Dana Ciccone, chief executive officer of Steep Hill Hawaii, has been a patient advocate and leader in cannabis education in Hawaii, as well as a member of the Hawaii Medical Marijuana Dispensary Task Force, an organization formed by the University of Hawaii College of Social Sciences Public Policy Center to develop regulations for the state. “We are proud not only to be the first cannabis lab to be licensed in the State of Hawaii, but also now the first lab to achieve ISO certification as well,” says Ciccone. “Industry businesses, medical professionals, state regulators, and patients can be confident that our lab and its testing standards will operate to the highest international standards.”
According to the press release, the laboratory will offer services for testing cannabinoid profiles (potency), terpenes, pesticides, heavy metals, biological screening, and residual solvents, testing for 17 Cannabinoids and 43 terpenes. The release states they are locally owned and operated, providing testing services for not just industry businesses, but in-state card-holding patients as well.
“This is a turning point for the industry – we have moved very quickly to raise the industry standards in Hawaii to internationally recognized certification,” says Ciccone. “I am very proud our scientific team for the professionalism and hard work they put in to achieve this certification.”
On Election Day, voters in California passed Proposition 64, establishing a recreational cannabis market and regulatory environment. While the state won’t issue the first licenses under the new regulatory scheme until 2018, the medical cannabis industry is already well established.
Steep Hill Labs, Inc., based in Berkeley, California, found in October that 84.3% of samples submitted tested positive for pesticide residue, according to a press release. The announcement came before Election Day, but is particularly eye opening given the massive new market created overnight by Prop 64.
Particularly concerning is their detection of Myclobutanil, which was found in more than 65% of samples submitted to the lab. According to the press release, when Myclobutanil is heated (i.e. smoked or vaporized), it is converted to Hydrogen Cyanide, which is extraordinarily toxic to humans and can be fatal in higher doses.
According to Reggie Gaudino, Ph.D., vice president of science, genetics and intellectual property at Steep Hill, their more recent study shows they detected pesticides in roughly 70% of the samples they received and 50% of those contained Myclobutanil. Gaudino says that up to a third of those samples would have failed under Oregon’s regulatory standards.
If a lab test were failed, it would contain pesticides at or higher than the required action level. Oregon’s action level, or the measured amount of pesticides in a product that the OHA deems potentially dangerous, for Myclobutanil is 0.2 parts-per-million (PPM). Steep Hill’s instrumentation has a method detection limit down to the parts-per-trillion (PPT) level, which is a more precise and smaller amount than Oregon’s action level.
“Those in the cannabis community who feel that all cannabis is safe are not correct given this data – smoking a joint of pesticide-contaminated cannabis could potentially expose the body to lethal chemicals,” says Jmichaele Keller, president and chief executive officer of Steep Hill. “As a community, we need to address this issue immediately and not wait until 2018.”
Potentially harmful pesticides, and specifically Myclobutanil, have been detected in Colorado and Washington’s recreational markets on a number of occasions, proving this is a widespread issue. Steep Hill’s release suggests that California regulators take a look at Oregon’s pesticide regulations for guidance when developing the regulatory framework.
What’s even more troubling is that not all laboratories have or had the capability of detecting pesticides at sufficiently low levels and because of this, other labs had significantly lower rates of pesticide detection, suggesting possible inconsistencies in testing methods, instrumentation, sample preparation or other variations. During a 30-day period in late September and early October, Steep Hill found, using publicly available data, or data from contracted testing, that other labs were only reporting between 3% and 21% pesticide detection.
It is important to note that those samples were not identical and there could be a great degree in variation on the quality of samples sent to different laboratories, so it is not an entirely accurate comparison. Steep Hill does however detect pesticides down to the parts-per-trillion level, whereas many common methods for detecting pesticides look at the parts-per-billion level.
Reggie Gaudino says the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories (ACCL) is using this data to work with Steep Hill and a number of other labs to address these issues. “As a member of the ACCL, and after discussion with ACCL, we have agreed that all future discussion of this issue should not include laboratory names, as this is about educating the industry in general, and making sure all members of the ACCL are developing the best possible methods for detecting pesticides,” says Gaudino. “The ACCL has responded to this data, by inquiring on a larger, industry-wide basis, which represents a better picture of the issue, rather than only in California’s still-technically unregulated market.” The important message is this is a major issue that needs addressing urgently. “As such, the troubling issue remains, across the larger ACCL membership, there is still detection of pesticides in at least 50% of the cannabis being tested.”
