Q: Not many government officials have experience in the cannabis industry. How did you get here?
A: I was asked. Ten years ago, the medical director at New Jersey’s Public Health and Environmental Laboratories asked me how we would go about detecting delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol in cannabis plant material. I had to start from scratch and ended up building the environmental chemistry group to do that. So, although I was a microbiologist, I was named as the project manager to start the first cannabis testing lab in New Jersey. From that experience and others, I became interested in regulatory issues concerning testing. I would hear these painful stories from government staff tasked with drafting regulations for required testing of cannabis and knew there needed to be more information and guidance.
Q: You also had the opportunity to create an interesting and useful database. Can you tell me about that?
A: From 2017 to just recently, I directed the creation and maintenance of a database of required testing and their corresponding action levels from all the states that had medical cannabis programs. Version 5.0 was completed in August of 2019 and to give you an idea of the state of regulation, it showed there were 16 distinct microbial testing regimens in the 30 states that required testing, and that 9 identified pesticides were detected in at least one marketed medical cannabis product which were not tested by any of the 30 states that required testing. So, that indicates that we have lots of problems to solve.
Q: What made you decide to make the move?
It was time. Besides, this is where the action is. The private sector is what’s driving this industry forward. It’s where information, research, experimentation and ultimately, innovation is taking place. Historically, there was no experience in the Department of Health. In 2012, we were asked what to test for. That’s basically ten years ago. That’s ancient history in this business. I was put in charge of it, and I wasn’t even a chemist. And I don’t think any of the people working on the project had ever even smoked cannabis. We had people who had tested for pesticides on broccoli – that was the extent of their experience. So, when one of them had to order cannabis samples to test, they had no idea that 10 pounds of broccoli is very different than 10 pounds of cannabis flowers, and they don’t cost $1.50 a pound!
What do you see as the biggest need to be addressed?
A: Education, on every front. Even today, I don’t see many government individuals who have a lot of experience with cannabis and we need a private sector that is willing to spend money to fund the level of education that’s going to perpetuate this business. If we’re going to have a robust functioning cannabis industry that provides benefits to a great swath of the population, we need an informed and responsive public component willing and able to work with the private sector to bring that about. Fortunately, we’re starting to see colleges and universities and even community colleges take the lead in creating educational programs. University of California-Los Angeles, for instance, just announced a program under the auspices of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior that could be a model for cannabis programs in colleges across California and other cannabis-legal states. University of Maryland, University of Washington, University of Vermont, Northern Michigan University, and Long Beach City College, are also offering cannabis related curriculum. Private cannabis businesses need to support those and other efforts to tell the cannabis story.
Q: You were instrumental in helping New Jersey form its cannabis regulations. How do you see the regulatory landscape overall?
A: Well, there isn’t much agreement about how to do this. It always comes down to the regulations that are being drafted, of course, but there’s not a lot of consistency in that, which is exacerbated by the fact that we are going state by state. I don’t think it needs to be that complicated, but we do need to have agreement over some basic issues, the first being, the science. What’s the best technology to test for pathogens, for instance? Once we have that in place, a number of good things can happen, such as better, more informative labeling. Just recently, I was reading about some regulations governing labeling, and I got ahold of some products that had been labeled in accordance with the new rules. On the label it said, “This product has been tested for contaminants,” and I was looking forward to reading the list of the contaminants it been tested for. But it turns out, there was no list. That’s a problem.
As with any new and rapidly growing industry, a certain amount of chaos is to be expected. On the plus side, it gives participants the chance to try out different regulatory stances to see what works. If we give them the opportunity to explore best practices, hopefully the marketplace would be able to arrive at some consensus. That’s one way to go about it. But currently, most regulators are charged with regulating an industry— one that was just recently estimated to contribute $92 billion dollars to the U.S. economy in 2021 alone— that didn’t exist 10 years ago. So, they know very little about it. This isn’t a criticism; it’s an observation. How could they possibly know about it? There was no such thing as a legal cannabis industry or a legal way to study it until recently.
Q: Now that you’re in private industry, what sort of an impact do you hope to have?
A: I’d like to be an advocate for open-mindedness. When I was a government official, it was easy for me to talk about regulations with other people in official capacities, other officials, but now that I find myself on the other side of the table, that may change. I hope not, however. We need to understand that this is a process, not an event. We need to keep in mind that we have a plant here that has enormous potential, and it’s just getting started. We’ve had 70+ years of prohibition. It’s not going to change overnight. But given the evidence, people have to be willing to open their minds about this plant. There are a lot of fictions about cannabis that are still being pedaled. We need to be willing to listen to each other, honestly, in order to be mutually successful.