Laboratory Testing: Lessons Learned from California

As states across the U.S. continue to legalize cannabis for medical and recreational use, state legislators are faced with the daunting task of preparing, passing, and enforcing new regulations without federal guidance. While many states are implementing similar rules and licensing processes, one area where states differ is the importance of laboratory testing. Should it be required by law? If so, what should be tested, and what are the repercussions should a batch fail?

As of July 1, 2018, all California growers must submit their product to be tested at licensed, independent labs before making their way to the market. While California is not the first state to require testing, the regulations put in place ensure only a quality product enters the market. The regulations are extensive, and failing to maintain the standards could result in high fines and suspension, or complete revocation of a license.

State legislators have a role to play in protecting the public. Putting in place as many safeguards against toxic chemicals and heavy metals as possible helps make sure that every operation, from grow house to distributor, takes appropriate care to ensure that the cannabis sold is of high quality and safe for consumers. While certain pesticides are legal under federal and state laws, research has shown that the risk of pesticide exposure for cannabis users is alarmingly high and can present significant health complications, including rash, headache, abdominal pain, and eye irritation, among others.

However, state governments are not alone in their demand for testing. Consumers have also voiced their opinions in favor of rigorous testing, particularly when the use of pesticides is involved. A quick Google search returns a seemingly endless number of news articles on the subject of the “pesticide problem” and its potential to contaminate the legal cannabis industry. As cannabis is not yet federally regulated, each individual state decides what level of pesticide use and subsequent testing suits the needs of both consumer and producer.

The Pesticide Problem in Maryland

The Maryland medical cannabis industry has already seen the health and political effects of legal and illegal pesticide use by growers. One grow center from Anne Arundel County Maryland came under scrutiny this summer after three former employees of ForwardGro came forward alleging that the politically-connected grower has regularly used illegal pesticides as a part of the operation. While ~ForwardGro has staunchly denied these allegations, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC) confirmed that the Bureau of Enforcement and Compliance is investigating validity of the allegations, including the claim that employees were instructed to lie about pesticide use to compliance officers. In a recent Washington Post article, ForwardGo maintains, “Every ForwardGro batch was properly tested by an independent testing lab and [they] have never had any product fail for pesticides.” The effect of the allegations was immediate. Dispensaries began pulling ForwardGro products from the shelves, with some reports of customers suffering from burning eyes and throats after use.

Maryland legislators have recently adopted emergency regulations that would allow for the use of pesticides deemed “minimal risk” by the federal government, but the industry’s response to the ForwardGro allegations has reignited a conversation about pesticides’ role in the medical cannabis community. Further, the results of the ForwardGro investigation call into question the supposedly independent testing labs connected to any unsafe products in the market. Medical cannabis license holders have voiced concerns that politics plays too large a role in the industry and that the enforcement of regulations should be fair and unbiased. Industry leaders should keep aware of issues of their state’s rules regarding pesticide use, particularly when providing product for medicinal use.

Sara Firestone is an associate at Evergreen Law, a law firm specializing in the representation of cannabis labs and manufacturers.