The Colorado Department of Revenue (DOR), in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) issued two public health and safety advisories this morning after they identified pesticide residues on dried cannabis flower, trim, concentrates and infused products, according to the advisory. The contaminated products come from cannabis grown by Rocky Mountain Ways, LLC and Herbal Options, LLC, both doing business as Good Meds.
The advisory cautions consumers to check their labels for the license numbers of the businesses and the harvest batch numbers. They list the license number as, “Medical Optional Premises Cultivation License 403-001116 and/or Medical Marijuana Center License 402-00736.” The harvest batch numbers in question are B11H15.041317-Headband, B11H15.041317-Night Terror OG, and B11H15.041217-Citrix.
The CDA found the presence of off-label pesticides, including Pyrimethanil, Tebuconazole, and Spinosyn, in the products. Pyrimethanil is a fungicide commonly used on seeds, but it is generally regarded as not acutely toxic to humans. Tebuconazole is another fungicide, while the FDA says it is safe for humans, other sources say it could have a moderate acute toxicity in humans. Spinosyn is a class of insecticides with a slight acute toxicity to humans and has been the culprit in a previous cannabis recall in Oregon. In the public health and safety advisory, the CDPHE and DOR say the pesticides were used off-label and none of them are on the approved list of pesticides for cannabis.
Willamette Week, a Portland-based publication, is hosting the 2017 Cultivation Classic with Farma, Cascadia Labs, Phylos Bioscience and the Resource Innovation Institute on May 12th. The event is a benefit for the Ethical Cannabis Alliance, an organization that promotes sustainability, labor standards and education surrounding the integrity and ethics of growing cannabis. Cultivation Classic is a competition for pesticide-free cannabis grown in Oregon, according to a press release.
While the event’s focus is on the competition, it is just as much a celebration of the craft cannabis community in Oregon. This year’s competition incorporates scientific collaboration like genetic sequencing for the winners by Phylos Bioscience and carbon accounting for all competitors. Keynote speakers include Ethan Russo, medical director of PHYTECS and Dr. Adie Po, co-founder of Habu Health. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a prominent cannabis legalization advocate in Oregon, will also be speaking at the awards ceremony. You can check out the full schedule and speaker lineup here.
Raymond Bowser, breeder at Home Grown Natural Wonders, is a judge for this year’s Cultivation Classic. He speaks at cannabis conferences around the country and his business created a number of different strains, so he has experience with a myriad of growers and strains. “This time around everyone has really stepped up their game,” says Bowser. “The entries are noticeably better than last year.” When looking at the different samples sent to him, he sees a few key factors as most important in judging the quality. “What I am looking for is simple; a nice smell and a decent look, generally speaking,” says Bowser. “Aesthetics can tell you a lot about how it was grown, temperature changes and the overall care taken in cultivating and curing the flower.” For him, flavor, smell and aesthetics are the big variables to consider.
Those are factors that his company holds to high standards in their work, so he judges the samples based on the same variables. “It is what we strive for in our gardens and so far the samples I have tried are fantastic in that regard,” says Bowser. In other competitions that Bowser has judged in the past, they sent him between 40 and 60 strains to judge in seven days. “That is not conducive to a fair evaluation,” says Bowser. “Here, we are getting fourteen or so different strains, so we can sample one strain a day which is how I personally like to do it.”
Bowser is supportive of Cultivation Classic because of their emphasis on the craft industry. “We talk about craft cannabis and breeding craft cultivars at conferences around the country,” says Bowser. “With the rec industry growing so much, we see so many people cutting corners to save money, that it is refreshing to see growers take pride in the craft.” He also stresses the need for good lab testing and sound science in the trade. “I am big on lab testing; it is very important to get all the right analytics when creating strains,” says Bowser. “Cascadia is a solid choice for the competition; they have been a very good, consistent lab.” Emphasizing the local, sustainability-oriented culture surrounding the craft market, Bowser is pleased that this competition supports that same message. “We need to stay true to our Oregon roots and continue to be a clean, green, granola-eating state.”
