Medicinal Genomics Unveils Its Compendium of State-by-State Cannabis Microbial Testing Regulations
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The current state of cannabis regulations governing microbial contamination testing and detection of human pathogens is far from perfect. Presently, 39 US jurisdictions have legal cannabis programs with microbial testing rules for four product types (plant, concentrates, edibles, and infused non-edibles) that populate a myriad number of matrices.
With 27 unique sets of microbial testing rules for buds and edibles, multiplied by a host of allowable methods and even fundamental disagreements on which “science” (plating or qPCR, for instance) should be employed, this is a situation that will be resolved with federal legalization and subsequent regulation. In the meantime, participation in this industry will neither be easy, simple, nor without controversy.
Every aspect of the cannabis business is controversial due to eighty-five years (and counting) of misinformation, racism, inequality, ignorance that comes with prohibition. While the social, therapeutic, economic, and judicial aspects of the business will take their own painful trajectory to resolution, safety testing should have a leg up. After all, selection of the appropriate set of microbial detection tests combined with properly employed sensitive and specific methods will protect public health and consumer safety. These two key parameters must first be resolved before cannabis can be considered as pure as the drugs on the pharmacist’s shelf and as disease-free as the food in our markets.
Summaries of data analyses of cannabis microbial testing for flower and edible samples:
A summary of the state testing requirements for cannabis flower. Image credit: Medicinal Genomics. Graphics courtesy of Hyunji Ha of Biological Data Science, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University.
We at Medicinal Genomics Corporation (MGC) have cataloged the cannabis microbial testing regulations by state as the first step in an effort to shed light on the disarray of the industry’s regulatory status. We see this catalog as a prerequisite toward rectifying disagreement and harmonizing the industry-wide microbial testing regulations in advance of interstate cannabis commerce and eventually federal legalization. I will present the full compendium at MGC’s CannMed 23 Summit for Innovation and Investment to be held between May 15-17 at the JW Marriott Resort, Marco Island, FL.
But first, a little history
The first compendium of state medical cannabis testing regulations for quantification of cannabinoids and several classes of chemical contaminants and microbials was completed in 2018 and updated several times through 2019, while I was managing the State of New Jersey cannabis microbial testing lab. Since May 2021, when I joined MGC, our first updated catalog of state adult use and medical cannabis microbial testing regulations was completed during the summer of 2022. Continuously updating the compendium is a challenge because the regulations are constantly changing with newly adopted testing rules. A significant amount of education is also required for cannabis regulatory officials because few individuals possess expertise in both traditional and molecular microbiological disciplines. These regulatory staff are placed in the unenviable position of crafting microbial testing regulations with neither the background to understand the science nor the cannabis industry – almost no one does. On top of that, the staff are being lobbied by unscrupulous and uninformed people who want the regulations to favor one or more of their financial interests.
The greatest obstacle is ignorance
By far the greatest obstacle to agreement among the states on a consensus set of microbial testing rules is a lack of education. These non-scientist regulatory officials are subject to the same propaganda and prejudices the industry’s been fighting for the last 85 years. If there is no understanding of the scientific methods being used, how they work or their advantages and disadvantages, it’s impossible to even know what to test for. And in the absence of fact, opinion masquerades as fact.
What the states and the federal government can do to rectify the situation
First and foremost, we need to normalize banking for cannabis companies. It’s unconscionable
that the states and the federal government collect billions of tax revenue dollars from these companies without allowing access to normal financial services, a right that is extended to all legal businesses in this country. Then there’s the undue burden of 280E, the federal tax restriction that mandates that no “illegal” business may deduct normal business expenses. Add the restrictions against interstate commerce and collapsing prices, and you have an economic recipe for forcing many cannabis companies out of business. This is counterproductive to eliminating the illegal markets, supposedly a high priority for the federal government. But by not allowing state-legal companies to operate like other legal entities, they’re actually helping perpetuate the illegal cannabis trade, which, in some states like California, is just as big or bigger than the legal market.
Once these companies have a fighting chance to become profitable, they’ll be in a better position to engage in a dialogue with regulators to arrive at some sort of consensus approach for microbial testing. But there’s no incentive now when there is a robust illegal market that doesn’t do any testing at all, and every new regulation brings more complications and financial burden. Why bother working with the very same people who are effectively driving you out of business?
The unintended consequences are getting worse by the day
Maximizing profit over protecting public health and consumer safety has caused some cannabis businesses to commit criminal behavior. The April 2022 issue of High Times documented a shift in cannabis consumer marketing and subsequent behavior toward higher THC content percentages. That shift would cause a cascade of consequences, one of which was predicted when Dr. Jim McRae analyzed Washington state testing results from the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board and raised the alarm about what he saw as a lack of consumer safety and transparency. McRae coined the term lab shopping. This practice occurs when businesses like cultivators, processors, or product manufacturers utilize testing labs that intentionally either inflate a sample’s THC content for marketing purposes or pass cannabis that failed a contaminant test. All this is illegal, of course, but hardly surprising given the circumstances many companies have been forced into. When the legal avenues to running a profitable business are blocked, some of these companies are choosing illegal avenues and not all of them are desperate.
The solution is clear but there is the will to implement it
Most of the government’s problems with this industry are self-inflicted. We hope that by calling attention to the disconnects in the regulations and the need for better oversight and cooperation between the public and private sectors, we can begin to build a rational structure that benefits everyone. And, again, that starts with education. If we can bring everyone along with evidence and scientific rigor, I’m hopeful we can overcome the obstacles we now face. This compendium is just the beginning of that effort, and we hope it will lead to more understanding and a more intentional evolution of an industry that stands to benefit everyone involved.
*The article was updated on March 1, 2023, to include an additional image, the one that summarizes the state testing requirements for cannabis edibles.