Humans have been using cannabis for medicinal, recreational, and spiritual purposes for more than 6,000 years. Throughout its history, cannabis has been an effective medicine that has helped countless people with many illnesses and conditions.
Humans have been using cannabis for medicinal, recreational, and spiritual purposes for more than 6,000 years. Throughout its history, cannabis has been an effective medicine that has helped countless people with many illnesses and conditions. Currently, about 60% of the US population lives in a state with some form of marijuana legalization (28 states and the District of Columbia have approved some form of medical and/or adult-use marijuana). Cannabis has demonstrated an excellent safety record with no reported deaths directly associated with use; however, there are several potentially toxic compounds and microorganisms that can be present in cannabis products.
Unfortunately, most states do not require laboratory testing of medicinal cannabis products and if they do, the testing is primarily focused on potency (cannabinoids and terpenes) not safety (microbiological, pesticide, heavy metal, residual solvents). The need for stringent safety testing has been highlighted in recent news from California, with moldy cannabis associated with a cancer patient’s death. Reports claim the patient was undergoing chemotherapy and stem cell therapy when the patient acquired a fungal infection. Since chemotherapy ravages the body’s immune system, such patients are very susceptible to infections. The patient was using medical marijuana to help combat the side effects of chemotherapy and experts have speculated the fungal infection came from contaminated medicinal cannabis.
Currently, California does not require medicinal products to be tested for microbiological contamination or pesticide residues so the patient was likely unaware of the potential adverse health risks. A recent study conducted by UC Davis analyzed 20 medical marijuana samples and found the vast majority to be contaminated with bacteria and fungi. Another study conducted by a California cannabis testing lab concluded that 84% of marijuana samples submitted to its lab tested positive for pesticide residues. As other states, such as Oregon and Colorado, have followed Nevada’s lead and begun to require more rigorous testing, many cannabis samples tested in those states have been found to contain unacceptably high levels of pesticides and microbial contaminants.
The testing requirements for the Silver State are arguably the most stringent in the world. Safety testing of marijuana helps assure the consumer they are getting clean products, and for patients with weak or compromised immune systems, safety testing is critical for their health. State-licensed laboratories have been charged with the task of measuring potency (cannabinoids, terpenes), and conducting a series of safety tests to measure the levels of microbiological contamination, pesticides, heavy metals, and residual solvents (in hydrocarbon solvent-based extractions). If levels for any of the microbiological organisms or chemical compounds are higher than state-mandated limits, the entire “lot” of product will fail and cannot be sold to the public.
The following is an outline of the safety testing your Nevada dispensary-sold cannabis products have undergone prior to being sold to the consumer:
Visual Inspection: All products are examined for contaminants such as bugs, powdery mildew, dirt, debris, or residues from foliar sprays.
Moisture: Moisture levels are measured on all cannabis flowers and trim, and must be lower than 15% water by weight. This requirement helps prevent mold and bacteria growth on the buds during cure and storage. Mold thrives in places with a relative humidity over 60%.
Microbiological: All products, except topicals, undergo stringent microbial screening for hazardous microbiological organisms. Only products that pass the rigorous state standards are allowed to make their way to the public. Microbial growth can pose a threat to the safety of the product and will speed up the breakdown of cannabinoids and terpenes, thus lowering the quality of the flower.
Yeast and Mold: Mold is a ubiquitous organism meaning that it is present almost everywhere. High humidity and elevated temperature provides the right environment for mold to grow and thrive. Mold is a common cannabis contaminant and its presence is a significant concern. Mold exposure can lead to respiratory problems like coughing, wheezing, sneezing, difficulty breathing, and respiratory infections.
Enterobacteriaceae-Salmonella is included in this family. Salmonella causes dehydration and diarrhea and can last 4-7 days. While Salmonella is usually not fatal, hospitalization is often necessary to rehydrate the patient.
Coliform Bacteria- E. coli is one form of Coliform and results from poor sanitation. E coli is most often found in fecal matter. Clean facilities and good hygiene practices can ensure that Coliforms do not end up on a product. Some symptoms of E. coli exposure include abdominal cramps, watery or bloody diarrhea, fatigue, and fever.
Aerobic Bacteria- Bacteria that require oxygen to survive. They are most often blamed for opportunistic infections. This test measures a wide array of bacteria including Tuberculosis and Staph, which are aerobic bacteria that can cause significant illness.
Heavy metals: All cannabis flower and trim are tested for heavy metal levels. Heavy metals are neurotoxic at high levels and low level exposure over time can lead to many serious health problems. Heavy metals are most often absorbed by a plant through the soil/growing medium if those metals are present in that environment. In Nevada, only very low levels of heavy metals are allowed in cannabis products. Patients are subjected to significantly higher levels of heavy metals from other sources in their daily lives than from their cannabis.
Lead- Exposure can damage almost every organ in the body and cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, headache, anemia, kidney dysfunction, and memory loss.
Cadmium- Exposure can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems.
Arsenic- Long term exposure can cause skin thickening, heart disease, and cancer.
Mercury- Exposure can cause symptoms such as impaired vision and speech, poor coordination, and pins and needles feeling.
Pesticides: All cannabis flower and trim are tested for pesticide contamination. Pesticides have revolutionized agriculture practices by killing pests that destroy crops such as cannabis. Unfortunately, pesticide exposure can cause a wide variety of symptoms ranging in severity from headache and fatigue to neurological damage and death. Due to federal prohibition, there is insufficient data on inhalation and combustion effects from pesticides on cannabis so safe pesticide levels are still being established. The state of Nevada has set strict limits to protect patients and limit pesticide exposure. If a “lot” of flower or trim fails pesticide analysis, the “lot” cannot be sold and will be destroyed.
Mycotoxins: All flower and trim are tested for mycotoxin levels. Ochratoxin and Aflatoxins are the byproducts of the growth of certain mold species. Some mycotoxins are confirmed carcinogens while others are suspected carcinogens. The mycotoxin tolerance limit is very low at 20 parts per billion (ppb). Residual Solvents (for solvent-based concentrates only, not CO2): To measure levels of butane, propane, 2-methyl propane, and heptane left in the product following extraction, concentrates are analyzed to ensure solvent levels are below 500 parts per million (ppm). To reduce residual solvent levels, extractors have developed purging methods using agitation and vacuum ovens to remove extraction solvents. Exposure to these hydrocarbon extraction solvents will lead to symptoms such as dizziness, irregular/rapid heartbeat, vomiting, and fever.
Upon the completion of laboratory testing, a tested medical marijuana sample will receive a Certificate of Analysis (COA) which is provided to the cultivator/production kitchen and the state of Nevada displaying all results from safety and potency testing. Some of this information will be transferred to package labels which will be put on the outside of cannabis product packages. At the point of sale, all products are labeled with patient information and some potency results. The results of safety tests are not required to be displayed on the package. While Nevada regulations do not require the full COA to be made immediately available at the point of sale, patients can request this information from their budtender. Most reputable dispensaries should be able to provide patients with a full COA to show the results of all safety and potency tests upon request.
Patients can rest assured that all products on Nevada dispensary shelves have undergone the most extensive safety testing required anywhere in the world. While some may see rigorous safety testing as a burden and unnecessary expense, it is critical to prevent situations such as the one previously described in California. All legal pharmaceutical products undergo rigorous safety and potency testing to ensure they are fit for consumption so it only makes sense to apply stringent testing requirements to medical marijuana products.
For more information about Ace Analytical, visit aceanalytical.com or call (702) 749-7429.