Cascadia Labs is conducting the pesticide and cannabinoid analytics for all submissions and Phylos Bioscience will perform testing for the winners. According to Julie Austin, operations manager at Cascadia Labs, pesticide testing for the Oregon list of analytes was of course a requirement. “Some of the samples submitted had previous tests from us or from other accredited labs, but if they didn’t have those results we did offer a comprehensive pesticide test,” says Austin. The competition’s fee for submission includes the potency and terpenes analysis.
Jeremy Sackett, director of operations at Cascadia Labs, says they test for 11 cannabinoids and 21 terpenes. The samples are divided into groups of THC-dominant samples, CBD-dominant samples and samples with a 1:1 ratio of the two. “The actual potency data will be withheld from judges and competitors until the day of the event,” says Sackett. “We are data driven scientists, but this time we want to have a little fun and bring the heart of this competition back to the good old days: when quality cannabis was gauged by an experience of the senses, not the highest potency number.” The event will take place on May 12th at Revolution Hall in Portland, Oregon. Click here to get tickets to the event.
On March 18th, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) issued its first recall for recreational cannabis products. The recall, according to the press release, occurred because an unnamed wholesaler sent cannabis products to a retailer before the pesticide test results were entered into the OLCC Cannabis Tracking System (CTS).
The cannabis grown at Emerald Wave Estate, LLC is said to fail a test for pyrethrins exceeding the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) action level (the action level for pyrethrins is 1 ppm). Pyrethrins are a class of insecticides derived from the chrysanthemum flower. Their toxicity varies a lot depending on exactly what organic compound was used, but has an acute toxicity level that is cause for concern. When exposed to high levels of pyrethrins, people have reported symptoms similar to asthma. Generally, pyrethrins have a low chronic toxicity for humans.
The retailer, Buds 4 U LLC, located in Mapleton, OR, issued a voluntary recall for 82.5 grams of the strain Blue Magoo sold between March 8th and 10th. After finding the failed test results in the CTS, the retailer immediately contacted the OLCC. According to The Portland Tribune, OLCC spokesman Mark Pettinger says the retailer was very cooperative in immediately notifying the OLCC. “The retailer was great,” says Pettinger. “They get the gold star.” The Portland Tribune also says the wholesaler who shipped the cannabis prior to test results being entered is Cascade Cannabis Distributing of Eugene. That mistake could be a violation of Oregon’s regulations, leading to a 10-day closure and up to a $1,650 fine.
According to the press release, the rest of the nine pounds in the batch is on hold “pending the outcome of an additional pesticide retest.” The OLCC encourages consumers to check if their products have the license and product numbers detailed in the press release. They advise consumers who did purchase the affected cannabis to dispose of the product or return it to the retailer. The press release also mentions that they have not received any reports of illness related to the tainted cannabis.
Sample preparation experts and analytical chemists are quick to suggest QuEChERS (Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe) to cannabis laboratories that are analyzing both flower and edible material for pesticides, mycotoxins and cannabinoid content. Besides having a quirky name, just what makes QuEChERS a good extraction technique for the complicated matrices of cannabis products? By understanding the chemistry behind the extraction and the methodology’s history, cannabis laboratories can better implement the technology and educate their workforce.
In 2003, a time when only eight states had legalized the use of medical cannabis, a group of four researchers published an article in the Journal of AOAC International that made quite the impact in the residue monitoring industry. Titled Fast and Easy Multiresidue Method Employing Acetonitrile Extraction/Partitioning and “Dispersive Solid-Phase Extraction” for the Determination of Pesticide Residues in Produce, Drs. Michael Anastassiades, Steven Lehotay, Darinka Štajnbaher and Frank Schenck demonstrate how hundreds of pesticides could be extracted from a variety of produce samples through the use of two sequential steps: an initial phase partitioning followed by an additional matrix clean up. In the paper’s conclusion, the term QuEChERS was officially coined. In the fourteen years that have followed, this article has been cited over 2800 times. Subsequent research publications have demonstrated its use in matrices beyond food products such as biological fluids, soil and dietary supplements for a plethora of analytes including phthalates, pharmaceutical compounds and most recently cannabis.
