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NY’s testing failures expose legal weed consumers to unsafe cannabis; a ‘serious health threat’

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By Brad Racino | A NY Cannabis Insider investigation has uncovered systemic public health failures at every level of the state’s legal cannabis industry, from farmers to labs to state regulators, that experts say may pose a serious health threat to consumers. Top-selling weed strains, available at licensed dispensaries from Western New York to Manhattan, contain microbial levels 10-250 times higher than what’s allowed under the state’s rules for medical cannabis. “The majority of these products should not have been allowed to be sold to consumers and may pose a serious health threat,” said Sarah Ahrens, founder and CEO of New Jersey cannabis testing company True Labs for Cannabis. Among NY Cannabis Insider’s findings:

  • The state’s requirement that weed be grown outside – and not indoors – has led to high levels of bacteria, yeast and mold among products that experts say should not reach consumers.

  • Despite its public health and safety mandate, state regulators have maintained a relatively hands-off approach to enforcement and have left it up to farmers – who are struggling to survive – to decide whether their products are safe.

  • Dozens of publicly available test results show state-certified labs have consistently broken the rules for reporting pesticides, heavy metals and other contaminants.

A marijuana bud, or flower, is ready for processing June 17, 2021, at the Greenleaf Medical Cannabis facility in Richmond, Virginia. A necessary medical notice at this point: Health risks associated with smoking or consuming contaminated weed can include allergic reactions, sickness and, in extreme cases, death. Those most susceptible to pesticide and microbial contaminants include women of reproductive age, immunocompromised patients with cancer and HIV, and patients with seizures and epilepsy. The Office of Cannabis Management is responsible for the rules around adult-use and medical cannabis, and the agency does not agree that NY Cannabis Insider’s findings indicate a significant health concern. “A high yeast and mold count does not equate to a threat to public health,” said OCM spokesperson Aaron Ghitelman. “Growing cannabis outdoors is not much different than growing tomatoes or corn or lettuce; it’s a natural environment with microorganisms.” But, Ahrens counters, people don’t inhale moldy tomatoes. They usually just throw them out. Ghitelman added that the agency is aware of non-compliant test results but has not detected serious or systemic problems with testing accuracy or compliance. This despite roughly 40 publicly available lab reports for some of New York’s best-known brands that clearly show noncompliant testing, misreported numbers and missing results. In short, the integrity of the legal cannabis marketplace rests on a bedrock of safety, testing, and regulatory enforcement. Ahrens said she sees none of that at play in New York. “I see a lack of proper regulations to ensure consumer safety, blatant violations of the current testing requirements, and a lack of enforcement to adhere to the current regulations,” she said. What’s going on here Last year – the first for New York’s recreational cannabis licenses – the state mandated its conditional marijuana cultivators grow outdoors to encourage sustainability. "I am proud to sign this bill, which positions New York's farmers to be the first to grow cannabis and jumpstart the safe, equitable and inclusive new industry we are building," Gov. Kathy Hochul said upon signing the Adult-Use Conditional Cultivator legislation in 2022. Here, the governor is pictured at the Annual SIEDC Business Conference on April 26, 2023. (Staten Island Advance/Jan Somma-Hammel) The OCM quickly discovered the outdoor rule had consequences: Growers couldn’t pass lab tests for bacteria, yeast and mold. This was not a surprise. Outdoor farming poses inherent contamination risks. What did catch people by surprise was the OCM’s response to the problem. After listening to farmers across the state, the OCM announced in November that it would remove test thresholds for those microbes. Meaning: sky’s the limit. Jeff Rawson, president and founder of the nonprofit Institute of Cannabis Science, said he remembers hearing the news. “It was pretty famous, tossing out all the microbial testing,” Rawson said. “I’d never seen such a clear expression of profits and a market over public health. It was really stark.” Despite having a team of scientists and licensed medical professionals on staff, the OCM also made licensed growers and processors responsible for deciding whether their products pose a public health risk. “It is the responsibility of the licensee to consider … any risks to the health of consumers,” says the OCM’s testing guidance for growers and processors. Sen. Liz Krueger, D-New York, left, fist bumps Sen. Andrew J. Lanza, R-Staten Island, after her legislation to legalize adult-use cannabis passed in the Senate during a Legislative Session at the New York state Capitol, Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink) On the same day as the OCM’s announcement, Colin Decker, a cannabis industry consultant and founder of 7 SEAZ, said that, yes, the move would allow farmers to get more product onto the marketplace. “But, inevitably, it will open a can of worms in regards to the standards, quality, and expectations that customers would have for the flower and products they are looking to purchase in dispensaries,” Decker said. And though, nearly a year later, the agency still has no limit for yeast, mold and bacteria, it does require those numbers to be reported in lab results so consumers know what they’re ingesting (assuming consumers know how to read the scientific reports and understand the results – or even realize that they’re entitled to see them). The OCM told NY Cannabis Insider on Monday that it flags any adult-use flower product with a total bacteria count above 1 million cfu/g – or 10-times the limit for medical cannabis – and reaches out to licensees to “help determine the appropriate remedial steps.” It’s unclear whether the agency applies the same formula with yeast and mold results. But:

  • Eleven of 40 lab results for flower analyzed by NY Cannabis Insider had bacteria counts over 1 million cfu/g. One brand showed 24.7 million cfu/g.

  • Nine had yeast and mold counts over 100,000 cfu/g, with one brand showing 2.5 million cfu/g (250-times the medical limit) in its results.

And most of these products are still available for sale today. Protecting the public The rationale behind New York’s cannabis legalization in 2021 was grounded in the idea of public health and safety, and the state continues to use that as a foundation to push consumers toward the legal market. OCM Executive Director Chris Alexander has repeatedly hammered home the importance of tested, safe products. In February, Alexander said that illicit storefronts are putting public health at risk, and enforcement against them will help stop the sale of contaminated products. He said in June that launching legal cannabis businesses with “safe and tested licensed products is paramount.”


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