Buyers beware: California marijuana sold Jan. 1 could be tainted
LOS ANGELES — That legal weed you'll be able to buy in California on New Year's Day may not be as green as it seems.
Any marijuana sold when recreational sales become legal Jan. 1 in the nation's most populous state will have been grown without regulatory controls that will eventually be in place. Pot could contain pesticides, molds and other contaminants.
"Buyer beware," cautioned Donald Land, a University of California, Davis, chemistry professor who is the chief scientific consultant at Steep Hill Labs Inc., which tests marijuana in several states.
Earlier this year, Land oversaw testing that found 93 percent of samples collected by KNBC-TV from 15 dispensaries in four Southern California counties tested positive for pesticides. That may come as a surprise for consumers who tend to trust what's on store shelves because of federal regulations by the U.S. Agriculture Department or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"Unfortunately, that's not true of cannabis," Land said. "They wrongly assume it's been tested for safety."
Stiffer regulations and testing requirements are being phased in next year, but growers and sellers have a six-month grace period to sell existing inventory grown under the loosely regulated medical marijuana program in place two decades.
With only a year to a develop a complex bureaucratic infrastructure of regulations, taxes and licensing for recreational marijuana, state officials recognized it wasn't realistic or fair to require inventory grown or manufactured under existing rules to suddenly meet testing standards.
Shops will have six months to sell the current crop of cannabis before their inventory has to pass tests. Any pot harvested or manufactured after Jan. 1, however, will be subject to testing for potency and contaminants with a high public health risk. Stricter limits will be phased in by the start of 2019.
Meanwhile, any pot that hasn't been tested will need to be labeled, said Alex Traverso, Bureau of Cannabis Control spokesman.
"That's one of the biggest reasons for regulation: to establish rules that protect public safety and improve the quality of the product," Traverso said. "When people see a sticker that says 'Not tested,' at least they know and they can choose whether they want to purchase that or not."
That means there will probably be a lot of labels required when everything from joints to cookies and oils go on sale. Land estimated that less than 5 percent of medical marijuana — the only pot legal to sell before 2018 — is now tested.
As the industry emerges from the shadows, growers, manufacturers, shops and related businesses have to navigate a maze of regulations that are still taking shape across state and local jurisdictions as sales are about to begin.
Juan Hidalgo, agricultural commissioner for Santa Cruz County, said pesticides are a top concern, and he wants to know what is being applied and whether workers on site are protected. Farmers who spray their own pesticides have to get a certificate from the commissioner that requires passing a test and taking refresher courses every three years.
"A lot of these folks, up until now, they haven't been aware of what those requirements are and the proper use of pesticides," Hidalgo said. "That's something we're hoping we can change in the coming weeks."
The incentive will be that entire crops or batches will have to be destroyed if unacceptable levels of contaminants are discovered.