Cannabis products are on the up. They are now available in some 29 states for medical and recreational use. It’s not just for smoking, either; many of these states have permitted the production and sale of edible cannabis products and concentrates. From cannabis0infused brownies to gummy bears and even in soft drinks, cannabis-laden products are becoming a thing. Marijuana is more available and widespread than ever. That raises an important question: is it safe to consume? And are there specific food safety concerns when it comes to cannabis products?
For the purposes of this article, we’ll be setting aside questions of whether cannabis itself is safe for the body and brain. That’s a question that’s been extensively litigated elsewhere, despite the limited availability of research money from the federal government into the health effects of cannabis consumption. As far as the feds are concerned, cannabis is still a schedule one drug with no legitimate medical application.
Food Safety and Cannabis
We’ll be focusing on another, less studied question: whether consumption of cannabis products can expose you to pathogens, pesticides, or harmful toxins. Because the federal government doesn’t recognize cannabis as legitimate, the production of cannabis products for smoking or eating isn’t regulated by the Food and Drug Agency. That means that the national regulatory framework which would otherwise apply to food or medicine isn’t in place for cannabis. Producers aren’t bound by strictures set out in legislation like the Food Safety Modernization Act. If federal agents come knocking on the door, they aren’t going be regulators – usually, they’re from the Drug Enforcement Agency, and they’re there to shut the business down wholesale. Businesses that escape federal scrutiny thus enjoy a degree of liberty that’s unique amongst the landscape of those enterprises responsible for our food and medicine.
Instead of federal regulations, cannabis businesses are subject to a patchwork of rules that varies from state to state. The rules that they’re required to follow are usually set out in the legislation by which recreational or medical cannabis use was legalized by that particular state. Individual states have their own particular rules about how cannabis can be produced, processed, packaged, labeled, and sold, so there’s a fair amount of variation nationwide. If you’re interested in buying cannabis products in such a state, it’s probably a good idea to get on Google and look up the relevant bit of legislation.
There’s even variation in how cannabis products are regulated at the state level. Whether or not producers of cannabis products are scrutinized by the local health department depends on the county in question. Some require such businesses to abide by the same rules as other businesses; others, faced with limited resources and personnel, have opted to let cannabis businesses slide for the time being. For the most part, local health departments have chosen to pass on cannabis regulation for the time being, which means that in more cases than not you’re on your own.
Given that the regulatory framework for the safety of cannabis products is subject to broad variation, what particular pathogens or toxins might be of concern? For cannabis edibles, you’ll want to watch out for the same foodborne pathogens as ever: salmonella, E. coli, and listeria all stand a chance of making their way onto or into these products. Bigger cannabis businesses might be a bit safer than mom and pop stores; big operations need more employees, and if they’re producing baked goods on an industrial scale, they’ll often pick up food industry veterans to help manage their operation. These employees bring along their experience with food safety from previous jobs and may exert informal influence to conform the practices of their place of work with the rules that they were previously required to follow. Smaller businesses are less likely to have the resources or need to bring on such industry veterans, and may be stretched thin to the point where concern for safe food preparation falls through the cracks.
Pesticides are a major concern with cannabis. Growers aren’t always subject to the scrutiny or regulatory frameworks which apply to farmers whose business is recognized as legitimate by the federal government. That means that the type, amount, and frequency of pesticide application for cannabis might stray past safe limits for human consumption. Cannabis concentrates such as wax or oil are often prepared with powerful solvents. If there are a lot of pesticides present, those solvents will concentrate them in the same way that they do the psychoactive parts of the plant. Over the long term, accumulation of pesticides in the human body can lead to a whole host of negative health outcomes.
The same concern applies for mold. Mold produces dangerous mycotoxins, which can cause serious illness or (in rare cases) death. Mycotoxins can linger on a plant even after the mold itself has been removed. Like pesticides, they can be concentrated by the solvents used in the preparation of oil or wax.
In an article on this topic by our friends at Food Safety Magazine, the concern for food testing was mentioned. According to the author, Betty Wedman-St Louis, Ph.D, “Another consideration in the production of cannabis edibles is the appropriate testing for biocontaminants and pathogens. Infused edible products must indicate on the label that they have been tested for pesticides, heavy metals, mold, and residual solvents. No public safety guidelines or U.S. Food and Drug Administration label requirements exist, yet people with chronic medical conditions—cancer, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, Multiple sclerosis—want to use these products for pain and symptom management.”
If You Wish to Partake, Proceed with Caution
Finally, if you’re looking to consume edibles, exercise caution with regards to the amount that you consume. A single brownie rarely matches up to a single serving of cannabis. If you’re inexperienced, it can be easy to consume more than you intended, which can make for a unpleasant experience. Aim to purchase a product with clear dosing information on the label and speak to the employees at the dispensary to make sure that you don’t end up eating more than you should.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)