What’s in your weed? Sales up, safety testing down

Updated: Mar. 7, 2021 at 12:39 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- For people purchasing marijuana products from a dispensary, it would be reasonable to expect products to be free of harmful chemicals and pesticides. That is an assumption people in Arizona should not make.

With the legalization of recreational marijuana, edibles, gummies, creams, flowers, vapes, tinctures, and other marijuana products are exploding in popularity.

In 2017, Arizona’s Family exposed moldy medical marijuana being sold by dispensaries. Following those investigations, Arizona went from one of the only states with no requirements for testing marijuana to enacting some of the strictest safety standards in the country. There are now growing concerns and evidence those new testing rules are not being followed. Testing requirements kicked in less than three months before recreational sales began at the end of January.

Under SB1494, as of November 2020, dispensaries have to test for “unsafe levels of microbial contamination, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators and residual solvents and confirm the potency of the marijuana to be dispensed.”

Myclobutanil is included in the required testing. Myclobutanil is found in Eagle 20; a pesticide used to prevent pests, mold, and fungus. When heated during smoking or vaping, myclobutanil becomes hydrogen cyanide, an extraordinarily toxic compound used in the death chamber for capital punishment.

Sales up, testing down

Laboratories, certified by the state, spent millions adding employees and upgrading machines, expecting a surge in testing associated with increasing demand. That correlation did not happen.

Investigative reporter Kris Pickel reached out to the six labs listed on the Arizona Department of Health Services website certified to do a wide range of safety testing. Three labs reported testing is down 65% to 95%. A fourth lab reported testing was flat, and the remaining two labs did not respond.

According to the CEO of C4 Laboratories, Ryan Treacy, instead of ordering full safety panels, some vendors, who sell products to dispensaries, are only testing for potency. At C4, testing has fallen from 200 samples a week in November to less than 80 samples a week in February.

Marijuana-infused creams
Marijuana-infused creams(Arizona's Family)

The owner of Pure Labs, Barb Dow, believes vendors and dispensaries are unhappy with products not passing the safety tests.

“I used to think it was about money that dispensaries and cultivators didn’t want to pay for the testing, but I think it’s more about test results. I think the issue is that people don’t like their test results. They don’t like failing,” says Dow.

The CEO of Harvest House of Cannabis, one of the largest dispensaries in Arizona with multiple locations, disputes claims that testing is down. Steve White says dispensaries are choosing to use certain labs over others due to what he calls long delays in getting back results, up to 12 weeks, and “inconsistent results.”

The owners of C4 Laboratories, Pure Labs, and Level One Lab admit results were delayed when mandatory testing began in November. They blame a “tidal wave” of testing that happened due to vendors and dispensaries waiting until the last moment to get their products tested. They also say the return time for results continues to improve.

Treacy believes between the frustrations over long wait times for results, and the high failure rate of products, 20% at his lab, dispensaries decided to simply stop ordering safety tests. The lab founder points out the products they test are used for recreational purposes and by people with medical conditions.

“If we don’t make sure it’s free from harmful contaminants, we don’t know what it will lead to, and we can’t claim ignorance 10 years down the road when people are starting to see the impact on their health,” says Treacy.

Undercover investigation: Where are test results?

In Arizona, dispensaries are required to provide the results of safety testing if they are requested. During an undercover investigation at one of the Harvest dispensaries, an employee seemed confused when asked if there were any reports to show there were no pesticides in the products.

Redacted certificate of analysis on marijuana safety testing
Redacted certificate of analysis on marijuana safety testing(Arizona's Family)

After leaving to talk to a manager, the employee returned to say any products with pesticides are destroyed but confirmed they did not have any test results.

A very different scene at BEST Dispensary in Mesa. Owner Susan Hwang was able to produce lab reports for every product Pickel picked out at random throughout the dispensary. Hwang says she refuses products all the time from vendors who do not have lab results. When a product does have test results, Hwang says she confirms with the lab the results are authentic.

Enforcement ... or lack of?

Enforcement appears to be an issue in Arizona. The dispensaries or vendors order the test results. Results are returned to them, but copies are not sent to the Arizona Department of Health Services, which is in charge of enforcement. Results are supposed to be kept by dispensaries for inspections by the state. Despite repeated requests, AZDHS has declined to be interviewed or provide a statement on what type of enforcement is being done or if any dispensaries have faced fines.

In a House Health & Human Services Meeting in February, Dow spoke out about efforts by dispensaries to be allowed to do their own testing and a lack of DHS enforcement. The lab owner is not alone in her belief that untested marijuana products and products that failed testing are being sold by some dispensaries.

“There are people who will fail and get their certificate of analysis and think DHS will never catch up. It will be sold out before they (DHS) come in and figure out where is the remediated marijuana,” says Dow.

During the meeting, lawmakers compared efforts by dispensaries to do their own testing to “the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Consumers can take charge

Arizona’s cannabis industry is on an upward trajectory. Experts expected it to grow into a $4 billion industry. With that popularity, there will be players who don’t follow the rules, but consumers can take steps to ensure their cannabis products have been tested.

Kris Pickel went undercover to ask for safety testing results at a Phoenix area dispensary.
Kris Pickel went undercover to ask for safety testing results at a Phoenix area dispensary.(Arizona's Family)

When purchasing any product, simply ask to see lab results for the product. The good news is, no one has to be a scientist to understand the results.

Each section, from pesticides to microbials and heavy metals to solvents, is labeled with a pass or fail. If the dispensary can’t give you the results, there is no proof the product has been tested.