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Marijuana edibles on a rocky road to food safety assurances

They call her “The Weed Whacker.” 

As the first marijuana specialist for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment — and therefore the first marijuana specialist for a public health authority in the entire nation — she disposed of $28 million dollars of cannabis products in 2016 alone. Why? Because she found them out of compliance with her health department’s regulations and requirements.

On the other side of the coin, she’s known for saving companies millions of dollars in potential losses by pointing out where they’re not in compliance. This, in turn, allows them to fix the problems, get their house in order, and sell their smokable and edible products.

She is Kimberly Stuck and she is all about food safety. As a public health investigator for the Denver health department for more than three years, she worked as a food safety specialist. In that job, she inspected restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, festivals, farmers markets, and dispensaries. A certified Professional of Food Safety, she is also HACCP certified and ServeSafe Certified.

From there, she went on to become a marijuana specialist for the department. In that job, she inspected cultivation operations, marijuana-infused product facilities, and dispensaries. She also conducted contaminated marijuana product investigations, which she says took up most of her days. Court appearances, product testing for pesticide contamination, recalls and product destruction were all part of the job.

“It is very exciting to work as a marijuana investigator,” she said in a LinkedIn post. “In an industry that has never existed before, I am constantly finding new challenges and learning something new.”

One thing she learned as a marijuana specialist for Denver is that there is a great deal of confusion and a huge need for expertise in the industry. Convinced that she could save cannabis companies millions of dollars by informing them of preventative measures they could take, which in the end would also protect consumers, she went out on her own and launched Allay Cannabis Consulting.

Allay’s goal “is to help the cannabis industry thrive on a global scale,” according to the company’s website.

According to stats from Arcview’s midyear update to its fifth edition of “The State of Legal Marijuana Markets, the spending on legal cannabis in North America was $7.3 billion in 2016 and will post 33 percent growth in 2017 to $9.7 billion. Analysts expect it to then grow at a 28 percent compound annual rate to reach $24.5 billion in 2021.

Currently, nine states allow the sale of recreational marijuana and 29 allow the sale of medical marijuana. Proposals are being floated in other states as legislatures are keen to capture tax revenues from this booming industry.

Mass confusion defines laws for edibles
Each state has different regulations for recreational and medical marijuana, some of which are still being crafted. For example, Kansas, Idaho and South Dakota do not allow edibles, either for recreational or medical reasons. In Washington state, adults 21 and over can buy medical and recreational edibles and concentrates. California and Colorado also allow recreational and medical edibles.

In all of this, what concerns Stuck the most is that many health departments aren’t regulating edible marijuana the way they should be — or at all.

In Denver, she said, as soon as recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado, the city’s health department “got on it right away.” But the state’s health department isn’t looking at edibles as food, so except in Denver, very few local or county health departments have signed off on regulating marijuana edibles for food safety.

Stuck is concerned about food safety issues, especially in edible medical marijuana products. Many health conditions include suppression of the immune system, making pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and molds particularly dangerous to people who consume medical marijuana in edible forms.

Medical marijuana is now legal in more than half of the 50 states, but there were virtually no regulations about controlling pathogens when the trend began. Some states have made advances in tightening up their regulations. But, others still don’t have regulations.

“It was happening in states like California, Oregon, Nevada, and Hawaii,” Stuck said. “It’s the Wild West out here. It’s crazy.”

Stuck said that food safety standards should cover everything from employee hygiene, to food handling, to temperature control requirements, and all other steps of producing, packaging, holding and selling. While some counties have regular health department inspections, others are still working toward that.

As a consultant, she urges manufacturers to take a proactive approach, pointing out that upgrading to good food safety standards now can reduce the risk of outbreaks, hefty fines, or even closure.

Looking into the future
“Edible cannabis products are here to stay,” Stuck said, pointing out that they could eventually become legalized on the federal level. When that happens, the Food and Drug Administration will adopt regulations across the board, which in turn would clear up the confusion that comes with different regulations in each state.

Though U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said he wants the Department of Justice to return to aggressive prosecutions under the federal marijuana prohibition, other current and former federal officials think a different approach is in the public’s best interest.

Former U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, who told Bloomberg news in 2009 that he was “unalterably opposed” to the legalization of marijuana, tweeted on April 18 that he has a new view and a new job. He’s now on the board of the multi-state cannabis company Acerage Holdings. Boehner was Speaker from 2011 until he resigned from his seat in the House in 2015.

Republican John Boehner, left, and Democrat Charles Schumer, right, have developed similar views on the legalization of marijuana.

“I’m joining the board of #AcreageHoldings because my thinking on cannabis has evolved,” Boehner tweeted. “I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.”