The original QuEChERS extraction method utilized a salt blend of 4 g of magnesium sulfate and 1 g of sodium chloride. A starting sample volume of 10 g and 10 mL of acetonitrile (ACN) were combined with the above-mentioned salt blend in a centrifuge tube. The second step, dispersive solid phase extraction (dSPE) cleanup, included 150 mg of magnesium sulfate and 25 mg of primary secondary amine (PSA). Subsequent extraction techniques, now known as AOAC and European QuEChERS, suggested the use of buffered salts in order to protect any base sensitive analytes that may be critical to one’s analysis. Though the pH of the extraction solvent may differ, all three methods agree that ACN should be used as the starting organic phase. ACN is capable of extracting the broadest range of analytes and is compatible with both LC-MS/MS and GC-MS systems. While ethyl acetate has also been suggested as a starting solvent, it is incompatible with LC-MS/MS and extracts a larger amount of undesirable matrix components in the final aliquot.
All laboratories, including cannabis and food safety settings, are constantly looking for ways to decrease their overhead costs, batch out the most samples possible per day, and keep their employees trained and safe. It is not a stretch to say that QuEChERS revolutionized the analytical industry and made the above goals tangible achievements. In the original publication, Anastassiades et al. established that recoveries of over 85% for pesticides residues were possible at a cost as low as $1 per ten grams of sample. Within forty minutes, up to twelve samples were fully extracted and ready to be analyzed by GC-MS, without the purchase of any specialized equipment. Most importantly, no halogenated solvents were necessary, making this an environmentally conscious concept. Due to the nature of the cannabis industry, laboratories in this field are able to decrease overall solvent usage by a greater amount than what was demonstrated in 2003. The recommended starting sample for cannabis laboratories is only one gram of flower, or a tenth of the starting volume that is commonly utilized in the food safety industry. This reduction in sample volume then leads to a reduction in acetonitrile usage and thus QuEChERS is a very green extraction methodology.
As with any analytical method, QuEChERS is not perfect or ideal for every laboratory setting. Challenges remain in the cannabis industry where the polarity of individual pesticides monitored in some states precludes them from being amenable to the QuEChERS approach. For cannabis laboratories looking to improve their pesticide recoveries, decrease their solvent usage and not invest their resources into additional bench top equipment, QuEChERS is an excellent technique to adopt. The commercialization of salt blends specific for cannabis flowers and edibles takes the guesswork out of which products to use. The growth of cannabis technical groups within established analytical organizations has allowed for better communication among scientists when it comes to best practices for this complicated matrix. Overall, it is definitely worth implementing the QuEChERS technique in one’s cannabis laboratory in order to streamline productivity without sacrificing your results.
Denver-based Green Man Cannabis last week voluntarily recalled batches of cannabis sold to both medical patients and recreational consumers. The recall comes after the discovery of off-label pesticides during inspections in both dry-flower cannabis and infused products.
According to the Denver Department of Environmental Health (DEH), the products have labels that list an OPC License number of 403-00738, 403-00361, or 403R-00201. The cannabis in question is not a specific batch, rather, “All plant material and derived products originating from these cultivation facilities are subject to the recall.” The DEH’s statement includes contact information for the company (email: email@example.com) and the DEH Public Health Inspections Division (email: firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-913-1311).
The DEH statement does not mention which pesticides were detected or the levels at which they were detected. Christian Hagaseth, founder of Green Man Cannabis, says the chemical detected was Myclobutanil. “We had used Eagle 20 in the past, [the pesticide that contains Myclobutanil] but we stopped using it as soon as it was banned,” says Hagaseth. “The DEH found the residues in the growing environment so we immediately performed a voluntary recall.” Green Man has three cultivation facilities, one of which they suspect is contaminated from pesticides sprayed a few years ago.
