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The state's first medical marijuana dispensary is expected to open in Salem later this month. But it may not have any actual dried marijuana for sale.
The main problem: lead.
"To date, every sample of cannabis that we have tested for heavy metals, particularly lead, would fail the existing regulations," said Chris Hudalla, the chief scientific officer at ProVerde Laboratories, one of two marijuana testing facilities in Massachusetts.
Hudalla says there is no question that elevated lead levels would be dangerous for patients. But he claims the state standard is too restrictive and unrealistic. It is based on the assumption that patients will ingest 1 ounce a day — much more than most patients would reasonably use.
The amount of lead allowed in Massachusetts (212 parts per billion) is nearly 14 times lower than Connecticut and almost 50 times lower than what’s permitted by Colorado.
"Lead is a naturally occurring element," he said, "and there's a significant difference between lead in the environment and contamination levels of lead."
Using the Massachusetts standard, some vegetables he bought at a local grocery store would fail also, Hudalla said.
"Potatoes that we tested had similar levels," he said. "We found it in a celery sample as well."
State rules on marijuana testing, written by the Department of Public Health (DPH), say plants that fail safety tests cannot be smoked or ingested in their raw form. But dispensaries can extract the medicinal compounds — the cannabinoids — and use those ingredients to make pills, oils and edible products, and dispensaries can sell those products as long as they pass safety tests.
Public health officials were asked to defend the marijuana lead standard, but declined to answer specific questions.
"The new administration continues to evaluate all aspects of the medical marijuana program, including testing protocols to address and ensure a balance of both patient safety and access," DPH spokesman Scott Zoback said.
Kevin Gilnack, executive director of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, says he believes DPH may soon address problems around making medical marijuana safe and available to the public.
"We appreciate that DPH has been proactive in seeking input from dispensaries, labs and other stakeholders to take a diligent approach to address the issue of testing," he said in a statement.
Labs are raising additional concerns about the state’s pesticide testing standard. The state currently publishes a list of banned pesticides, but what happens when dispensaries use something that’s not on the list?
The state should require tests for pesticides that each dispensary uses to see if pesticide is in the final product, according to Michael Kahn, president of MCR labs, another marijuana testing facility.
"A much better approach would be to have inspections to see whether they are using pesticides and if they are using pesticides, which ones," Kahn said.
Kahn is worried that problems with marijuana samples may not be reported accurately to the state. Under Massachusetts rules, the labs present their findings to dispensaries, and the state gets lab results from the dispensaries.
"It’s in [the dispensaries'] best interest perhaps to not convey what’s safe but to convey what is most profitable," Kahn said.
There is no indication that public health regulators plan to separate labs from dispensaries and make them independent entities. But there is a lot in flux as Massachusetts gets ready for commercial sale of marijuana for medical use.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated a comment from Hudalla on the state marijuana testing standard. We regret the error. We also added the specific amount of lead allowed in Massachusetts, which is 212 parts per billion. This post was last updated at 1:50 p.m.
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