In February, the British Columbia Cannabis Secretariat sent 20 samples of dried cannabis to a federally licensed analytical lab for testing to see if the speculation around illicit cannabis was correct. The study, conducted with assistance from the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health (NCCEH), found 24 distinct pesticides in the unlicensed cannabis, as well as levels of bacteria, fungi, lead, and arsenic that were above the acceptable levels.
Out of 20, only three samples would have been considered safe for sale by Health Canada, and a further eight would require further testing, leaving 9 samples that would be rejected.
The presence of specific fungicides like myclobutanil and heavy metals like arsenic and lead point to the possibility that illicit producers are using practices that could cause health risks for their employees as well as their customers.
The limits used as a rule of thumb are set from a number of standards, like the United States Pharmacopoeia (USP) and Schedule B of the Food and Drugs Act in Health Canada’s Good Production Practices. According to the USP, the limits for contaminants in herbal drugs are 100,000 CFU/g of total bacteria, 10,000 CFU/g of total mould, fungi and yeast, 0.5 mg/g of lead, 0.1 mg/g of mercury, 0.3 mg/g of cadmium, and 0.2 mg/g of arsenic.
The report showed that at least six samples had unacceptable levels of bacteria and fungus, some with as much as 60 times what they should be. Similarly, 4 samples had levels of heavy metals like arsenic and lead that exceeded standards, some with 2 or even 3 times the acceptable level, not to mention that nearly every sample had unacceptable levels of pesticides, some unauthorized for use.
How Does It Happen?
Due to our prolific use of pesticides and other chemicals in daily life, it’s unreasonable to expect a product to be completely free of them, however, they do pose some risk in high amounts. For whatever reason, some illicit producers use pesticides that are unauthorized or are known to have nasty effects when exposed to humans, animals, and the environment at high levels. Most are irritants to the eyes, nose, and throat, while some could even affect reproduction systems or cause cancer.
Some mould and fungi make their way onto the buds through unsanitary working conditions or through using non-potable water for irrigation.
The study notes that the act of combustion and smoking cannabis produces harmful by-products as well, so it’s unknown if even higher levels of contaminants will affect consumers, but think of the workers who may have to handle these chemicals, and the ecological effects of using them, and the negatives start to pile up.
What is Being Done?
In Canada, licensed cannabis goes through a rigorous testing process to ensure that it is safe for consumption. Under Health Canada’s Good Production Practices and the watchful eye of Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), legal cannabis samples are thoroughly tested and assessed for health risks.
Historically, high levels of pesticide residue aren’t just an illicit market problem. In 2017, licensed medical cannabis producers ran into some trouble when several lots of cannabis were recalled after a series of unannounced inspections collected 144 samples of cannabis leaf, flower, and oil and found 26 of the samples to be contaminated with one or more of 73 different pesticides. This resulted in much higher standards and requirements for pesticide testing.
There are many reasons why a customer may choose to continue purchasing cannabis on the black market over buying legal, but hopefully, with more data like this for customers to consider, more consumers will choose the licensed market.