As far as corrective actions being taken, Hagaseth says they are doing a thorough cleaning and sanitation in two of their grows and a complete remediation plan in the suspected contaminated grow. “This was a good learning experience- the key takeaway for us is we need to clean these environments more consistently,” says Hagaseth. “I am grateful that the system is working; public health and environmental safety are being looked after here.” Hagaseth says the facility in question was operating almost without interruption since 2009, but they adjusted and learned to implement preventative actions following the recall.
The DEH says there have been zero reports of illness related to the recall. “The possible health impact of consuming marijuana products with unapproved pesticide residues is unknown,” the statement reads. “Short and long-term health impacts may exist depending on the specific product, duration, frequency, level of exposure and route of exposure.” The DEH advises consumers that may be concerned to reach out to their physician.
The DEH performs routine inspections of cannabis infused product manufacturers and retail locations in Denver, as well as investigating complaints. “I am sorry that it happened to us, but I am happy the system is working and we are more than happy to comply,” says Hagaseth.
The Emerald Test advisory panel recently convened to review the results from the Fall 2016 round of the semi-annual Inter-Laboratory Comparison and Proficiency Test (ILC/PT), ahead of the third annual Emerald Conference just a few weeks away. After reviewing and analyzing the results, the panel noticed a significant improvement across the board over their Spring 2016 round of proficiency testing.
Emerald Scientific’s ILC/PT program is a tool laboratories use to check how accurate their testing capabilities are compared to other labs. A lab receiving The Emerald Test badge indicates their testing meets the criteria established by the panel to demonstrate competency. This means that they were within two standard deviations of the consensus mean for all analytes tested, according to Wes Burk, vice president of Emerald Scientific. He says the labs performed better than expected on both the microbial and pesticide tests.
Each lab has access to raw, anonymized data including a consensus mean, z-scores and kernel density plots. This round measured how well 35 cannabis labs perform in testing for potency, pesticides, residual solvents and microbial contaminants such as E. coli, Salmonella, Coliform, yeast and mold.
The advisory panel includes: Robert Martin, Ph.D., founder of CW Analytical, Cynthia Ludwig, director of technical services at AOCS, Rodger Voelker, Ph.D., lab director, OG Analytical, Tammie Mussitsch, QA manager at RJ Lee Group, Shawn Kassner, senior scientist at Neptune & Company, Inc., Jim Roe, scientific director at Steep Hill Labs, Chris Hudalla, Ph.D., founder and chief scientific officer at ProVerde Labs, Sytze Elzinga, The Werc Shop and Amanda Rigdon, Chief Technical Officer at Emerald Scientific.
According to Amanda Rigdon, chief technical officer at Emerald Scientific, the labs performed very well in potency, residual solvents and microbial testing PTs. This is the first year the proficiency testing includes pesticides. “All of the labs did a great job identifying every pesticide in our hemp-based PT, but some more work will most likely have to be done to bring quantitative results in line,” says Rigdon. “Since this was the first pesticide PT we had offered, we were pretty conservative when choosing analytes and their levels. For the most part, analytes and levels were taken from the Oregon pesticide list, which is widely recognized to be the most reasonable and applicable pesticide list out there to date.” They covered pesticides of high concern, like abamectin and Myclobutanil, but also included a wide range of other pesticides that labs are expected to encounter.
Shawn Kassner, senior scientist at Neptune & Company, Inc., believes microbial contamination proficiency testing should be a priority for improving public health and safety going forward. Although five participating labs did not receive badges for the microbial contamination PTs, panel members say the overall performance was really quite good. “Microbiology testing are essential analyses for all cannabis products and it’s just slower in regulatory implementation than potency testing,” says Kassner. “The risk of Salmonella and E. coli to an individual using a medical cannabis product could be very life threatening. Microbiology contamination is a huge concern for any public health agency, which is why we have seen that microbiology testing is usually the first analytical test required after potency.” Kassner notes that there were few outliers and with each Emerald PT program, he is seeing an improvement in overall laboratory performance.
