A few years ago in Southern California, before the state legalized adult recreational use, there was a rumor going around that if you asked to see test results for cannabis products and a dispensary didn’t have or want to provide them (which was against the law), you could be refused service and unceremoniously ejected.
This prompted my first and last foray into investigative journalism, the fruits of which yielded not much more than a couple hundred extra miles on my car. My budtenders weren’t expecting me to be anyone who could seriously blow up their spot if they failed to provide test results (which, though not my intention, presented its own conundrum; namely that to finger wag folks in an industry long forced to run clandestinely in order to provide ailing folks with the medicine they needed—think early AIDS crisis—at a time when legislative and judicial progress might finally turn a big corner, seemed to me to be petty and shortsighted—as well as potentially dangerous—but more on that later).
When dispensaries didn’t have cannabis testing documents, they mostly shrugged and suggested another product for my needs. In findings that will surprise exactly no one: presenting as a young, able bodied, gender-conforming white girl (regardless of which or whether these applied) didn’t raise any eyebrows in what at the end of the day amounts to the field of shopping. I was treated how all consumers should be: like a patient seeking medicine. To be sure, not everyone is received this way.
Contaminated cannabis—especially for immunocompromised patients—can cause serious complications, even death. So why is it so hard to establish and enforce equitable and safe cultivation practices? At the time, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation website’s Cannabis Overview page greeted browsers with an opening line as vague as it was succinct: “Cannabis: it’s just different.”
While there’s much to be said about how and why it’s different (and how and why it isn’t) contextually, there’s an equally robust reservoir of information within the plant itself. From cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes to contaminant levels and the nuances of serial propagation, the cannabis matter says as much about its history and current circumstances as any overview of legislation or cultivation practices.
Furthermore, since laboratory testing is required at multiple stages throughout the cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution processes, patients living in states with legal medical or recreational use should be delighted to request lab reports from their local dispensaries and find out exactly what’s in their flower. They’ll gain not just information but peace of mind that what they’re about to inhale, apply, or ingest is of a healing quality.
The reality is that cannabis testing is frequently not performed, or conducted insufficiently. Unsurprisingly, the market drives industry-wide prioritization of THC content and renders other data such as pesticide and mycotoxin (fungus) levels negligible.
They aren’t. Steph Sherer, Executive Director and founder of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the largest national member-based organization of patient advocates, boils it down: “The challenge here really is that this industry is still illegal federally.” This means that there is a substantial lack of support for a multi-billion dollar and potentially life-saving (certainly quality of life saving) industry still in its absolute inception. And while lack of funds for adequate cannabis testing is a deterrent for many, it’s not the only reason people avoid testing.
“The truth is that people are not seeing this as a priority and they’re taking a short cut and theres no other way to say it,” Sherer explains. The question becomes one of how to balance the dual necessities of enforcing health and safety measures with maximizing the rights of folks working within and relying upon the industry. “As patient advocates we find ourselves stuck in this position where I honestly don’t believe that selling a contaminated product means you should spend ten years in prison. I have great respect for people who are willing to break the law to bring patients medication but that doesn’t mean you can give us whatever you want. We do have to stand up for ourselves and assert our right to have safe products.”
James Jernee is co-founder of San Diego’s Torrey Pines Testing and routinely tests edibles and sometimes flower. Hedescribes the range of his own experiences as both patient and scientist: “I haven’t been personally evicted,” he says, “but I have been told in not so many ways that there’s no data behind their word, or excuses like we have the product but the results aren’t here yet. When I tell them I’m from a cannabis testing lab sometimes they’ve withheld products. Even among dispensaries that are good there tends to be a spectrum of what they provide that’s homemade and may not want investigated, but I’ve also had people hand me products saying test this and let me know what you think.”
How many surprises does he come across? “30% of what we test is exactly what they thought it would be, other times it takes tweaking,” Jernee explains. “[Testing is] not just a matter of safe or unsafe, the levels are also in question so things not matching up is a big part of what we’re looking for.” In other words, THC is great, but when you start seeing claims that flower contains above about 27%, you should be skeptical. There’s got to be some plant in your plant.
So how do you source safe cannabis products as a consumer, besides looking for organic, sun grown, and whole plant products? Here are some tactics for obtaining clean cannabis flower or derivatives, regardless of where you live.
Patient Focused Certification
Look for ASA’s Patient Focused Certification label on your products. From seed to sale, PFC’s program works to ensure that medicine complies with safe and reasonable industry regulations.
Know Your Rights
Different states have different laws regarding patients’ rights. The items on these lists are equally valuable to patients as to budtenders and manufacturers, so they’re worth consulting. You have the right to cannabis/products that are free of contaminants such as mold, mildew, fungus, pesticide, and pests. You have the right to know how your cannabis was produced.
Be Mindful of Your Vape
From contaminants to potential danger in additives like vitamin E acetate, vaping has caused a bit of a stir after a handful of deaths in 2019. If you choose to vape, be sure to source from an organic, transparent company that lists all of its ingredients.
This last piece of advice involves a little legwork, but it might be worth your while. It also applies to sourcing herbal medicine more broadly. Where do you get your kitchen tomatoes (not that those aren’t or can’t be medicinal, but that’s another article)?
Keiko Beatie, former cannabis distributor, cultivator, and industry specialist, advises learning more about the people at the various levels on your distribution chain and their company’s missions. “Really get to know your dispensary and your budtenders and see if you feel they have integrity along with the product they’re selling,” she suggests. If you have the time and the ability, developing relationships—especially with cultivators—is key. An expanding industry means a lot of newcomers, and mistakes are inevitable. “But,” she says, “just like any other commodity business, some people will succeed, some people won’t. Some will rise to the top—hopefully those are the people with integrity—and some will hopefully find another way they can support the industry.”