Washington’s legal cannabis initiative promised many things. Among them was safer, purer cannabis products. And indeed, the current system is much more closely regulated than the gray market that existed under the state’s relatively hands-off medical cannabis laws. But while all products are subject to testing for potency and bacterial contamination, the current system still has a long way to go before the products consumers are getting are as safe as some producers and processors claim they are.
Currently, Washington state does not require mandatory testing of cannabis products for pesticides and heavy metals. While the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) has set limits for the pesticides and heavy metals it considers the most dangerous to consumers, there is no mandatory pesticide or heavy metal testing.
That may soon change, however.
“The rulemaking process for heavy metals and pesticide testing in our state is ongoing,” Stephanie Davidsmeyer, communications consultant for the WSLCB told Uncle Ike’s. “WSLCB will hold a listen and learn session this summer to continue gathering information about this issue.”
Join us for our second Listen & Learn session re: marijuana quality assurance, product testing rules! June 25 @ 1:30 in Olympia at WSLCB headquarters OR via webinar. More: https://t.co/4Gwm6i4tVg #cannabis #WAgov pic.twitter.com/ujTCLBVk9Y
— WA Liquor & Cannabis Board (@WSLCB) June 11, 2019
After that listen and learn session on June 25, it will still be a long while before any testing requirements change at the state level. In the meantime, the OK Cannabis program, a consumer safety initiative launched by Seattle cannabis retailer Uncle Ike’s, aims to bridge the gap.
The program randomly pulls cannabis products off the shelves of participating retailers, then tests them for pesticides, heavy metals, and microbial contamination. If the products meet that state’s regulations for safety in those three areas, they pass, if not, they fail and are removed from the shelves. If a brand’s product fails, another one of its products is automatically tested the next month.
The idea of the program is to create a serious deterrent for cannabis companies to use dangerous pesticides, or to be less than careful in where they find their source material. It also allows consumers to see for themselves which producers and processors are following the rules and creating safe products, as the test results are all published online. The idea, according to their website, is “to address the problem of pesticides, heavy metals, and bacteria in cannabis in the simplest way possible.” Which is to say, by testing a small number of products at random and providing swift and serious consequences for failure, rather than testing every single product out there.
So far, some producers and processors have welcomed the program with open arms. Shawn DeNae, CEO of Washington Bud Company, is one of them, and she’s no stranger to the troubles with testing. DeNae has voluntarily tested her products according to the Washington Department of Health’s (DOH) special “Medically Compliant” guidelines for years. At first, she was the only producer doing this, but soon after Fairwinds and Trailblazin’ followed suit. However, the three producers were the only companies in the state whose products were consistently being tested for pesticides and heavy metals.
DeNae has done a lot of advocacy work through the Cannabis Alliance to encourage the WSLCB to adopt mandatory pesticide and heavy metals testing, so that everyone was held to the same standard she held herself to. Thus, when the OK program came out, she said, she was in support. It was a logical choice to test the end product, she said, and not burden only the producers with the costs of testing, plus it even the playing field for people who had always played by the rules. DeNae advocates for spot testing at the crop level, and random sampling at the retail level.
After the OK program was adopted, DeNae said she saw an exponential effect. Producers who took care to produce clean products sales’ were bolstered, while those who cut corners, banking on their products not being tested, were forced to get their act together or face the consequences – dismal sales.
And the impact went far beyond Uncle Ike’s. Because the OK Cannabis product testing results were public, many other retailers paid attention and made purchasing decisions accordingly.
DeNae has seen issues with Washington’s testing regulations being inconsistent and poorly executed. The current testing and regulations for cannabis safety involve three agencies, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), the WSLCB, and the DOH. Soon The Department of Ecology will be involved, though their program for cannabis pesticide testing won’t be adopted until 2024.
And under the current testing regime, the only testing not done voluntarily, via the DOH’s medical cannabis program, is done by the WSDA at a special lab they run on behalf of the WSLCB. However, according to previous statements from the WSLCB, that lab only tests flower at the farm level, and not randomly. While the original contract between the WSLCB and the WSDA called for random sampling of up to 75 different farms a month, the WSLCB confirmed that the lab’s entire capacity is consumed with complaints. When it comes to the actual products that consumers are purchasing in stores, almost none of it is tested.
“Bravo to Ike’s for taking it into their own hands and testing off of store shelves,” DeNae said. “Random sampling has demonstrated effective improvement in public safety. It also has less of a financial burden on the farms that pass.”
Another advocate of cannabis testing at the retail level, is Nick Mosely, the CEO of Confidence Analytics, a cannabis testing lab that performs tests for the OK Cannabis. program.
“The testing of products taken from retail – often referred to as ‘bin-level testing,’ ‘off-the-shelf testing,’ or ‘secret-shopper testing’ – is an important verification mechanism in any consumer product quality management program,” Mosley said. “Bin-level testing on the part of the retailer, such as the OK program, acts as a feedback mechanism to its counterpart batch-level testing on the part of the manufacturer. This so-called ‘multi-step verification’ creates accountability on both sides of the supply chain, with both manufacturer and retailer checking the products, to the benefit of assuring consumers that they are getting the value they expect from a product they are purchasing.”
With so much up in the air when it comes to testing at the state level, the OK program could offer a viable alternative to state regulations, Mosley suggested.
“The LCB is watching and is hopefully taking note that programs like OK Cannabis can enhance quality assurance of consumer cannabis products at a lower cost than other, less thoughtful testing and sampling alternatives,” Mosley concluded.
The WSLCB, however, credits other influences with their decision to review their current testing requirements, and potentially adopt more strict regulations.
“Rulemaking was prompted after changes in testing requirements in other states with legal recreational cannabis occurred,” Davidsmeyer explained. “Additionally, WSLCB has heard from the medical marijuana patient community that they would like to see additional product types or levels of potency that are not currently supported by the current regulatory structure.”
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But not everyone thinks Uncle Ike’s OK Program offers a perfect solution. Matthew Friedlander Founder and COO of Skagit Organics shared his thoughts, and critiques of the program.
“Overall, what they’re trying to accomplish is well-intended and good for the industry and good for the consumer,” Friedlander said. “The major problems with the program is that there isn’t a frame of reference for the consumer. All they see is a pass or a fail, with no frame of reference whether one is worse than the other. There’s no deep science behind what is safe for the consumer.”
Friedlander went on to explain that to improve this issue, he’d like to see some obvious fail results posted, to help educate consumers as to what a truly dangerous product looks like.
Additionally, Friedlander would like to see some kind of a margin of error for pesticides testing, because while having the final product contain no pesticides whatsoever is the optimal result, when you’re testing for such minuscule levels, environmental contamination and even human error can be a factor.
Despite the program’s imperfections, efficient and effective pesticide and heavy metals testing at the state-level still a long way off. So, for the time being, the private sector solution might be the only solution.