Girl Scout Cookies, Superman OG, Silver Haze, and Critical Kush are just some of more than a dozen medical cannabis strains Michigan regulators recalled from two dispensaries on Friday. Friday’s recalls are mandatory and require that dispensaries notify affected customers who may have purchased the contaminated strains. Lab test failures for mold, yeast, and other contaminants prompted the recalls, drawing attention to Michigan’s urgent need for more medical cannabis testing facilities and licensed cultivators.
Medical Cannabis Recalls Stem From Michigan’s Out of Sync Industry
Since 2016, Michigan’s marijuana laws have been undergoing some massive revision. The state legalized medical cannabis in 2008, but opted not to set up much in the way of regulatory or licensing frameworks. Patients and caregivers had to enroll in the program and get certifications. But with no licensed producers, cultivation, and production fell to patients and caregivers themselves.
That changed in 2016 when a coalition of conservative state lawmakers began passing legislation aimed at taxing, regulating and licensing the state’s medical cannabis program. But by then, an entire informal industry of unlicensed growers and distributors had emerged, along with dozens of unlicensed dispensaries. Realizing Michigan’s medical cannabis infrastructure could simply turn on a time and adopt new regulations, officials implemented a set of “emergency rules” for cannabis businesses. Among other things, the emergency rules gave businesses temporary approval to continue operating while they put their licensing applications together.
Licensing, as many in the industry have experienced, is a lengthy bureaucratic process that routinely encounters delays. And while Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) worked on licensing processors, producers, distributors and “provisioning centers,” it gave the green light for dispensaries to stock medical cannabis grown by caregivers. In fact, LARA more or less had to, due to a shortage of medical cannabis at licensed provisioning centers (i.e., dispensaries). But that led to another issue: testing caregiver-grown cannabis.
Michigan Shortage of Cannabis Testing Facilities Puts Patients and Consumers at Risk
The problem, however, was that Michigan regulators had only licensed a few medical cannabis testing labs–and only as recently as August 2018. So LARA permitted provisioning centers to sell untested medical cannabis products through 2018. Patients had to sign a disclosure form acknowledging they understood this, but when 2019 rolled around, provisioning centers could no longer sell untested products.
And now that caregiver-grown cannabis must undergo lab testing, the risks inherent to unregulated cultivation are coming to light. All of the 15 strains of medical cannabis flower LARA recalled Friday came from caregiver-growers. Dispensaries sold those strains before getting them tested, roughly between Dec. 18 and Jan. 3. When the new requirements for testing kicked in Jan. 1, however, dispensaries sent samples for analysis. When those tests revealed mold, yeast, chemicals, and other contaminants, LARA issued its mandatory recall.
So far, the recall affects just two provisioning centers: the Green Mile in Detroit and Compassionate Care By Design in Kalamazoo. At the Green Mile, LARA recalled Gelato and Girl Scout Cookies for lab test failures due to total yeast and mold count. A third strain, Superman OG, failed for chemical residue, while a fourth, Mimosa, failed for bile-intolerant gram-negative bacteria and total coliforms—as in, E. coli. At Compassionate Care by Design, LARA recalled 11 strains, including popular Kush and Skunk strains, for chemical residue contamination. Chemical contamination often indicates the presence of pesticides, fertilizer or other grow-chemicals sprayed on plants.
LARA posted a press release online Friday morning listing the lot and production batch numbers of the affected strains.
How Dangerous is Contaminated Cannabis?
Contaminated cannabis poses serious risks to all cannabis consumers, but perhaps medical patients especially. Take mold, for example. Exposure to mold can lead to respiratory problems, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, heart problems, and lung infections. Those risks can be even higher for people with asthma or lowered immune systems. Yeast and other bacteria, including coliform bacteria, pose similarly heightened health and safety risks.
Chemical contamination (from pesticides, for instance) is another danger—and an alarmingly common one. In October 2016, for example, one testing lab in California found that 84 percent of its samples contained pesticide residue. Fruits and veggies from the store have pesticide residues on them, too, but you can wash that residue off with water. With cannabis, there’s no way to rinse harmful chemicals off your flower. And burning common pesticide residues transforms them into highly poisonous chemicals, like hydrogen cyanide.
Without proper testing facilities and effective regulatory limits on contaminants, cannabis consumers face unknown and potentially harmful risks. Now that Michigan has both an expanding medical industry and new adult-use industry to get off the ground, state regulators would be wise to prioritize licensing more labs.