Without Proper Testing and Training It Could Be

By David Hodes for Dope Magazine

“Some of the information on the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) website is 30 or 40 years old,. I don’t know about your health policy, but I prefer mine to be based on policy that is younger than me.” - Jahan Marcu

Check it out: Nearly a million dollars worth of Canadian cannabis was confiscated and destroyed when people using it to treat their medical conditions started getting sick, due to a fungicide that produced cyanide when the cannabis was burned.

A California cancer patient with a failing immune system died from a fungal lung infection first thought to be a hospital-acquired infection, and is now suspected to be from the patient’s use of medical marijuana.

A study by researchers at the University of California-Davis, including the doctor of the cancer patient who died, concluded that “the potential infectious risks of marijuana obtained from dispensaries has not been systematically evaluated,” and that it “unduly places patients unknowingly at risk for acquisition of severe infection.”

In December of last year, about a quarter of the 263 concentrates entrants for the 2016 Emerald Cup were disqualified for pesticides when the lab testing them reanalyzed the samples with more advanced testing equipment.

According to Kristin Nevedal, the director of the patient focused certification (PFC) program working with Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the time has come for better and more comprehensive training (or retraining) of cultivators and dispensary owners about safety protocols for cannabis cultivation and post harvesting.

The protocols presented in the ASA certification program are derived from the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA). “We looked at the protocols for other similar herbal products and cannabized them for this industry,” explains Nevedal.

Using those protocols for product safety, which involves monitoring and record keeping, will take some retraining in the industry, as cannabis farmers are still hesitant to keep records of what they grow and how they grow it.

Before legalization, those records could have been used against them in a court of law. “They don’t come from a traditional farming background,” Nevedal says. “We have to teach these folks how to make a safe product, how to ensure that they aren’t cross-contaminating any other products, and how to treat this like a medicine. We have to really change the mindset.”

Labs testing cannabis are discovering that bugs, pesticides, molds and other toxins introduced in the cultivation and processing of the plant are more commonplace than expected –which is particularly relevant, given that medical marijuana is often used by patients with compromised immune systems, such as those undergoing chemotherapy.

The cure? Better training for dispensary owners, budtenders, cultivators and anyone handling or prescribing the plant in regards to not just growing the plant, but running the business side of producing and distributing the plant.

The ASA PFC training regime teaches the National Cannabis Standards, which are core industry standards, state laws and regulations, and product safety protocols developed by the AHPA from 2010-2013 through the organization’s Cannabis Committee Cultivation Working Group.

PFC is the nation’s only certified program teaching the AHPA guidelines and the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia cannabis monograph. The monograph ensures the identity, quality, purity and potency of cannabis, as well as provides product safety by identifying safe levels of pesticides, metals and microbial limits.

PFC was recently awarded a contract with the state of Maryland to train all compliance inspectors for the state’s medical cannabis programs, and hosts in-person dispensary staff trainings every week in their D.C. headquarters.

The ASA recently completed a training session in February in Philadelphia for Pennsylvania medical cannabis cultivators and dispensary owners. Sales for medical marijuana are expected to begin in Pennsylvania in mid-2018, and are currently limited to pills, oils or ointments.

According to Jahan Marcu, the chief scientific officer of the ASA who runs the training, some dispensary owners are surprised that a training course about handling and selling cannabis takes more than a few hours. “But it’s much like you were in a boat, and you looked at an iceberg and said ‘Nah, it’s not so big,’” he says. “I think because of the politics and certain uneducated beliefs and fears, people have a prejudice that there is nothing there, that understanding cannabis should be simple. But the fact is that it’s a challenge for pharmacologists to study it, and it’s a challenge for quality control.”

He says that, because this industry is not as big as the pharmaceutical industry, it’s time to more effectively lobby and have the ability to self protect become part of the cannabis industry. “It’s time to get serious about training and education,” he said, noting that one study by ASA showed that 80 percent of current industry training does not include medical or scientific information. “The survey also found that half of the dispensary staff are making recommendations to medical marijuana patients that exacerbate their condition, and increase the risk of liability of an organization.”

The general public and regulators may think cannabis is simple due to the fact that they’re getting their information from federal agencies, which don’t have the most accurate information about cannabis. “Some of the information on the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) website is 30 or 40 years old,” Marcu said. “I don’t know about your health policy, but I prefer mine to be based on policy that is younger than me.”

The ASA filed and recently won a legal request with the Department of Justice against the DEA to remove certain myths about cannabis from the DEA website – that it is a gateway drug, that it causes irreversible cognitive decline in adults, and contributes to psychosis and lung cancer.

The ASA’s training is designed to get ahead of the FDA, when they eventually begin to accept the plant as a medicine. With certification training, businesses can show the FDA there is a structure for product safety protocols that essentially mirrors safety protocols for other types of botanicals that the FDA has already approved.

“To me it’s not really a time of celebration in the industry,” Marcu said. “It’s time to get serious about training and education, because the next round of federal intervention is going to be different. They used to just kick in the door and raid people. Now they will be looking to see if you are a public health threat. And the key to preventing that is training.”