Arizona requires marijuana to be tested for pesticides, heavy metals and other contaminants before it’s sold, but testing is not done by the state, granting a high level of trust to growers and testing labs, an Arizona Republic investigation found.
The Arizona Department of Health Services investigates the labs to ensure they are not falsifying data. But it doesn't spot check what's being sold at dispensaries. So while regulators can fine labs that inappropriately test marijuana, they can't confirm whether contaminated products are sold to consumers.
To put it simply, “ADHS does not test the pot,” an ADHS spokesman said.
Arizona Republic reporter Ryan Randazzo has been investigating the regulations and their enforcement (or lack thereof) concerning contaminated marijuana in Arizona. He hosted a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) in the r/Arizona subreddit, where he tried to answer as many questions as he could about the state's marijuana industry.
Here are his answers to some of the most common questions from the AMA:
What are the contaminant limits for medical vs. recreational marijuana?
The full list of contaminants and their limits begins on page 76 of this document, but in our case, the state allows 0.4 parts per million of imidacloprid, and the cannabis we tested had 8.4 ppm (21x state limit) and 10.4 ppm (26x state limit).
There is one minor difference in the testing rules for medical marijuana, and it has to do with a microbial contaminant. I believe the advisory council that’s helping guide DHS is suggesting making the rules identical for both though.
Are Arizona’s limits extra restrictive, or are they the standard for every state?
The dispensaries would probably say that Arizona's laws are too restrictive, but since we’ve found them to sell contaminated products to medical patients despite the rules that are in place, it’s hard to see it that way.
Since marijuana is illegal federally, there is no national standard. So the limits vary by state. That being said, we basically copied Oregon's limits, with some minor tweaks.
Would buying edibles or vaping be safer?
Because edibles are made from marijuana, anything on the plants can wind up in the edibles. And because most edibles are made with concentrated cannabis, the pesticides get concentrated too. It’s also alleged that some dispensaries have a habit of taking poorly grown marijuana and turning it into edibles, concentrates etc.
I think most people agree vaping with a small battery pen seems to not only be less harsh but also to be easier on one’s lungs. But considering how new that is, I don’t think the health effects are well enough understood to say too much about it being “safe.”
How can a consumer in Arizona identify contaminated marijuana?
Sometimes you can tell by how it looks and smells; mold on marijuana will look like a gray powder and smell musty or like hay, but it’s hard to distinguish. Just simple mold can make you sick.
But other contaminants, like pesticides and solvents, are pretty much impossible to detect and the effects are less well known. The best advice on "what is good" undoubtedly comes from the people who work at dispensaries and can tell you what they use.
How can buyers test their marijuana themselves?
A pesticide test costs about $250. A full panel for all contaminants is closer to $600. Some labs might give discounts to medical patients, so that would be worth looking into. But the bottom line is that testing is expensive, and since the state already is requiring dispensaries to test, shouldn’t they be requiring those results to be verified?
What's in your marijuana? Arizona shops must tell you, but tests might not be accurate
There do seem to be some DIY tests out there, but it seems unlikely they could produce reliable results. The labs that test marijuana are multimillion-dollar facilities with complicated instruments that each test for different things. It’s hard to imagine that could be replicated in a $20 home test.
Aren’t some contaminants found in food, too?
Yes, some pesticides are allowed on food crops. But the EPA and FDA set limits on those based on what science tells us about the risk to health from ingesting those products. There is little known about smoking many of these pesticides on cannabis, especially since most were studied and approved for use on food crops, not a product that most often gets smoked.
Are there any trustworthy dispensaries or brands?
We tested cannabis from TruMed and Harvest and didn’t find contaminants. I would be surprised if big dispensaries routinely cheated the testing rules because their licenses are worth tens of millions of dollars, So losing a crop is not worth risking those licenses.
But the only way to be sure products are clean is to have the state step up and enforce the rules.
Who is being dishonest with the testing and results?
Our investigation found that the cultivator, Grow Sciences, sent two different samples of a product to two different labs for testing. One lab found contaminants, the other didn’t. The state investigated the lab and found it didn't falsify its report, so the problem was on the grower in that case.
However, the state has found many problems with labs, too, including one that was likely inflating the THC results by cherry-picking the best buds to test for potency.
Inaccurate results: Arizona marijuana testing labs threatened with loss of licenses
What can be done about it?
DHS can revoke licenses from dispensaries and labs that break the rules. There are at least two labs that have been threatened with losing their licenses, but I don’t know of any that actually have.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have told me they were frustrated by what our investigation found, and that if DHS couldn't fix it, they would push for a stricter law, but getting marijuana legislation passed is always difficult.
'A breach of public trust': Lawmakers want changes following Republic report on contaminated marijuana
Contact your state lawmakers and tell them if this is something you would like fixed. But overall, the best remedy would be if the Arizona regulators who are paid to ensure marijuana is safe, did that.
Where is all the money going if it's not going to testing and consumer safety?
The state has money that it must use to regulate marijuana, and increasing consumer safety seems like a good use of that money.
Thank you to these Reddit users for their thoughtful questions:
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Contaminated marijuana in Arizona: Your questions answered