For The Emerald Test’s next round, the panel hopes to make some improvements in the test’s robustness and consistency, like obtaining assigned values for all samples and comparing to a consensus mean. “We want to develop permanent badge criteria, streamline the appeals process and possibly implement a qualitative performance review in the pesticide PT,” says Burk. For the next round of pesticide PTs, they want to build a better list of pesticides to cover more states, allowing labs to pick a set based on their state’s regulations. Burk says they also want to collect data on whether or not matrix-matched curves were used for pesticides.
Rodger Voelker, Cynthia Ludwig and Shawn Kassner, all members of the advisory panel, will be speaking at the Emerald Conference, discussing some of their findings from this round of proficiency testing. The Emerald Conference will take place February 2nd and 3rd in San Diego, CA.
Cannabis sold between August and December of 2016 is being voluntarily recalled by Organigram, a Canadian cannabis producer, due to the detection of unapproved pesticides, according to a press release. Organigram is a licensed medical cannabis producer in Canada, which received an organic certification back in 2014 by ECOCERT, a third-party organic certification organization based in France.
Organigram and Health Canada deemed it a Type III recall, meaning “a situation in which the use of, or exposure to, dried marijuana, fresh marijuana or cannabis oil, marijuana plants or seeds is not likely to cause any adverse health consequences,” according to that press release. They don’t know how the products were contaminated as routine use of pesticides is barred under their organic certification. Organigram is cooperating with Health Canada to conduct a full investigation to determine how the cannabis was contaminated.
About a month before Organigram’s recall, Mettrum Health Corp., a Toronto-based licensed medical cannabis producer, voluntarily recalled medical cannabis products that might have contained trace levels of pyrethrin, an insecticide not approved for use on cannabis, but generally regarded as safe with a low toxicity. That press release only mentions the detection of pyrethrin and downplays the health effects. “While the ingredient is not harmful and there is no negative effect on product quality and safety, we are doing everything possible to ensure client satisfaction and confidence is upheld,” says Michael Haines, director and chief executive officer of Mettrum Health Corp.
Reporting in an article last week, The Globe and Mail discovered that Mettrum’s recall included lots where they detected trace levels of Myclobutanil, a hazardous and illegal pesticide that is banned in a number of states as well. Myclobutanil has been discovered as the culprit in a slew of pesticide-related recalls in Colorado and Washington.
But Mettrum’s updated press release doesn’t include any mention of Myclobutanil. Health Canada also didn’t make any public disclosures addressing the detection of Myclobutanil. The Globe and Mail only found out that the recall included the banned pesticide after asking a Mettrum employee.
Tegan Adams, business development manager at Eurofins-Experchem Laboratories, Inc., a Toronto-based GMP testing lab, indicated that while the regulations are clear in their statement on zero tolerance for pesticides- reasons for inconsistent testing results are in part related to variations in rigor of testing methods available to monitor for pesticides in cannabis. “Licensed producers do not have to release routine test results to the public,” says Adams. “There is a group of us, inclusive of representatives from licensed producers (LPs), working on proposing a new federal cannabis accreditation standard that would make testing results, grading quality, DNA and a few other things public for each cannabis batch legally released to the public to be accredited. Making information like this public would help remove a lot of consumer scrutiny on LPs, as it currently exists in the marketplace. Most of them care so much about their products and patients, they work very hard to create safe quality products”
According to Adams, routine pesticide testing typically scans for roughly 100 pesticides. She says a more rigorous test could scan for 500-700 different pesticides, a more accurate representation of what’s on the market. Adams says the regulations have zero tolerance for any detection of pesticides, not necessarily an action level for what is a safe amount to be present.
More research is needed on the smoking and inhalation aspects of pesticide products to say what is safe and what is not. “There are different methods available to test for pesticides, and SOPs to follow to avoid their application,” says Adams. “But if a licensed producer chose a testing method that doesn’t for some reason cover a pesticide they are later found to have on their product, that could present the need for a recall if Health Canada or another entity were to somehow to detect it using a different method.”
Health Canada determined both of those recalls to be Type III recalls. Both companies said they are cooperating fully with the regulatory body. By embracing the proposed new cannabis testing accreditation standard, Health Canada could remedy the testing methodology discrepancies and require a greater level of transparency.
