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Wanna Play Microbial Roulette?

Recently, there’s been lots of discussion around California’s decision not to require cannabis labs to test for yeast and mold. Why was this decision made? What’s the rationale? Sure, it’s an added testing expense to growers, but some people could argue that knowing whether a cannabis sample is contaminated would be more important than knowing the THC content. After all, immuno-compromised cannabis patients could be harmed from the ingestion of mold.

Gary Ward, Ph.D. of PacLab Analytics, weighed in with his thoughts around this regulatory decision. “A grower showed me a bag of moldy cannabis, which had passed in California.” With operations in both Oregon and California, Ward has seen quite disparate rules regarding what’s permissible.

Cryptococcus neoformans, for example, is not tested in California. Researchers at UC Davis found the pathogen and other microorganisms in products that made it to dispensary shelves. Ward feels that the total yeast and mold count, or TYMC, would be a better test to require, and has voiced his concerns to the state in a letter submitted during an open comment period. “Once all the comments are in, the state will respond. However, the California Cannabis Industry Association Board already voted the change down during their comment submission,” Ward explained. “The lab committee of the California Cannabis Industry Association agrees that the test should be required. It’s not that hard of a test.”

In Oregon, there is a glut of cannabis that is currently passing analytical tests for contamination. Ward previously worked with Roger Voelker, and the Cannabis Safety Institute, to help develop the Oregon regulatory rules. “Medicinal cannabis was not being tested as well as recreational cannabis at the time,” Ward discussed.

How many samples does Ward typically see fail for one of several different types of contamination? “Less than 1/3 of the samples fail. Once you tell the grower what the problem is, they fix it.”

With so many samples failing, consumers are likely confused, since they are trying to consume a plant that has been touted as having significant benefits to health and well-being. And yet, states aren’t requiring that the products be tested for something that could be deleterious to one’s health. “Cannabis is getting people away from pharmaceuticals, but a lack of testing could force people back,” Ward hypothesized.

Given that cannabis has been medically legal in California since 1996, I asked Ward why this hasn’t been a forefront topic in the past? “It likely wasn’t brought up before because people didn’t realize it was such a problem,” Ward answered. “Some labs, like PacLab Analytics, were testing for yeast and mold when they didn’t have to. Growers were asking for it in Oregon. After all, like lettuce or vegetables, would people want to eat lettuce covered with mold or vegetables oozing black fungi?”, Ward probed.

“Some growers may not be happy with it, since it’s another testing cost, but many will likely want to ensure that their products are safe,” Ward continued. “Not enforcing this testing is like playing roulette. And the symptoms may manifest as something so general, if people get sick, they may not know where they got sick from.”

James Duncan, Ph.D., a consulting microbiologist for RJ Lee Group, offered further credence for evaluating for molds. “Molds are in the fungi family. The primary reason to test is that fungi produce toxins, called mycotoxins, that can cause chronic health effects including cancer, damage to the genetic material and to the immune system.  Mycotoxins are highly stable and not easily removed from products like food.”

The USDA Bacteriological Analytical Manual states in chapter 18, regarding yeasts, molds, and mycotoxins, that “Although most food-borne fungi are not infectious, some species can cause infection, especially in immuno-compromised populations, such as the aged and debilitated, HIV-infected individuals, and persons receiving chemotherapy or antibiotic treatment.”

While this discusses food, and not cannabis flower, the meaning is the same. People using cannabis medicinally may have enough medical problems without the unnecessary fear that what is meant to help them may in fact damage their health or exacerbate their condition.

About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

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