Now that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that marijuana will be legal for adult use in Canada by July of 2018, it's up to agencies like Health Canada to make sure cannabis users will get high-quality, untainted products. But recent weed recalls over banned pesticides have put licensed producers in the spotlight, and raised questions about how federal agencies will ensure weed is safe when it becomes much more widely available.
Health Canada regulations currently mandate that licensed producers have cannabis tested for its potency, cannabinoid profile (mainly, how much THC and CBD is in a given plant product), the presence of heavy metals, and microbes like bacteria or mold. They also plan to "standardize" the amount of THC that is sold in a single portion of cannabis and make sure THC amounts are on product labels. Beyond that, they're working on it.
"The regulations for the non-medical system are being developed, and in developing the rules that will apply to testing, Health Canada will take into consideration the requirements that are in place today," said a spokesperson.
But despite the current requirements and possible future ones, recalls have raised concern. In December and January, New Brunswick grower OrganiGram issued two voluntary recalls of marijuana that had been sprayed with myclobutanil. The chemical, which Health Canada does not allow weed producers to use on cannabis, is considered safe to use on food. However, it releases small amounts of hydrogen cyanide when burned.
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An internal investigation led to "inconclusive" results and "no hard evidence leading to the source of the contamination," according to a February press release. Marijuana users were left without answers about how the pesticides had gotten into their medicine in the first place.
They weren't the only producer to wind up under the microscope. Aurora Cannabis, in Alberta, had purchased product from OrganiGram and was selling it under their name. Aurora's product was also voluntarily recalled.
A Health Canada statement, issued in March, said that "trace levels of myclobutanil" on cannabis plants aren't enough to present a major health risk, and that, pesticides or no, smoking is bad for your health. Even so, a recall report mentions at least one "adverse reaction" after the use of OrganiGram's product.
In February, The Globe and Mail reported on claims from a former employee of Mettrum Ltd., which had its own marijuana recall in December. The employee claimed that the company had been spraying cannabis plants with myclobutanil since as early as 2014—and hid the chemical above the ceiling when Health Canada inspectors came by to visit. OrganiGram and Mettrum have both been slapped with proposals for class-action lawsuits.
Canopy Growth Corp. announced it would be acquiring Mettrum in December, and finalized the acquisition in January, according to communications director Jordan Sinclair, who said that pesticide use happened before the acquisition. As soon as the company purchased Mettrum, "that was the signal for us to get in there and start laying down the procedures we had in our other facilities," he said. OrganiGram, too, announced a series of testing procedures throughout the weed-growth process to make sure the pesticide wouldn't slip in.
The recalls were "a shock to the system," said weed expert Jonathan Page, who was part of the team that first sequenced the cannabis genome. "We thought [the market] was tightly regulated, but things were still getting through." Page is president and CEO of Anandia Labs. The company develops unique strains of cannabis for producers and performs tests for producers and patients who want independent verification of their products' safety.
In an interview, Page said that while medical cannabis producers are only permitted to use a small list of pesticides to grow the plant, producers don't have to test for evidence of other pesticides right now. "It is a strange sort of gap in the regulatory system."
As recently as February, Health Canada acknowledged to The Globe and Mail that it had not been testing medical cannabis for banned pesticides. However, it has since said it would begin "random testing of cannabis products produced by licensed producers" to confirm that unsavory products aren't used in legal weed.
Page thinks it would be wise for Health Canada to go a step further. He thinks the agency should mandate that licensed producers have cannabis tested for common pesticides on their own. He said that some producers have already stepped up and voluntarily started getting these tests done by independent labs.
Mitchell Kulick is a New York-based attorney who specializes in representing startup and early stage cannabis companies. He said that while Canada has forbidden certain pesticides, there's not enough mandatory oversight to make sure they're not being used.
"Growers are required to not use certain pesticides, but they're not required to test for them," he said. "That doesn't feel like an American statement. We say, 'trust but verify.'"
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