Boehner has also said he has seen the difference medical marijuana made for a friend suffering from back pain.

Also in April, President Donald Trump told a top Senate Republican that he would support efforts in Congress to protect states that have legalized marijuana. He also told him that he would support a legislative solution to fix this states’ rights issue once and for all.

Then, on April 19, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-NY, announced that he’s introducing legislation to decriminalize marijuana.

“My thinking — as well as the general population’s views — on the issue has evolved,” Schumer said, “and so I believe there’s no better time than the present to get this done. It’s simply the right thing to do.”

With those changing views, a new day may be dawning for marijuana. But Stuck said just because marijuana edibles and medicinals are legal only in some states, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for some regulatory oversight to make sure they’re safe.

In current conditions, she said,  it’s a real struggle for many growers, manufacturers, and retailers to know exactly what they need to know and do to be in compliance with their own state’s laws. And they’re often confused about where they can find the right information.

“It’s scary to me,” she said. “But some companies are reaching out to get educated. And more health departments are coming online.”

In this climate, Stuck said it’s no wonder consumers aren’t quite sure what edibles or oils are safe.

Imagine this, if you will
You live in one of the states that allow the sale of recreational or medical marijuana. The stores selling it have ads on billboards and in newspapers. You go to one of them and buy what looks like some nice brownies, cookies or candy. The people selling you the marijuana edibles give their hearty endorsements of how good they are.

You go home and share them with your family and friends, although definitely not with your kids or your friends’ kids. In fact, you make it a point to secure any that haven’t been eaten to make sure the kids don’t have access to them.

You feel totally safe in doing all of this because your state is allowing the sale of these edible products. Surely everything’s being tested — after all, it is food.

But wait. Before they got to the store where you bought them, what sort of inspections were required? How do you know whether or not they contain foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella or pesticides or mold mycotoxins or toxic metals?

Or maybe you live in one of the 29 states that allow medical marijuana edible items or oils. Surely you can have absolute faith in them, after all, they’re being prescribed by doctors and used as medicine.

But there’s a fly in the marijuana ointment. Because the federal government identifies marijuana as an illegal, controlled substance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is not involved in setting standards as would be the case in many foods and medicines.

That leaves the ball in the states’ courts.

Marijuana 101
Marijuana often referred to as weed, pot, grass and other slang terms is a greenish-gray mixture of the dried flowers, or “buds,” of Cannabis. It is the most commonly used illicit drug, according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

This character in the film “Reefer Madness” displays maniacal behavior after smoking marijuana. Public domain image

In the past, the federal government used an arsenal of propaganda that led people to believe that marijuana would turn someone into a drug-crazed person. “Women cry for it, men die for it,” proclaimed the film “Reefer Madness.” “If you smoke it, you will kill people,” said another.

Then came medical marijuana. It got its toe into the door and eventually pried it open. People learned that it had many benefits, among them relieving pain, insomnia, anxiety, spasticity, and treating potentially life-threatening seizures associated with conditions such as epilepsy. All without physical addiction.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, about 85 percent of Americans support legalizing medical marijuana.

Generally, consumers are advised to keep medical marijuana oils refrigerated unless they’re told it’s not necessary. Refrigeration keeps any bacteria that might be in the oils from multiplying to dangerous levels.

What are THC and CBD levels all about?
To begin with, they’re about how potent marijuana or marijuana edibles are.

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects. It’s the ingredient in the cannabis plant that gets people high. In some cases, THC levels are on the package labeling. In some states, a package of edibles is limited to 100 mg with each piece containing 10 mg.

In medical marijuana, the main ingredient, CBD, or cannabidiol, has little, if any, intoxicating properties. Because CBD-rich cannabis is non-psychoactive or far less psychoactive than THC-dominant strains, it is the choice for a wide range of patients.

Medical marijuana comes in various forms, among them liquid tinctures, capsules, oil for use in vaporizers, and sprays that can be inhaled or sprayed under the tongue. In addition, there are topical CBD creams that are prescribed for muscle pain.

However, because CBD reduces the speed at which the body metabolizes the blood thinner warfarin, it’s best to confer with your doctor about this.

Buyer beware
California is a good example of how much confusion there can be when it comes to marijuana edibles and medical marijuana. Recreational marijuana became legal in the Golden State on Jan. 1 this year.

Betsy Gribble of the Sequoia Analytical Lab told KSRO in Sonoma County, CA, that even though California state officials are cracking down on marijuana regulations, only a fraction of the edible marijuana currently on the shelves is being properly tested. That’s because retailers with temporary licenses can sell inventory they had in stock before 2018. For consumers, that means they might be buying products that haven’t gone through testing.

