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In New York, 40% of Illicit Cannabis Products Contain Contaminants, Report Finds

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Dec 01, 2022   
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Cannabis advocates in New York are eagerly anticipating the state’s adult-use, recreational market, which could open within the next few weeks.

But ahead of this legal launch, many in the state’s “gray market” have already started cashing in on the recreational hype by selling illicit cannabis products in unlicensed dispensaries that appear legitimate.

And in a new report published on November 30, local cannabis advocacy groups claim that many of these products are dangerous.

The authors of the report had product samples, sourced from several illicit vendors, and tested and the results showed that 40% of products contained harmful contaminants such as E.coli, Salmonella, pesticides, and heavy metals.

New York illicit shops

The report was authored by the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association, the New Jersey Cannabis Trade Association, and the Connecticut Medical Cannabis Council.

The groups said they aimed to get “a more comprehensive view of the health and safety implications of illicit products on public health”.

Through a mixture of online searches and physical inspections during August 2022, the research team identified 30 unlicensed cannabis dispensaries in New York City that flagrantly advertised themselves as selling THC. Some of these retailers were brick-and-mortar shops, others were mobile trucks.

Twenty of these locations were visited by the researchers, who purchased two products from each retailer.

These 40 products were then analyzed by an independent lab. According to the report, 40% of the products failed at least one of the contaminant tests that are standard for legal cannabis products.

Several products tested positive for heavy metals like lead and nickel. Others tested positive for microbials like E.coli and Salmonella.

The report, however, doesn’t divulge the quantities of these contaminants. Analytical Cannabis has reached out to the authors to clarify whether the levels of microbials and heavy metals breached legal limits.

Both types of contaminant can pose a serious threat to human health if ingested. Exposure to E.colibacteria can cause hemorrhagic colitis and hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can both be fatal. And while there are legal, acceptable levels of lead in certain states (California, for example, has a lead exposure limit of 0.5 micrograms per day), the World Health Organization considers there to be no safe levels of lead exposure.

Several illicit cannabis products didn’t contain the advertised levels of THC, either. One flower product was labelled as containing 23% THC; it tested at 12.3% THC. A gummy product was advertised as containing 100 milligrams (mg) of THC per piece; it tested at 51.5 mg per piece.

Ultimately, most product potencies were lower than advertised, although one gummy product purported to contain 100 mg of THC per piece and actually contained 204.8 mg per piece.

“Inaccurate dosage labeling can easily deter consumers from exploring the health and wellness benefits of cannabis users, even after only one bad experience,” the authors write in their report.

“This hurts the industry holistically and opens the door for the further perpetuation of negative cannabis stigmas. The establishment of a legal recreational industry must be built on trust.”

Several products purchased for the report were branded in the style of well-known non-cannabis products, such as Rice Krispies. The authors warn that this kind of packaging is appealing to children and could lead to accidental consumption.

The report also notes that most (11 out of the 20) dispensaries didn’t ask for any form of identification when purchasing products. Many of the retailers were also located near tourist attractions such as Times Square and the Empire State Building.

In their conclusion, the authors of the report warn that these kinds of illicit-yet-overt dispensaries risk harming consumers and undermining forthcoming legal businesses.

“Thousands of New Yorkers spent years fighting for a solid and successful adult-use cannabis market,” they wrote.

“Just as the Empire State is poised to achieve that significant goal, new illicit operators have sprung up, latching on to the coattails of the respected pre-existing legacy market and threatening both public health and safety and the long-term success of legal operators, particularly CAURD licensees who will launch first in the nascent adult-use industry.”

“These bad actors present a clear danger that could undermine both the budding industry and the health of New York residents and visitors.”


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