers can take is to contact their preferred provider and voice their concerns regarding the lack of regulatory practices. With enough demand, these organizations will be incentivized to change and regulate their products to retain their customer base.

Another, more expensive solution is to audit a preferred vendor by purchasing and independently testing their products for contaminants. The Canadian government provides an updated list of all authorized laboratories that have the capacity to provide analytical testing under the Cannabis Act.

There is considerable information available online about regulatory cannabis tests and why they are necessary for everyday consumers. It is encouraged that consumers learn and familiarize themselves with these regulatory practices and understand the underlying impacts these toxins can have in the long-term. 

Ian Vand is a technical sales specialist at PPB Analytical Inc


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