Marijuana legalization raises safety questions

Marijuana may be coming out of the black market in Colorado and Washington state, but the drug, at least for now, will retain a decidedly underground feel: Users may not know what's in it.
Associated Press
Feb 13, 2013


Less than a year away from allowing pot sales, regulators are grappling with how to ensure that the nation's first legal marijuana industry will grow weed that delivers only the effects that pot smokers want.

Whether it is establishing rules to govern the growing of marijuana, including the use of pesticides and fungicides, or accurate product labeling, officials know they will be doing it alone.

Federal agencies that regulate food and drugs are staying out because pot remains illegal under federal law. That means the states are starting from scratch to protect consumers from pot that could be tainted by mold, mildew or unwanted chemicals.

Whatever regulatory scheme officials in the states choose, there is little reliable product history to even know where to begin identifying marijuana safety risks, said David Acheson, a food safety consultant.

When it was illegal, few users could come into the health department to complain that a stash of weed they bought was bad, said Acheson, a former assistant commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration.

"As it becomes legal, we could see many problems emerge. We just don't know," he said.

Medical marijuana product safety has long been a concern in Colorado. Critics say the regulations were too loosely lax, and that any new regulations for pot should be stringent, and rigorously enforced.

Colorado has one operational product testing facility for marijuana potency and content. Product testing is voluntary and paid for by interested pot consumers and sellers, not state regulators.

"I've seen stuff in grow houses — oh my God, you don't even want to know about," said Genifer Murray, the owner of CannLabs, a Denver lab that tests marijuana. She said she has seen cans of bug spray next to marijuana, plants covered with powdery mildew and lax sanitation.

"There's no other plant like this that you smoke and eat and use as medicine," Murray said. "Everybody's entitled to a safe and effective product, and right now it's completely hit and miss. What exactly are you buying?"

Colorado requires labels on edible pot, including an ingredient list and recommended expiration date. Potency and dosing, though, are currently left to the buyer to figure out. Labels read, "Levels of active components of medical marijuana reported on product labels are not subject to independent verification and may differ from actual levels."

The state has detailed production safety guidelines and a three-page list of pesticides and other chemicals that can't be used on marijuana, including arsenic and mercury. But in Colorado's three-year history regulating medical-marijuana production, the state has levied no enforcement actions for a safety or sanitary violation.

Colorado and Washington officials are considering going further when it comes to marijuana for sale to all adults, though neither has decided what to do. The states will first have to decide whether to treat marijuana like something that is smoked or something that is eaten.

Colorado currently copies tobacco pesticide regulations to apply to medical marijuana. But regulators rejected a proposal to certify "organic" pot grown without any pesticides, leaving consumers with no way to verify organic processing claims.

Other blank spots facing marijuana product safety:

— Sanitation. Marijuana is a crop difficult to insure, giving unscrupulous growers an incentive to hide moldy or otherwise foul pot rather than throw it away.

— Edible marijuana. There are no food-safety inspections on cannabis-infused food products. Some in the marijuana industry say the public is at risk from ingredients not related to pot, and that salmonella or E. coli outbreaks should be of concern.

— Workplace safety. Marijuana producers say the industry is overdue for worker-safety protections. Of special concern is the production of concentrated marijuana, or hashish, which is frequently produced using butane or other explosive solvents.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the nation's oldest marijuana-legalization advocacy group, says marijuana could be treated like alcohol or like an herbal supplement.

Federal law doesn't require rigorous testing of supplements to prove they are safe, or even that they work. NORML says pot should be treated like echinacea or vitamin C pills, with government product intervention only if consumers get sick or a safety issue comes to light.

"Look at lettuce. Look at cantaloupe. They're regulated a whole lot more than cannabis, but the reality is even with those regulations, you can still have outbreaks. That doesn't mean lettuce and cantaloupe themselves are dangerous," said Paul Armentano, a California-based deputy national director for NORML.

The group doesn't mind that federal agencies aren't helping. Noting that liquor regulations vary from state to state and even town to town, Armentano said a patchwork of marijuana safety regulations is likely.

Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Denver physician who helped write Colorado's medical marijuana safety regulations, said that the absence of federal oversight gives Colorado and Washington big jobs in pioneering consumer safety standards for marijuana.

"Anything that is going to be offered for sale to the public needs to have safety and health standards," Shackelford said. "Time will tell what those should be for marijuana."






Numerous states are relaxing the laws governing the growing of hemp. This was once an important commercial crop.

OH needs to get with it.

"Ditch weed" for everyone!


really? diggin' her? cuz I think you'd need alot of pot to be with that.


From the pic of her , with the slack jaw and vacant stare , it looks like she has been sampling the product ; ))))


IMO, looks more like an alcohol "fiend."

They probably oughta re-make "Reefer Madness" for a new generation.

BW1's picture

This is such a contradiction. They legalize it, rightfully, because it's none of the government's business what people put in their own bodies. OK, then, so where do those people get off expecting it to be the government's business determining the quality of what they choose to put in their own bodies.

Start a private organization/corporation that certifies that it's safely produced, and don't buy any that doesn't have their trademarked seal on it. The certifier charges a fee to inspect/test/oversee production, and if consumers don't have faith in the certifier, they get no business and go broke. It's a simple, market-based solution that doesn't require any government intervention other than enforcement of existing trademark and copyright laws.

All you stoners wanted the government to mind its own business, now let it do so.


if you want my tax dollars to help pay for a potheads healthcare then i think the gov't should have a say.

i heard cheech & chongs movie "up in smoke" is the official movie for the pothead movement. great flick!

BW1's picture

"if you want my tax dollars to help pay for a potheads healthcare"

That's a big IF, and one that isn't the case.

OhioFreebyrd's picture

No matter what is used on it or to grow it, it couldn't be any worse than all the pharmaceutical poisons the doctors prescribe for us. Marijuana laws are ridiculous.