Man inspecting small cannabis bud
Quality & assurance: the cannabis industry still has a lot of catching up to do.

Cannabis can be contaminated with all sorts of nasty things – not always visible to the naked eye. Pesticides, bacteria, fungus, dirt, insect eggs, insect fecal matter. It’s not like you can wash your buds off in the sink.

Certain contaminants can have serious implications for human health, especially for people with compromised immune systems.

That fact was unfortunately displayed recently when a cancer patient in California died while undergoing treatment.

Doctors and at least one very reputable cannabis lab have determined that the death was caused by a fungal infection after the patient consumed tainted cannabis.

UC Davis Medical Center teams up with top cannabis lab to investigate patient death

The University of California, Davis Cancer Center treats a lot of patients. Recently the Center was treating cancer patients who were undergoing very intense chemotherapy and a stem cell therapy.

All patients had immune systems that were 'very compromised' according to doctors. One of those patients passed away during treatment, which was a very unfortunate thing, something which can't be stated enough.

While investigating what happened, it was determined that the patient died from a rare fungal infection. After ruling out everything else, doctors suspected that medical cannabis may be to blame.

The patient had been consuming medical cannabis and doctors wanted to know exactly what was in it. 

A very reputable cannabis testing laboratory was brought in: Steep Hill Labs, considered by many to be the best cannabis testing laboratory in the country.

What they found was alarming.

Contaminated cannabis is a problem in California

According to Steep Hill Labs, 20-30% of the cannabis they see is contaminated by a fungus or mold. I have toured several reputable labs on the West Coast and in Colorado, and that statistic is not uncommon.

Some people may be alarmed by such a high percentage, but that is the purpose of lab testing cannabis, to identify such contaminates and prevent them from coming on the market.

What should be alarming to all of us, is what Steep Hill Labs found when they compiled samples of cannabis from dispensaries around California after the UC Davis investigation.

"We were a little bit startled that 90% of those samples had something on them, some DNA of some pathogen." said Dr. Donald Land PhD, Steep Hill Labs, in the news report.

To be fair, the analysis did not indicate whether or not the fungus that contributed to the patient’s death was present in the samples, nor did Steep Hill Labs state whether or not their own testing would have identified the fungus that contributed to the patient’s death.

But the analysis does highlight the clear need for cannabis testing that comes with a regulated industry, as well as the deficiencies of current lab testing requirements.

Not all cannabis testing laboratories are created equal

For many years, cannabis consumers had no idea what they were consuming. Sure, they knew it was cannabis, but even things as basic as THC level were completely unknown to cannabis consumers.

That all changed as cannabis testing facilities started popping up on the West Coast in the 2000's.

The first wave of testing labs was not created out of a regulatory requirement, but out of a free market demand from producers, retailers, and consumers who wanted to know exactly what they were consuming.

But almost all of that demand focused on potency, with contaminants being an afterthought. Even now, things like heavy metals aren't even on the radar of most labs and consumers.

When most people go into a dispensary, they are assuming that everything is contaminant-free and place most of their focus on how much THC and/or CBD is in the cannabis product. 'What is your highest THC flower?' is arguably the most commonly asked question that budtenders receive at West Coast dispensaries.

The buying preferences of consumers are largely driving retailers and producers to 'lab shop,' taking samples from the same harvest to multiple laboratories and only using the most preferred results.

This 'potency first, everything else second' mindset is not good for the industry, or consumers. Cannabis shouldn't be simply tested for the sake of testing – it needs to be tested to ensure that it is 100% safe.

Testing is not easy to regulate, research needed

It shouldn't take a cancer patient dying from tainted cannabis to bring about action, both in the area of testing as well as research.

One thing that doctors at UC Davis were very adamant about when investigating the recent, unfortunate death was the need for more research.

The doctors expressed frustration about the lack of research on hand for the particular fungus found in the tainted cannabis, and how it interacts with particular health conditions.

My home state, Oregon, is experiencing some serious growing pains when it comes to testing requirements. Testing is going to be a requirement of every state going forward that reforms its cannabis laws, but what those testing requirements should be is hard to pin down because the science involved is so complex.

Cannabis opponents will no doubt try to use this recent tragedy to try to push prohibition, which if so, would be a very sad thing. The recent tragedy is not a reason for prohibition – it highlights the need for regulation.

Current cannabis testing in California may not be perfect, but it's far, far better than what occurs in the unregulated market, which is no testing at all.

Responsible members of the cannabis industry, and responsible cannabis consumers want the cleanest, healthiest cannabis possible. None of us want to see someone harmed by cannabis in any way.

If you are a cannabis consumer, just as you should become familiar with the strains of cannabis you are consuming, so too should you become familiar with testing laboratories in your area and research which ones are doing it right!

If you have any interest in learning more about lab testing (this especially goes for cannabis businesses), please take the time to watch something like the Cannabis Science Conference – a resource where you can educated on the many aspects of quality cannabis lab testing and screening for contaminants.

If we want to avoid any further tragic reports about contaminated medicine, education is a must.

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