MARIJUANA

Arizona not doing enough to ensure testing of marijuana for contaminants is accurate, advisory council says

Ryan Randazzo
Arizona Republic

Arizona marijuana consumers are at risk because of lax testing standards in the state, officials advising the Department of Health Services warned on Monday as they called for new rules on how cannabis is tested.

Members of the advisory council warned that while marijuana growers are required to pay certified laboratories to test their products to ensure they're free of harmful contaminants, the growers can use a single test to represent massive crops of marijuana, and portions of those crops could have contamination and escape detection.

State law requires DHS to take suggestions from marijuana dispensaries, testing labs, scientists, patients, law enforcement and other members of a testing advisory council. Members of that council met Monday and proposed a stricter rule regarding how much marijuana can be cleared for sale with a single test.

"I think we are really compromising consumer safety," said Tabitha Hauer, owner of Desert Valley Testing in Phoenix and a member of the advisory council.

She told officials with DHS and the members of the council that not having a size limit for tests is allowing growers in Arizona to use this loophole to "inadequately" test products, "endangering consumer safety."

"Most all states have something defined for batch size. I think we should look at this, review this and adopt some sort of rule for Arizona," she said. 

Arizona requires growers to have marijuana and products like edible gummies and vaping oil tested before it is sold to ensure it is free of contaminants including pesticides, heavy metals and solvents.

But sometimes contaminated products get through. An investigation by The Arizona Republic found products heavily contaminated with pesticides were sold to medical patients. The growers had test results that indicated the marijuana was clean even though it wasn't.

The problems with large batches

Tests are intended to ensure each "batch" of marijuana is clean, but officials have said that because DHS rules don't have a limit on the size of a batch, it can allow growers to sell contaminated products.

The DHS rules define a batch as "a specific lot of medical marijuana grown from one or more seeds or cuttings that are planted and harvested at the same time."

Hauer and other advisory council members want smaller batches. She also said it is problematic that batches can contain different strains of cannabis, which might have different potency.

Hauer's proposal is for a batch to be defined as a maximum of 50 pounds of marijuana of the same strain, grown in the same conditions, planted and harvested within seven days. For marijuana concentrates, she recommends a batch be defined as concentrate using the same extraction methods, same ingredients and same batch of raw material under the same conditions.

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Other advisory council members echoed her concerns.

"As a dispensary operator, I have intimate knowledge of operations using 50 to 400 pounds of one strain, and they are doing one test, and that clears all 400 pounds for mold, potency," said Steve Cottrell, who previously ran a testing lab in Arizona and until recently was the Arizona President of Curaleaf dispensaries in the state. "I think we need to have a good look at this."

Cottrell said after the meeting that Curaleaf never tested more than 20 pounds of marijuana at a time, but frequently had problems with other Arizona growers whose products Curaleaf carried.

"At Curaleaf, we always went above and beyond the testing standards," Cottrell said of the company that has 13 and soon to be 14 shops in the state.

He would not identify the bad actors, but said Curaleaf employees in regulatory compliance would call him and ask about "batches" of marijuana with one lab test that would represent dozens of different strains of cannabis to be sold.

"How do you have OG Kush, Dark Helmet, and 30 strain names and only have two tests?" he said. "What I have seen over the last 13 years in this industry is cheating from cultivators. There are several cultivators out there that are top-notch guys. There also are a few that are doing what they can to cheat the system. That’s because the rules have given them the ability to skirt the system."

Edible products have stricter testing

Cottrell said the main problem is with marijuana flower, not edible products, because the cannabis used to make edibles is tested first and then the products have to be tested again.

"As an edible manufacturer, you've had your t's crossed and i's dotted twice now," he said. "Edibles can't cheat the system. Cultivators can cheat the system."

But before Hauer could make her proposal Monday, DHS officials ended the meeting, citing time constraints. They said they would discuss her proposal at a yet-unscheduled meeting in September.

Advisory council members said they don't want to see the issue delayed.

"This is a glaring hole and something that has to be addressed," said Ryan Treacy, founder of C4 Laboratories, which tests cannabis. "The intent of the program is being subverted by a lot of folks out there. Hopefully it won't catch up with us and get somebody sick. ... It is absolutely rampant."

Apollo Labs, a marijuana testing facility in Scottsdale, can test for microbial contaminants, residual solvents, pesticides, heavy metals, herbicides, mycotoxins, terpenes, and potency.

Reached after the meeting, Hauer said she is concerned unscrupulous growers will send a clean sample of a contaminated batch of marijuana to her lab and get a clean test, and later it will be revealed that the batch was contaminated.

"I want to keep my company out of the headlines saying I tested something and I didn't," she said.

Arizona lawmakers recently proposed stricter rules regarding marijuana testing, including a requirement that DHS pull products from shelves and test them to ensure the results indicating they are clean are accurate. But that bill didn't get the required votes, and the Legislature doesn't convene again until January.

226 violations in inspections

Also at Monday's meeting, Megan Whitby, a bureau chief for DHS who oversees dispensary and establishment licensing, reviewed results of the agency's enforcement actions so far this year regarding marijuana testing.

She said so far this year the agency has inspected 63 medical and recreational marijuana licensees, issuing 226 citations for testing-related violations. 

Steve Baker, a DHS office chief, said that violations this year are less serious than last year.

"The difference between last year's inspections and this year is pretty night and day," Baker said. "That is a good thing. ... I said it would take two to five years to get to a point where the labs are getting in pretty good shape, and I think we are getting there.”

Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at ryan.randazzo@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.

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