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Experts Say Medical Cannabis Patients Could Be at Risk Due to Flawed Safety Regulations

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Feb 25, 2019   
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Marijuana users in California are at risk from products covered in potentially dangerous fungi and bacteria, according to industry experts. 

Cannabis flowers covered in mold and fungi are being approved by accredited labs, according to reports, even though the pathogens could induce fevers, vomiting, and respiratory problems in consumers. 

This unsafe practice can be attributed to California’s somewhat lax safety regulations, which, unlike other states, do not enforce cannabis labs to count the number of microbial colonies a sample can generate in a petri dish, a measure known as a total yeast and mold count (TMYC). Without this FDA-recommended test, labs can classify marijuana products as safe to consume, even if they are covered in visible mold.

As these pathogens are a major health risk to cancer patients and other vulnerable consumers, experts are calling on California’s cannabis regulatory body, the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), to add TMYCs to its list of state cannabis testing requirements. 

“The final regulations do not, as currently written, safeguard and protect the health of Californians,” says Dr Gary Ward, Chief Compliance Officer at PacLab Analytics

Speaking to Analytical Cannabis, Dr Ward criticized the BCC’s policies and warned of the health issues undetected pathogens could cause. 

“BCC’s testing plan falls short on the comprehensive mold test,” he stated. 

“At PacLab Analytics, we have seen cannabis flowers pass BCC’s current microbial impurities test while being visibly covered with mold and fungi. This flower would not pass microbial testing in other states.” 

Ward has been one of the strongest critics of the BCC and its stance on TMYCs, even challenging its leader, Lori Ajax, on the organization’s policies.

Addressing Ms Ajax during an open question period in August last year, Ward advocated for TMYCs and implored the BCC to “protect the safety of all California cannabis consumers with this simple, low-cost test, recommended by the World Health Organization, among other leading health and scientific bodies. The health of Californians needs to come first.” 

Ward went on to cite a recent study by the University of California, Davis, which concluded that medical marijuana patients with weak immune systems were highly susceptible to the bacteria and fungi found aplenty on Californian cannabis. 

“In that study, twenty cannabis samples from California dispensaries were found with numerous mold species, such as Mucor and Cryptococcus, in addition to Aspergillus, that can cause a variety of ailments including fever, vomiting, and meningitis. Why would you exclude a test that could easily identify these harmful pathogens?”

The BCC has rolled out three new phases of cannabis regulations since January 2018. From then on, all cannabis harvested legally in California has been tested for a variety of potency indicators, such as cannabinoids, and dangerous substances, such as heavy metals. 

In a press statement following the first wave of regulations, the bureau’s chief, Lori Ajax, said that the decision “marks the beginning of a legal cannabis marketplace that will be well regulated in order to protect consumers and maintain a level playing field for cannabis-related businesses.”

But despite necessitating so many health and safety tests, none of the regulation phases introduced a state TMYC requirement – an oversight which could put thousands of vulnerable patients at risk. 

“This decision [by the BCC] affects marginal patients, those who are immune-suppressed, or immuno-compromised, or even those with weaker immune systems due to age or genetics,” says Reggie Gaudino, PhD, President of Steep Hill Labs, Inc., the first commercial medical cannabis lab in the United States.  

“These patients should only be using concentrates or extracts that have passed the most stringent of microbial tests,” says Gaudino. “Because you can have pathogenic mold and bacteria whether or not the overall counts are high or low.”

The TYMC omission stands in contrast to regulations in neighboring states, which have included the test without hesitation. 

“To my knowledge, among the states that have an acceptable limit for microbial safety of cannabis and cannabis product, Nevada has better coverage,” says Arthur de Cordova, formerly a prominent member of California’s cannabis industry advisory body, the CCIA.

“They require maximum limits for total yeast and mold counts and coliforms, as well as call out strain specific pathogens.”

TMYCs are also a requirement for cannabis labs working in Canada, Colorado and eleven other US states. As to why the BCC seem so resistant to following suite, de Cordova and other experts have suggested that California’s competitive cannabis market could be to blame. 

“California is a market in transition,” says de Cordova. “State authorities are under tremendous pressure to bring in as many growers from the underground black economy in to the legal side.” 

“The number of growers in the Emerald Triangle [a region in Northern California, famed for being the largest cannabis-producing region in the US] are thought to number in excess of 20,000 alone and have been operating for years, and in many cases decades, without any regulatory safety standards or over-sight.”

“In order to create ‘as big a tent as possible’, the BCC has created the lowest standard of compliance.”  

Also speculating on the BCC’s decision, Steep Hill’s President, Reggie Gaudino indicated that the bureau may have been trying to emulate existing regulations in the food industry, despite the unique requirements of cannabis.

“I believe that they believe the regulations are adequate because they are used in other industries, even though those other industries are sometimes, at best, only marginally related to the cannabis industry,” says Gaudino. 

“I do, however, believe they are trying hard to get it right. They just didn't have the right conversations with the right groups to make sure that what they were asking was reasonable or even doable for this industry.”

Undeterred, industry members like de Cordova, Gaudino, and Ward are still advocating for the BCC to include TMYCs in its next slate of regulations. Speaking to Analytical Cannabis, they explained how cheap, available DNA techniques can be used to carry out TMYCs with precision and help safeguard patients and consumers. 

“[The BCC decided that] the TYMC test was an expensive outdated method, but that choice was based on the use of antiquated plate methodology and not with knowledge about new qPCR techniques, which are cheap and fast and would protect against hundreds of harmful organisms,” says Dr Ward. 

The BCC’s last formal list of regulations was implemented on January 16th, 2019. Any further additions will likely only come via strong pressure from advocacy groups or industry members. In protest of the BCC's decision not to endorse the Quality Control Committee's (QCC) unanimous recommendation to include TYMC in their regulations, Arthur de Cordova has subsequently resigned from the CCIA.

Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a Bachelor's in Biology from Newcastle University and a Master's in Science Communication from the University of Edinburgh.


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