Within seconds, the Weedmaps app finds a user's nearest dispensaries for medical marijuana. It is a remarkable change for anyone who remembers when pot distribution was once handled primarily through clandestine exchanges and pager numbers. Today, it is now legally sold at more than 2,400 dispensaries in 16 states. For thousands of people around the country, cannabis is an alternative, natural medical treatment for the symptoms of many illnesses, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Last week, U.S. Reps Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) introduced a bill in Congress that would remove the federal prohibition on marijuana and let states produce, regulate and tax it. It is potentially a watershed moment for the medical marijuana movement, though it's unclear how much legislative traction the bill will achieve. However, it shifts the debate from a moral to an economic one, and raises a number of consumer safety issues.
Who Is In Charge of Quality Assurance?
Medical marijuana, of which there are dozens of varieties and potencies, is not regulated by any central authority, such as the Food and Drug Administration or the USDA. Consumer safety issues are almost entirely dealt with within the industry, and efforts are driven in large part by pioneers of the medical marijuana movement along with consumers. The Weedmaps app, for example, has a whistle-blowing thread in the community forum so that users can share information about vendors whose product doesn't meet quality standards.
Industry leaders argue that some kind of standardization or quality control is essential to the long-term success of marijuana as a medical treatment. "If you are going to sell medicine, then you need something more than 'Here is a jar with some dried vegetable matter,' " says Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
In California and Colorado, a cottage industry of testing labs has sprung up alongside high-end marijuana medical centers, like the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif., which has rigorous product testing for the medical products it sells, including dried herbs, tinctures, sprays, medibles and sublingual drops.
For now, it is unclear whether marijuana will be treated like traditional pharmaceuticals when it comes to quality control, or if it will fall under agricultural regulations like tobacco. The tobacco industry has been largely self-regulated and only last year was ordered to submit its products to the FDA for testing and labeling. Under current laws, marijuana is dispensed in the state where it is grown, leading to a wide range of gardening and processing practices.
Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Harborside and a longtime cannabis activist, says the Frank-Paul bill is crucial for the industry. Without it, he worries that "all the people who come now [to dispensaries] will be forced into the illegal market." DeAngelo proposes that consumer oversight for the plant take shape like nutrition and supplement regulations, in a new category called cannaceuticals.
Consumer Safety Issues
For medical users, the plant's cannabinoids provide medicinal properties. The two main compounds of interest include THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which produces a stronger head high or "spacy" feeling, and CBD (cannabidiol), which produces a stronger physical sensation. Labs and dispensaries can use chromatography to measure cannabinoid levels, and other inspection techniques to check for yeasts, molds and fungi.
Differing levels of cannabinoids change how the drug works, and patients will have different needs. For example, a user undergoing chemotherapy might look for marijuana with low THC and higher CBD levels that provides the physical relief, but also allows them to keep a clear enough head to work.
While up-market dispensaries and testing labs provide analysis of cannabinoid levels, the burden falls to consumers and individual operators to make that information transparent. The lack of transparency is especially worrisome when it comes to other contaminants that can be picked up along the supply chain, from pesticides to bacteria and microorganisms. A mold called aspergillus, most commonly found on crops grown indoors, is especially dangerous for those with weakened immune systems, such as people with cancer or HIV-related illnesses.
John Oram, co-founder of cannabis testing lab CW Analytical in California, says between 5% and 10% of the marijuana his lab tests is contaminated. Oram's lab looks at approximately 150 samples a week, and each sample is taken from a pound or two batch of marijuana. DeAngelo says Harborside only accepts 10% of the marijuana presented to the dispensary, and all of that is tested. Of that, only 1% to 2% is found to be unsafe.
Coming Soon: Brand-Name Marijuana
California's Mendocino County, where the rugged, mixed-climate terrain is ideal for growing marijuana outdoors, is one of the top pot producing regions in the country (along with its neighbor Humboldt County). It is also the only county to have standardized oversight for quality on the supply side. That is a fact that Matt Cohen is trying to leverage into a label.
Cohen is the co-founder of MendoGrown, which he says will be a gold standard for medical marijuana. The certification will assure quality and supply chain, that the pot has been grown by and processed by licensed producers, and that environmental and worker protection measures are in place. By this fall, Cohen says MendoGrown-certified marijuana will be on the market in California.
"We are trying to brand our county as the Napa of cannabis, and we are setting the bar very high," he says.
What to Look for in Your Medical Marijuana
For now, medical marijuana users have to rely on dispensary guidelines and each other for information about the product. Here are a few questions for medical marijuana users to ask their providers:
1. Do you know where the pot is coming from? "Ask if your dispensary is getting it from a regulated source, not some kid's basement," Cohen says. He says it is important for dispensaries to have solid relationships with growers. Harborside's DeAngelo also says getting more information about the garden is important to know what kind of horticultural practices were used.
2. Has the medical marijuana been lab tested? Working with your physician and other client referrals, medical marijuana users can get a better understanding of what products would work best for their condition. Looking at the lab results for different varieties reveals the levels of THC and CBD.
3. Where and how is the product packaged? Like other medicines, marijuana should be packaged and handled in a sterile environment to avoid contamination, says DeAngelo. He advises buyers to look for prepackaged and sealed products and avoid dispensaries that package in front of you from a bin.