Election Day brought a renewed sense of vigor to the market with voters in eight states legalizing forms of cannabis. California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts passed recreational cannabis measures, making legalization’s momentum seem exponential.
But November 8th also gave Donald Trump the presidency, and his cabinet appointments, namely Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, gave many a feeling of uncertainty for the future of federal legalization. Adding insult to injury, the DEA repeatedly stood by their antiquated and ludicrous judgment for cannabis to remain a Schedule 1 narcotic.
A lot of the fervor surrounding public safety could be described as overdramatic or somewhat unwarranted. 2016 was the year of misinformation. Fake news spread like wildfire with people sharing stories like this or this that turned out to be very misleading or just downright false.
States with legal cannabis came under heavy public scrutiny and addressed problems like consumer education, public safety and lab testing. Pesticides became a highly publicized and persistent issue in a number of areas, with some states regulating it heavily and addressing public health concerns. Plenty of new rules were formed surrounding labeling and testing, with Oregon, Colorado and Washington experiencing some regulatory growing pains.
Those growing pains shed light on the need for regulators to craft rules that allow for changes, adding rules where necessary and getting rid of cumbersome rules that might thwart market growth. Rules need to be able to adapt as the industry grows, much like businesses need to adapt to a changing market climate to stay afloat. This is all the more reason why cannabis businesses need to make their voices heard and work with regulators to move things forward.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the future of legal cannabis in America, the word of the year for 2017 should be resiliency. In a social-ecological context, resiliency is “the capacity of a system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions. It describes the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation.”
Self-organization, learning and adaptation are three very important attributes of a resilient system. Without knowing what will happen when Trump’s cabinet takes the reigns of federal agencies, it is important to prepare for the unexpected. Adhering to standards like FOCUS allows cannabis businesses to prepare for unexpected events like recalls or product safety failures.
Those standards could also become the law down the road, as government officials often look to an industry’s voluntary consensus-based standards when deciding how to regulate it. In 2017, a number of state governments will embark on the heavy undertaking of writing the regulatory framework for legal cannabis.
2017 will bring opportunities and challenges to the cannabis industry. The industry’s rapid growth juxtaposed with political, economic and regulatory uncertainties create a climate that requires resilience to be built into the system at all levels. It is critical, now more than ever, that cannabis businesses build strong relationships with industry groups, advocacy groups and regulators to craft the institutional capacity and mutual trust needed to weather the uncertainty ahead.
Almost as soon as cannabis became recreationally legal, the public started to ask questions about the safety of products being offered by dispensaries – especially in terms of pesticide contamination. As we can see from the multiple recalls of product there is a big problem with pesticides in cannabis that could pose a danger to consumers. While The Nerd Perspective is grounded firmly in science and fact, the purpose of this column is to share my insights into the cannabis industry based on my years of experience with multiple regulated industries with the goal of helping the cannabis industry mature using lessons learned from other established markets. In this article, we’ll take a look at some unique challenges facing cannabis testing labs, what they’re doing to respond to the challenges, and how that can affect the cannabis industry as a whole.
The Big Challenge
Over the past several years, laboratories have quickly ‘grown up’ in terms of technology and expertise, improving their methods for pesticide detection to improve data quality and lower detection limits, which ultimately ensures a safer product by improving identification of contaminated product. But even though cannabis laboratories are maturing, they’re maturing in an environment far different than labs from regulated industry, like food laboratories. Food safety testing laboratories have been governmentally regulated and funded from almost the very beginning, allowing them some financial breathing room to set up their operation, and ensuring they won’t be penalized for failing samples. In contrast, testing fees for cannabis labs are paid for by growers and producers – many of whom are just starting their own business and short of cash. This creates fierce competition between cannabis laboratories in terms of testing cost and turnaround time. One similarity that the cannabis industry shares with the food industry is consumer and regulatory demand for safe product. This demand requires laboratories to invest in instrumentation and personnel to ensure generation of quality data. In short, the two major demands placed on cannabis laboratories are low cost and scientific excellence. As a chemist with years of experience, scientific excellence isn’t cheap, thus cannabis laboratories are stuck between a rock and a hard place and are feeling the squeeze.