According to Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D., president of the ACCL, the industry is experiencing a pesticide problem, but it is very difficult to quantify. “It is fair to say that around 50% of the cannabis being tested contains pesticides, but we really don’t know that exact number until a much more comprehensive statistical analysis is performed,” says Raber. “We agree this is a big problem and that it needs to be addressed, but we are not sure just how big of a problem it really is.” With so much variation in labs in a state where not everyone is required to test products, it is very difficult to pin down how consistent lab results are and how contaminated the cannabis really is. “If all of the labs had the same methodology, samples and shared statistical analyses for a real study then we can look at it closely but it seems we are a ways off from that. I can say confidently however that this is a pretty significant problem that needs addressing.”
Still, Steep Hill detecting pesticides in a majority of their samples and some labs finding as little as 3% should raise some eyebrows. “Unfortunately, our recent study discovered that 84.3% of the samples assessed by our triple quadrupole mass spectrometer contained pesticides,” says Keller. “As of today, this tainted product could be sold in most dispensaries throughout the state of California without any way of informing the patients about the risks of pesticide exposure.”
These findings could mean potentially enormous health risks for medical and recreational cannabis consumers alike, unless regulators, labs and growers take quick action to address the problem.
Last week, Steep Hill Labs, Inc. announced plans to expand on the East Coast, including licensing for laboratories in Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. The cannabis testing company now is operating or developing in seven states, the District of Columbia along with an official arrangement with a research university in Jamaica, according to Cathie Bennett Warner, director of public relations at Steep Hill.
The same team of physicians that oversees the Steep Hill laboratory in Maryland will operate the Pennsylvania and D.C. labs. Heading that team is chief executive officer Dr. Andrew Rosenstein, chief of the division of Gastroenterology at University of Maryland Saint Joseph Medical Center and assistant clinical professor of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Dr. Rosenstein has been recognized by Baltimore Magazine as a top doctor in the Baltimore area, according to a press release.
According to Dr. Rosenstein, they want to provide accurate clinical results for trials with patients using cannabis. “All clinical trials will require a competent, credible and reliable lab partner and that is what we are bringing to the field- and that is why we are working with Steep Hill,” says Dr. Rosenstein. With team members having backgrounds in pathology, molecular diagnostics, clinical chemistry, microbiology and genetics, it should come as no surprise that they plan to participate in clinical research.
Dr. Rosenstein’s vested interest in cannabis safety stems from prior experience with his patients using cannabis. “Over the past five years, we have seen an increased number of patients using cannabis, particularly for managing the side effects of Crohn’s disease and cancer treatment,” says Dr. Rosenstein. “They would bring it up to us and at the time I didn’t know much about it, but anecdotally it’s really clear that a lot of patients have great responses to it.” Not knowing much about the preparation or safety of cannabis at the time led Dr. Rosenstein to advise patients to be very careful if they are immunocompromised.
“When a patient is immunocompromised, a bacterial or fungal infection can be lethal, so because we had patients using cannabis, we wanted to make sure it was safe,” says Dr. Rosenstein. So when Maryland legalized medical cannabis, Dr. Rosenstein and his team saw the need to protect patient safety and Steep Hill was a perfect fit. “We really didn’t want to reinvent the wheel so we looked for someone to partner with,” says Dr. Rosenstein. “Steep Hill has the best technology and the best credibility and we didn’t want to compromise on quality and safety issues. They felt the same way so we partnered with them and culturally it has been a great fit.”
The new laboratories plan to offer a similar range of services that are offered at other Steep Hill labs, such as rapid potency testing for THC-A, ∆-9-THC, CBD, CBD-A and moisture. But Dr. Rosenstein sees clinical opportunities in the East Coast medical hubs. “We want to provide the testing component for studies, providing clinical reproducibility and consistency, and those are the things as a top-notch lab that we are interested in doing.”
With a physician-led group that has experience in molecular diagnostics, partnering with Steep Hill is about being medically focused, according to Dr. Rosenstein. “First and foremost, this is about patient safety.” Because of that, he emphasizes the need for required microbiological contaminant testing, particularly because of his experience with patients. “If you’re a cancer patient and you get a toxic dose of salmonella or E. coli, that can kill you, so testing for microbiologic contamination is of the highest priority.”
According to Warner, bridging the medical cannabis science gap with Steep Hill’s professionalism and experienced doctors practicing medicine is a big deal. “We are working very closely with their medical team to make sure these standards are medically superior,” says Warner. “To have these doctors with such a high level of knowledge in medicine working with us in cannabis analytics is a breakthrough.”