Gribble says her lab checks for a variety of contaminants ranging from E. coli to heavy metals. But soon it will start looking for more. Beginning in July, marijuana in California must be tested for foreign materials such as bugs or hair. And next year, tests will include searching for lead, mercury, arsenic, and mold.

Mold is serious stuff. It produces mycotoxins, which can cause disease and even death in humans and animals. And even if a moldy product is treated to remove the mold, the toxin can still remain. The problem here is if a contaminated flower is turned into a concentrate, the percentage of mycotoxin can skyrocket. The same thing happens with pesticides.

Chris Schutz, operations manager for Sequoia Analytical Lab, said pesticides and residual solvents in the concentrated oils is the biggest concern, especially since some producers use dangerous solvents.

“They build up in a person’s body over time,” he said. “You might not feel the effects of this for 5 or 10 years.”

“If you’re putting things in your body, you should know what your putting there and be assured it’s not going to kill you,” said Gribble in the KSRO interview.

The California Department of Public Health’s Manufactured Cannabis Safety branch is one of three state licensing authorities charged with licensing and regulating commercial cannabis activity in California. As such, it is responsible for regulation of all commercial cannabis manufacturing in California.

“We strive to protect public health and safety by ensuring commercial cannabis manufacturers operate safe, sanitary workplaces and follow good manufacturing practices to produce products that are free of contaminants, meet product guidelines and are properly packaged an labeled,” says the Public Health Department’s website.

Department spokesman Ronald Owens said that the state’s Department of Public Health does not have historical data on instances of foodborne illnesses resulting from consuming marijuana edibles in his state.

Treat edibles like food
The CEO and founder of Icicle Technologies, which focuses on food safety, Steven Burton said that edible marijuana products are not all that different from other food products.

“There are many food safety hazards associated with cannabis production and distribution that could put the public at risk but are not yet adequately controlled,” he said.

He said the top four food-safety hazards for the cannabis industry are:

  • Aflatoxins on cannabis buds. As in any other agricultural product, improper growing conditions, handling, and storage can trigger mold growth.
  • Chemical residues on cannabis plants. These can be introduced at several points during production and storage.
  • Pathogenic contamination from pest infestations. This would include insects, rodents, birds and other pests that spread disease.
  • Pathogenic contamination due to improper employee handling. Burton said that employee training is key for any food facility.

Other food-safety experts also list E. coli, salmonella, listeria and norovirus  as “the usual culprits” when it comes to foodborne pathogens

Stuck said that she’s found that most food safety violations are usually due to people. That’s why she takes employee training so seriously.

“A lot of small business owners don’t know anything about food safety,” she said. “They were making brownies in their kitchen and growing pot in their basement. It’s a real struggle for them. And it’s confusing where to find information.”

To get up to speed as they get larger — and a lot of these places have become really large — they’ll hire a chef with experience in food safety. Stuck said she’s found that a lot of the young people going into the business are eager to learn.

“They really want to do things right,” she said. “They don’t want black marks on the industry. I feel that once they understand how much it affects their companies and people lives, they become committed to doing things right.”

Schutz of Sequoia Analytic Labs said that consumers should definitely care about food safety practices when it comes to legalized marijuana products.

“The fact you can unknowingly harm yourself is why you should care,” he said.

In Washington state, the state’s Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Program already regulates, inspects and provides technical assistance to food processors pertaining to safety issues. But now it will conduct similar activities with marijuana-infused edible processors. These activities include assessing facility construction, equipment, cleaning and sanitizing practices, allowable products and carrying out enforcement and recalls when necessary.

Spokesman Hector Castro said the agriculture department will also be involved in increasing outreach and education.

“Some businesses didn’t have a background in food production,” he said. “Some didn’t know about food-safety requirements. Yet they’re producing something that’s consumed by people.” Castro said it’s all about protecting the consumer: “Food safety is one of our responsibilities. Consumers expect it.”

Jeff  Kraus, owner of Smuggler Brothers in Sedro-Woolley, WA, said that even though he’s against overregulation, the agriculture department’s new role sounds reasonable.

“If a company is producing food, it should be regulated like any other food producer so people can be assured that what they’re buying is safe,” he said.

Time for a public outcry
“There should be a public outcry about this,” said Stuck, referring to health departments that have not implemented food safety regulations for edibles. 

“Why aren’t they out there regulating this? It’s food. It’s medicine. People are trusting that the government is protecting them. It’s unfair to the consumer. They should be able to trust that what they’re buying is safe.”

Icicle Technologies CEO Steve Burton agrees. “… the question of regulatory oversight has become a pressing issue,” he said.

Consumers who want to find out what’s happening in their counties and states should contact local health departments and ask if they conduct regular inspections at edible marijuana manufacturers’ locations.

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