Attorney general to end lenient enforcement of federal marijuana laws, days after new legalization measure took effect in California
The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is rescinding an Obama-era policy that paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states across the country, creating new confusion about enforcement and use just three days after a new legalization law went into effect in California.
Instead of the previous policy of lenient federal enforcement begun under former attorney general Eric Holder in 2013, Sessions new stance will instead let federal prosecutors where marijuana is legal decide how aggressively to enforce longstanding federal law prohibiting it. Guidance issued on Thursday depicted the change as a return to the rule of law.
It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission, Sessions said in a statement.
Sessions plan drew immediate strong objection from the Republican senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Gardner said in a tweet that the justice department has trampled on the will of the voters in Colorado and other states. He said the action would contradict what Sessions had told him before the attorney general was confirmed and that he was prepared to take all steps necessary to fight the step including holding up the confirmation of justice department nominees.
The move by Trumps attorney general is sure to add to confusion about whether its OK to grow, buy or use marijuana in states where the drug is legal. It comes just after shops opened in California, launching what is expected to become the worlds largest market for legal recreational marijuana.
This instability will only push consumer dollars away from these state-sanctioned businesses and back into the hands of criminal elements. With nearly two-thirds of Americans, including an outright majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents supporting marijuana legalization, this is not just bad policy, but awful politics and the Trump administration should brace itself for the public backlash it will no doubt generate, said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Altieri also noted that the announcement throws the jobs of more than 150,000 Americans employed in the budding legal marijuana industry into limbo.
For politicians who purport to believe in small government and states rights, this is a wildly incongruous move, said Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director at the American Civil Liberties Union.
While Sessions has been mostly been carrying out a justice department agenda that follows Trumps top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, the changes to marijuana policy reflect his own long-held concerns. Trumps personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown.
Dont panic, legalization advocates say: Jeff Sessions anti-marijuana policy will have little practical impact and may even hasten the formal end of prohibition
Now that the dust has settled around attorney general Jeff Sessions promise of harsher federal marijuana enforcement, advocates of legalization have largely exchanged their initial disappointment over the move for one of long-term optimism.
I think there was a knee-jerk reaction of something approaching panic, but once everyone calmed down, theyve come to realize that practically this is going to have little impact, said Patrick Moen, a former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent who now works as council to an investment firm in the nascent legal marijuana industry.
Some, like Moen, even believe the decision could be the best thing for the growing marijuana movement, hastening the formal end of weed prohibition in the US.
There will probably a short term chilling effect, but this could ultimately be the best thing thats ever happened to accelerate the pace of change, Moen said.
The markets have reflected this somewhat counterintuitive sentiment. The United States Marijuana Index, which tracks 15 leading publicly traded legal marijuana-related companies, initially dropped 21% on the heels of the Department of Justice (DoJ) announcement, but it turned out to be a blip. By early this week the index had rebounded to within a few points of its one-year high.
Sessions announcement formally rescinded guidance, known as the Cole Memo, issued by the Obama-era DoJ that essentially told federal prosecutors to respect state laws with regards to marijuana. Importantly, though, Sessions decision did not direct or incentivize US attorneys to pursue marijuana cases, it just allowed them to if they so choose.
The Cole Memo guidance was eminently reasonable and was a common sense good policy, Moen said. I think that despite the fact that its been formally rescinded, federal prosecutors will effectively continue to abide by it.
Adults can grow up to six plants and possess an ounce of cannabis as about 90 businesses receive licenses to sell pot in most populous state
The arrival of the new year in California brought with it broad legalization of marijuana, a much-anticipated change that comes two decades after the state was the first to allow pot for medical use.
The USs most populous state joins a growing list of other states, and the nations capital, where so-called recreational marijuana is permitted even though the federal government continues to classify pot as a controlled substance, like heroin and LSD.
Pot is now legal in California for adults 21 and older, and individuals can grow up to six plants and possess as much as an ounce of the drug.
But finding a retail outlet to buy non-medical pot in California wont be easy, at least initially. Only about 90 businesses received state licenses to open on New Years Day. They are concentrated in San Diego, Santa Cruz, the San Francisco Bay Area and the Palm Springs area.
Los Angeles and San Francisco are among the many cities where recreational pot will not be available right away because local regulations were not approved in time to start issuing city licenses needed to get state permits. Meanwhile, Fresno, Bakersfield and Riverside are among the communities that have adopted laws forbidding recreational marijuana sales.
Just after midnight, some Californians were raising blunts instead of champagne glasses.
