Marijuana is going mainstream: Totally legal in Colorado and Washington; medicinally legal in Connecticut, 19 other states and the District of Columbia. But is it mainstream safe?
Connecticut's new medical pot law requires state-licensed growers to pay to have their marijuana tested for contamination by independent labs here in the state. And a researcher at the University of New Haven is working on new methods of DNA analysis to check for dangerous stuff like molds and bacteria.
The cost of testing by private laboratories for molds and bacteria is certain to be factored in to the price for medical pot. There is one highly respected, publically financed lab that already does safety testing for food and alcohol in Connecticut, but the scientists who run it say they're scared to even try testing pot.
The reason involves the continuing contradictions between state and federal marijuana policies.
Connecticut has legalized medical marijuana. The feds still consider it an illegal drug. And the folks at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station lab in New Haven say getting involved in testing pot could put at risk hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants their agency now gets every year.
The CAES already has the sort of machines needed to do pot testing. The problem is that equipment was paid for with money from the federal Food and Drug Administration, and the worry is the FDA types might take umbrage if that equipment were used to test something still illegal under federal law.
"Given the fed's different view on medical marijuana, I'd be very nervous about using the FDA's equipment," says Jason White, the station's chief scientist in charge of analytical chemistry. White says the station simply can't risk losing the approximately $700,000 a year it receives from the FDA.
Theodore Andreadis, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, says becoming a marijuana testing facility just doesn't seem feasible. "We could do the chemical testing," he says, "but we would require additional equipment and personnel... and we'd need a new isolated laboratory facility."
Just the new equipment alone would cost an estimated $600,000, money this cash-strapped state almost certainly wouldn't want to spend.
Andreadis isn't sure there's any single independent lab in Connecticut that now has the federal certification required to handle a controlled substance like cannabis, an isolated facility for testing, and the capability to do all the tests the state is requiring under its medical marijuana program.
The official in charge of Connecticut's new medical marijuana program is William Rubenstein, commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection. He is very confident there are private Connecticut labs willing to make the investments and get the certifications needed to get into what could be a very lucrative pot-testing field.
"We haven't experienced any concerns from either applicants [for marijuana growing licenses] or laboratories," the commissioner says.
Rubenstein says Connecticut licenses for pot producers are expected to be issued this month, and that those growers are required to "be up and running within six months." Rubenstein insists there are plenty of qualified labs in this state that could do the testing.
Making sure legal marijuana is consumer safe is big right now simply because the U.S. marijuana industry is getting huge. One recent estimate (from the "State of Legal Marijuana Markets") has pot sales hitting $2.34 billion in 2014, a 63-percent increase over last year.
This "safety" questions isn't about addiction or "gateway" drugs — many experts consider legal alcohol far more dangerous. What officials in Connecticut and other medical marijuana states are worried about are pot contaminants: nasty bacteria like e coli, potentially toxic molds such as "alternaria," and pesticides.
Connecticut regulators are demanding extensive laboratory analysis for a host of different potential chemical and biological pollutants before any medical pot can be handed out in this state. Medical marijuana patients, who may already be suffering from damaged immune systems (think HIV/AIDS and cancer), could be in serious trouble from contaminated pot.
"I think a lot of people want it legalized... because they don't want to be buying illegal material from some shady character on the street," says Heather Miller Coyle, a University of New Haven researcher studying marijuana DNA and cannabis contaminants. "They want something safe and certified."
Coyle and her UNH colleagues have been developing a marijuana DNA database since 2008 using a federal grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The original idea was to help law enforcement trace where confiscated grass came from and to link shipments to specific growers or cartels.
When that project came to an end last year, discussions turned to creating new, easier and more efficient ways of detecting potentially harmful chemicals, molds and bacteria that can show up on marijuana.
"We can usually see mold growing on marijuana sent to us by the Drug Enforcement Administration," says Coyle, a forensic botanist and an associate professor at UNH.
So Coyle is now working to improve methods of detecting and identifying those kinds of contaminants. Labs around the U.S. have been using the same methods and equipment for cannabis that have been used for years to test food and alcohol products.
Experts aren't exactly sure just how dangerous some of these bacteria, molds and other pollutants found on marijuana may be to consumers. There are some studies indicating smoking grass containing pesticides could be a serious hazard, but Coyle says "what happens to pesticides when you smoke them isn't exactly clear."
Statistical gurus at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration looked at records for the 1997-2005 period and came up with no cases where marijuana was listed as the primary cause of death. There were 279 fatalities during those years where pot was considered a "secondary suspected cause" of death, according to an Associated Press report.
Coyle's research is aimed in part at developing DNA profiles of key potential contaminants, like the mold alternaria. That information could then be linked to the marijuana DNA database, showing which strains are at risk for having what sort of pollutants.
This type of information system could also show whether the pot in question is really marijuana or something else (like herbs) that's been treated with THC, the component in pot that produces the marijuana high.
Coyle says allergic molds like alternaria can exist and thrive both outside and at indoor grow facilities, like the ones being designed here in Connecticut to produce medical marijuana.
Part of the difficulty in creating such a database for molds and bacteria is that "there are tons of them out there," says Coyle.
The alternaria fungus is actually composed of 40 to 50 different species, according to experts at Mold & Bacteria Consulting Laboratories in Canada. This type of mold can be particularly risky or even fatal for people with bronchial asthma and "immunocompromised patients such as bone marrow transplant patients."
Coyle says UNH isn't planning to try and patent its new procedures or set up its own marijuana testing facility. "It's very tempting, but as a private university we don't have the facilities to run a large-scale testing program," she explains.
The idea is to make any new databases or testing procedures available for free through the National Institutes of Health, according to Coyle. That way any testing lab could take advantage of the research.
That's good news for all those Connecticut medical marijuana patients who are waiting to find out exactly when they can finally buy some clean, safe and certified pot.