PHOENIX, AZ (3TV/CBS5) -- Some marijuana dispensary owners say they would welcome more oversight from the state after an audit found state regulators aren’t conducting food safety inspections of so-called “infusion kitchens” where cannabis edibles are made.
The lack of inspections puts the nearly 200,000 cardholders in Arizona at greater risk of foodborne illnesses, according to the Arizona Auditor General’s Office.
“Because the Department does not conduct ongoing food safety inspections of infusion kitchens, there is a risk that qualifying patients, which include vulnerable populations, are purchasing and consuming food products without adequate oversight to prevent foodborne illnesses,” the Auditor General’s Office wrote.
Auditors also found deficiencies in the way regulators investigated complaints against dispensaries and said the Arizona Department Health Services misallocated nearly $1 million in state funds, a finding the department disputed.
However, ADHS acknowledged its inspectors do not conduct food safety inspections at infusion kitchens for issues like sanitation and food storage, citing restrictions in the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.
“Since the initiation of the program, ADHS has worked directly with the Attorney Generals’ office to ensure compliance with all laws related to the AMMA and cannot risk violating state law by going against the advice of our legal experts,” said ADHS spokesman Chris Minnick.
The act allows regulators to do scheduled inspections, but not unscheduled visits that are commonplace throughout the food industry.
The audit found that when inspectors showed up for an announced visit, dispensaries often closed the kitchen.
Even though infusion kitchens are separately licensed, they are all connected to a dispensary, forcing regulators to adhere to the requirement to provide notice, Minnick said.
“The Department is not aware of any cases or outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with products containing medical marijuana or extracts,” he said.
At Mint Café, an infusion kitchen in Tempe billed as the first in the country to serve hot food like pizza with cannabis, owner Raul Molina said he would welcome restaurant-style inspections.
“The marijuana industry not only has to adhere to regulations of a normal industry, we should be held to a higher standard,” Molina said.
The café’s entire kitchen is visible to customers through a glass wall in the dispensary’s showroom, a move designed to assure patients the kitchen meets rigorous standards.
“We wanted to be transparent,” said Molina. “We did the glass area so that you can view inside, so you can take a look at how we're creating the products you're consuming.”
Peggy Noonan of Copia Edibles in Tucson said she keeps her kitchen running at high health department standards regardless of the lack of state inspections. “It would be good for the state to inspect facilities as any commercial kitchen,” she said via e-mail.
Only one county health department in Arizona conducts food safety inspections of edibles in infusion kitchens at a local level. Coconino County passed an ordinance to license infusion kitchens as food establishments, and county employees perform regular inspections of the two licensed facilities there, the audit found.
“Coconino County officials found that some food products were not appropriately refrigerated or tested for pathogens and worked with a dispensary to issue a voluntary recall of edible food products in January 2017, including marinara sauce, mustard, and ketchup,” according to the audit.
Although the audit highlighted Coconino County as a successful model, it noted that ADHS “has not developed a formal delegation agreement with Coconino County to perform food safety inspections of infusion kitchens.”
The audit flagged $962,000 in transactions from the medical marijuana fund that benefited other ADHS programs, at least in part, which auditors classified as a misallocation of funds. By law, AMMA funds must benefit the medical marijuana program.
“ADHS is confident that all Medical Marijuana funds were spent in an allowable manner,” wrote Minnick. “While some expenditures may have benefited other programs in addition to the Medical Marijuana program, the Department sees this as an advantage that also improves public health capacity for the citizens of Arizona.”