Responding to the Challenge
One way for high-quality laboratories to win business is to tout their investment in technology and the sophistication of their methods; they’re selling their science, a practice I stand behind completely. However, due to the fierce competition between labs, some laboratories have oversold their science by using terms like ‘lethal’ or ‘toxic’ juxtaposed with vague statements regarding the discovery of pesticides in cannabis using the highly technical methods that they offer. This juxtaposition can then be reinforced by overstating the importance of ultra-low detection levels outside of any regulatory context. For example, a claim stating that detecting pesticides at the parts per trillion level (ppt) will better ensure consumer safety than methods run by other labs that only detect pesticides at concentrations at parts per billion (ppb) concentrations is a potentially dangerous claim in that it could cause future problems for the cannabis industry as a whole. In short, while accurately identifying contaminated samples versus clean samples is indeed a good thing, sometimes less isn’t more, bringing us to the second half of the title of this article.
Less isn’t always more…
In my last article, I illustrated the concept of the trace concentrations laboratories detect, finishing up with putting the concept of ppb into perspective. I wasn’t even going to try to illustrate parts per trillion. Parts per trillion is one thousand times less concentrated than parts per billion. To put ppt into perspective, we can’t work with water like I did in my previous article; we have to channel Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The Milky Way galaxy contains about 100 billion stars, and our sun is one of them. Our lonely sun, in the vastness of our galaxy, where light itself takes 100,000 years to traverse, represents a concentration of 10 ppt. On the surface, detecting galactically-low levels of contaminants sounds wonderful. Pesticides are indeed lethal chemicals, and their byproducts are often lethal or carcinogenic as well. From the consumer perspective, we want everything we put in our bodies free of harmful chemicals. Looking at consumer products from The Nerd Perspective, however, the previous sentence changes quite a bit. To be clear, nobody – nerds included – wants food or medicine that will poison them. But let’s explore the gap between ‘poison’ and ‘reality’, and why that gap matters.
In reality, according to a study conducted by the FDA in 2011, roughly 37.5% of the food we consume every day – including meat, fish, and grains – is contaminated with pesticides. Is that a good thing? No, of course it isn’t. It’s not ideal to put anything into our bodies that has been contaminated with the byproducts of human habitation. However, the FDA, EPA, and other governmental agencies have worked for decades on toxicological, ecological, and environmental studies devoted to determining what levels of these toxic chemicals actually have the potential to cause harm to humans. Rather than discuss whether or not any level is acceptable, let’s take it on principle that we won’t drop over dead from a lethal dose of pesticides after eating a salad and instead take a look at the levels the FDA deem ‘acceptable’ for food products. In their 2011 study, the FDA states that “Tolerance levels generally range from 0.1 to 50 parts per million (ppm). Residues present at 0.01 ppm and above are usually measurable; however, for individual pesticides, this limit may range from 0.005 to 1 ppm.” Putting those terms into parts per trillion means that most tolerable levels range from 100,000 to 50,000,000 ppt and the lower limit of ‘usually measurable’ is 10,000 ppt. For the food we eat and feed to our children, levels in parts per trillion are not even discussed because they’re not relevant.
A specific example of this is arsenic. Everyone knows arsenic is very toxic. However, trace levels of arsenic naturally occur in the environment, and until 2004, arsenic was widely used to protect pressure-treated wood from termite damage. Because of the use of arsenic on wood and other arsenic containing pesticides, much of our soil and water now contains some arsenic, which ends up in apples and other produce. These apples get turned into juice, which is freely given to toddlers everywhere. Why, then, has there not an infant mortality catastrophe? Because even though the arsenic was there (and still is), it wasn’t present at levels that were harmful. In 2013, the FDA published draft guidance stating that the permissible level of arsenic in apple juice was 10 parts per billion (ppb) – 10,000 parts per trillion. None of us would think twice about offering apple juice to our child, and we don’t have to…because the dose makes the poison.
