Last Friday, the only cannabis testing laboratory certified to test pot for heavy metals let its cannabis certification lapse. In response, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) and the state’s Department of Health (DOH) announced that they would stop requiring heavy metals testing on medical marijuana. In the wake of last week’s alarming article from Leafly about California’s lead-laden cannabis cartridges, this might sound a very, very bad idea. It is, of course, but it’s also a reminder that Washington State’s medical cannabis system was a joke to begin with.
Had the state not moved to move the goalposts for medical pot testing, Molecular Testing Labs’ decision to pull out of the less-than-lucrative cannabis testing industry would have rendered medical cannabis completely nonexistent. The real issue, however, is that it already pretty much is.
There’s plenty of pot in Washington—too much, according to some—but almost none of it qualifies as medical cannabis. That’s because, in Washington, we have what are called “medically compliant” products. These are products that meet a strict set of DOH requirements, centering on how they’re produced (with lots of hair nets!) and what their dosage is. The snazzy new seal of approval was created by the somewhat ironically named “Cannabis Patient Protection Act (CPPA),” an omnibus bill passed in 2015 that shuttered the state’s largely unregulated medical marijuana industry, instead tasking a slightly increased number of recreational stores with providing medicine to patients. Patients, many of whom had complained that they did not trust the recreational system to provide them with safe medicine, would be reassured by the presence of DOH-compliant pot on every store shelf.
Unfortunately, according to Dr. Jim Macrae, the state’s most avid cruncher of cannabis data, medically compliant products made up a mere 2 percent of total sales in the year after the CPPA passed. This makes sense, when you consider that, of the 1000 plus active production licenses in this state, precisely three offered DOH-compliant product. Trailblazin’ and Washington Bud Co. sold flower, while Fairwinds offered tinctures and capsules. Try as they might, those three couldn’t possibly supply the over 170 stores that currently bear a medical endorsement. Indeed, plenty of stores have the medical endorsement but sell no medical marijuana, which just goes to show you that, as we love to do in Washington, we made a bunch of well-meaning rules that have nothing to do with reality.
“I don’t use the shops all that often, but I have gone to all the shops near me and have only ever found one single product that was medically compliant and it was a single 3-4 gram package of shatter,” complained patient and activist John Novak. “Otherwise, nothing on the shelves. Most bud tenders I have asked had no clue there was even medically endorsed and tested products.”
But then, the CPPA was never really about providing patients with those products. It was written by the Washington Association of Cannabusiness (WACA), and it was about eliminating the unregulated, untaxed competition. Ulterior motives aside, the CPPA was passed on a promise to take medical marijuana out of the hands of the green-cross-bedecked trap shacks, who sold god-knows-what from god-knows-where, and put it in the latex-covered mitts of regulated, reputable operators. While everyone at this point agrees that the medical marijuana industry needed reform, given how few dispensaries were actual caregivers selling safe medicine to seriously ill patients, and how many were brick and mortar dealers selling Humbolt runoff to stoners who paid $75 for a permission slip, the CPPA wasn’t it, chief.
For starters, it made it impossibly difficult for dispensary owners who did want to straighten up and fly right to switch over to the recreational system, thereby denying a whole lot of people of color, who had flocked to the relatively lucrative, low-barrier MMJ business, the ability to profit from the cannabis industry, either by continuing to operate or selling their license to. When you think about who got fucked out of the most money by the War on Drugs, and who we should really be trying to enrich by legalizing drugs, well, we’ve done whatever the diametric opposite of reparations is.
But in terms of increasing consumer safety, its main promise, it didn’t really do shit. The fact that the state can so casually suspend the heavy metals requirement is proof of that. Probably, it won’t matter, as the three producers who were actually testing their products don’t offer DOH-certified cartridges, so there’s no threat. But it does highlight the fact that exactly none of the people who do make cartridges are subject to testing. Avitas’ Adam Smith told me his company has been testing their products for a few months now, with no positive results, which is nice. And none of the products testing in the Ike’s OK program have come up positive for heavy metals, which is also nice. But that’s not the point! The point is that if a threat to consumer safety exists, the people in charge of consumer safety should at least occasionally be checking for it.
Kristi Weeks, the DOH lawyer who designed the program, once told me that “the only difference between medical and recreational marijuana is the intent of the user.” The argument there was that there was no need for special medical products, or a separate medical system, because patients and potheads would all be smoking the same bud. Given the current level of medical science in cannabis—we don’t know how the specific combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes in each strain affect each specific patient’s endocannabinoid system, or how that system interacts with the various diseases cannabis claims to treat (besides IBS, lol)—this is actually pretty true. Patients pretty much just try strains until they find one that works. (The fact that a lot of the strains that were working weren’t popular enough to survive in the ruthlessly competitive recreational market is another downside of the CPPA, but that’s a story for another time.)
What the regulators in charge of MMJ reform failed to understand is that the very axiom they were using—medical is recreational, and vice versa—means that there should be robust consumer safety regulation for all cannabis, not just medical. The DOH program sought to protect patients with delicate immune systems from harmful pesticides and heavy metals, which is noble. But things like Eagle 20 and lead are bad for everyone.
This is why—shameless plug—I signed on to help Uncle Ike’s design the aforementioned OK testing program, which pulls a random selection of products from the shelves each month and sends them in for testing. Pulling products in their final, end-user form for random testing is the best, simplest system for ensuring consumer safety. Instead of asking producers to voluntarily shoulder a great deal of expense to get DOH-certified, when the state has done nothing to promote the mark and help them recoup that expense, you just hold everyone accountable via random testing. Currently, it’s only the vendors at Uncle Ike’s who are being held to that standard of being ready to test any product at any moment. Hopefully that changes soon.
There will be a new lab certified to test for heavy metals within a month—Medicine Creek Analytics—but until more than three producers are using it, that doesn’t mean much. What does mean something, right now, is that big red OK.