WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — With legalized marijuana growing across the country, there's a big demand from pot consumers to know what's in the cannabis they're using. But when it comes to contaminants from pesticides to chemicals and even heavy metals like lead and mercury, what's tested and what's considered acceptable depends on where you live.
Emily Atkin is a label-reader. She grew up that way. And now that she's a legal marijuana user, she wants to know as much about the weed she smokes as the organic food she puts in her body. But the product labels on recreational pot in Washington, D.C., where she lives, don't say much. That's because although possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana is legal in the nation's capital, there's no regulation of the products and no testing of recreational cannabis. No one is required to provide information about what's in it.
"I would love to know where this was grown. I would love to know who grew it. I would love to know if there are pesticides used on it," Atkin said. "I know that other places have testing of their products and they can be assured of things that I just can’t, and I do find it a bit unfair."
Marijuana mysteries aren’t limited to the District of Columbia. The information consumers can obtain about cannabis and related products like edibles and oils varies from state to state due to the lack of federal regulation. A patchwork of regulation has formed across the country as states legalize and then craft their own requirements for testing for contaminants including bacteria, mold, pesticides, residual chemicals and even heavy metals like mercury or lead.
"Just the average person concerned for their health is also going to be worried about this type of contaminants."
Dan Kulakowski is the lab director at a Maryland lab operated by a company called Steep Hill. It's his job to do the complex and exhaustive testing that uncovers what's in the pot products people use. Steep Hill has locations across the country, so the company is familiar with adapting its methods to the varied laws that exist nationwide. Kulakowski says no matter where the testing is done, transparency is the goal.
"As labs, we’re not the cops. We’re not the regulators," he explained. "We’re just providing the data to the customers and to the state."
But the data labs track, the tests they're required to perform, and even what’s considered an acceptable level of contamination is different depending on the state. Circa waded through hundreds of pages of regulations that govern marijuana testing in states where pot is legal and discovered interesting differences. In Michigan, for example, batches of medical marijuana have to be inspected for things like rubber shavings or hair and testing for pesticides and heavy metals like mercury and lead is required. But pesticide and heavy metal testing is optional for recreational pot in Washington state. A spokesman tells Circa the state doesn't currently have a lab certified to test for heavy metals.
In Oregon, testing for something as scary as E.coli is done at random, while California requires the microbial tests that could uncover it with every batch. Circa discovered, though, that California doesn't require the individuals running labs to have a science degree.
"It's just as important as any other product you're going to put into your body. You want to make sure you know exactly what's in it and you want to have standards by which cultivators and processors and producers are following."
The National Cannabis Industry Association, an organization that advocates for responsible cannabis use, acknowledges the varied regulations that exist. Morgan Fox runs communications for the NCIA. He said, "We’re working very hard right now to come up with some sort of standardized system that can be applied to all states."
Fox says growers, producers and even labs want national testing standards. But they do not want strict, uniform regulations that could stifle what he calls the rapidly evolving science associated with the industry. Fox is quick to point out there have been few examples of public health problems with pot, even when it wasn't legal.
"We absolutely want the product to be as safe as it can be. Just because it’s safer than what’s available on the illicit market doesn’t mean what’s available on the legal market can’t get better," Fox said.
There is room for improvement, even in states with wide-ranging regulations related to testing. California broadly legalized pot last year. Mandatory tests began in the summer of 2018. And an Associated Press report from September indicated early results flagged hundreds of cannabis products because of pesticides and mold, although health officials emphasized they had no verified reports of illnesses. More recent published reports show improved results in recent months.
Still, legal users like Atkin say they deserve to know what they’re putting in their bodies, no matter where they purchase legal marijuana.
"People are worried about what’s in these products, for sure," she said. "I mean, my friends and I have talked about it. I think it should get handled before something bad happens."
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