How Does This Relate to the Cannabis Industry?
The concept of permissible exposure levels (a.k.a. maximum residue limits) is an important concept that’s understood by laboratories, but is not always considered by the public and the regulators tasked with ensuring cannabis consumer safety. As scientists, it is our job not to misrepresent the impact of our methods or the danger of cannabis contaminants. We cannot understate the danger of these toxins, nor should we overstate their danger. In overstating the danger of these toxins, we indirectly pressure regulators to establish ridiculously low limits for contaminants. Lower limits always require the use of newer testing technologies, higher levels of technical expertise, and more complicated methods. All of this translates to increased testing costs – costs that are then passed on to growers, producers, and consumers. I don’t envy the regulators in the cannabis industry. Like the labs in the cannabis industry, they’re also stuck between a rock and a hard place: stuck between consumers demanding a safe product and producers demanding low-cost testing. As scientists, let’s help them out by focusing our discussion on the real consumer safety issues that are present in this market.
*average of domestic food (39.5% contaminated) and imported food (35.5% contaminated)
Last week, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) published a bulletin, outlining new temporary testing requirements effective immediately until May 30th of next year. The changes to the rules come in the wake of product shortages, higher prices and even some claims of cultivators reverting back to the black market to stay afloat.
According to the bulletin, these temporary regulations are meant to still protect public health and safety, but are “aimed at lowering the testing burden for producers and processors based on concerns and input from the marijuana industry.” The temporary rules, applying to both medical and retail products, are a Band-Aid fix while the OHA works on a permanent solution to the testing backlog.
Here are some key takeaways from the rule changes:
THC and CBD amounts on the label must be the value calculated by a laboratory, plus or minus 5%.
A harvest lot can include more than one strain.
Cannabis harvested within a 48-hour period, using the same growing and curing processes can be included in one harvest lot.
Edibles processors can include up to 1000 units of product in a batch for testing.
The size of a process lot submitted for testing for concentrates, extracts or other non-edible products will be the maximum size for future sampling and testing.
Different batches of the same strain can be combined for testing potency.
Samples can be combined from a number of batches in a harvest lot for pesticide testing if the weight of all the batches doesn’t exceed ten pounds. This also means that if that combined sample fails a pesticide test, all of the batches fail the test and need to be disposed.
Butanol, Propanol and Ethanol are no longer on the solvent list.
The maximum concentration limit for THC and CBD testing can have up to a 5% variance.
Process validation is replaced by one control study.
After OHA has certified a control study, it is valid for a year unless there is an SOP or ingredient change.
During the control study, sample increments are tested separately for homogeneity across batches, but when the control study is certified, sample increments can be combined.
Failing a test
Test reports must clearly show if a test fails or passes.
Producers can request a reanalysis after a failed test no later than a week after receiving failed test results and that reanalysis must happen within 30 days.
The office of Gov. Kate Brown along with the OHA, Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) and Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) issued a letter in late November, serving as a reminder of the regulations regarding pesticide use and testing. It says in bold that it is illegal to use any pesticide not on the ODA’s cannabis and pesticide guide list. The letter states that failed pesticide tests are referred to ODA for investigation, which means producers that fail those tests could face punitive measures such as fines.
The letter also clarifies a major part of the pesticide rules involving the action level, or the measured amount of pesticides in a product that the OHA deems potentially dangerous. “Despite cannabis producers receiving test results below OHA pesticide action levels for cannabis (set in OHA rule), producers may still be in violation of the Oregon Pesticide Control Act if any levels of illegal pesticides are detected.” This is crucial information for producers who might have phased out use of pesticides in the past or might have began operations in a facility where pesticides were used previously. A laboratory detecting even a trace amount in the parts-per-billion range of banned pesticides, like Myclobutanil, would mean the producer is in violation of the Pesticide Control Act and could face thousands of dollars in fines. The approved pesticides on the list are generally intended for food products, exempt from a tolerance and are considered low risk.
As regulators work to accredit more laboratories and flesh out issues with the industry, Oregon’s cannabis market enters a period of marked uncertainty.