Johnny Hernandez, a tattoo artist from Modesto, celebrated New Years Eve by smoking Happy New Year blunts with his cousins.
This is something weve all been waiting for, he said. It is something that can help so many people and theres no reason why we should not be sharing that.
Hernandez said he hoped the legalization of recreational marijuana would help alleviate the remaining stigma some still believe surrounds marijuana use.
People might actually realize weed isnt bad. It helps a lot of people, he said.
For those who worked for this day, the shift also offered joyful relief.
Were thrilled, said Khalil Moutawakkil, founder of KindPeoples, which grows and sells weed in Santa Cruz. We can talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of the specific regulations, but at the end of the day its a giant step forward, and well have to work out the kinks as we go.
The state banned loco-weed in 1913, according to a history by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the pot advocacy group known as NORML. The first attempt to undo that by voter initiative in 1972 failed, but three years later felony possession of less than an ounce was downgraded to a misdemeanor.
In 1996, over the objections of law enforcement, President Clintons drug tsar and three former presidents, California voters approved marijuana for medicinal purposes. Twenty years later, voters approved legal recreational use and gave the state a year to write regulations for a legal market that would open in 2018.
Today, 29 states have adopted medical marijuana laws. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. Since then, five more states have passed recreational marijuana laws, including Massachusetts, where retail sales are scheduled to begin in July.
Even with other states as models, the next year is expected to be a bumpy one in California as more shops open and more stringent regulations take effect on the strains known as Sweet Skunk, Trainwreck and Russian Assassin.
The California Police Chiefs Association, which opposed the 2016 ballot measure, remains concerned about stoned drivers, the risk to young people and the cost of policing the new rules in addition to an existing black market.
Theres going to be a public health cost and a public safety cost enforcing these new laws and regulations, said Jonathan Feldman, a legislative advocate for the chiefs. It remains to be seen if this can balance itself out.
At first, pot shops will be able to sell marijuana harvested without full regulatory controls. But eventually, the state will require extensive testing for potency, pesticides and other contaminants. A program to track all pot from seed to sale will be phased in, along with other protections such as childproof containers.
The state that is the worlds sixth biggest economy will legalise cannabis on New Years Day and expects a boom time for jobs and investment
While Arctic conditions gripped Americas north-east, balmy sunshine bathed Los Angeles last week but that was not the only reason denizens of the Venice boardwalk were feeling mellow. An astringent, earthy aroma infused the Pacific zephyrs wafting through the buskers, joggers, skateboarders, tourists and panhandlers.
Weed is part of the culture here, said Oni Farley, 30, perched on a sandy mound, watching life go by. Its part of the LA/California scene, the laid-back vibe. He ignored a police patrol car that inched through the throng. Ive blazed in front of cops and they dont say anything. To be honest, most of the time Im so high I dont notice them.
Pot wasnt hiding. In multiple different ways it was on display.
Addicted to weed, anything green helps, said a scrawled sign tilted against the backpack of Alexander Harth, 36, a dusty member of the boardwalks homeless population.
On the pavement, Marc Patsiner hawked wooden ornaments etched with Californian symbols: sunglasses, palm trees and marijuana leaves. Its pretty bohemian out here. People associate us with the leaf.
A vape shop offered glass pipes and other pot paraphernalia. T-shirt stores peddled images of Barack Obama smoking a joint alongside other herb-themed garments saying best buds and just hit it.
On Monday, California, the USs most populous state, and the worlds sixth biggest economy, will officially hit it by legalising cannabis.
Think Amsterdam, but sunnier and vaster a watershed event for the legalisation movement. Overnight a shadow industry worth billions of dollars annually will emerge into the light, taking its place alongside agriculture, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and other sectors that are regulated and taxed.
It will answer to the newly created Bureau of Cannabis Control bureaucratic confirmation that a day many activists did not dare dream of has indeed come to pass.
A product pilloried in the 1936 film Reefer Madness will become culturally normalised and economically integrated, said Philip Wolf, an entrepreneur who runs a cannabis wedding company and a firm that pairs pot with gourmet food. Its going to help destigmatise the plant. Theres going to be a lot of people making money and people will want to tax those dollars. This is going to spread. California is a trend-setting state.
California legalised pot for medicinal purposes in 1996, ushering in a web of dispensaries, spin-off businesses and creeping mainstream acceptance. That culminated in voters last year approving proposition 64, a ballot initiative which legalised pot sales for recreation. History will mark the date it came into effect: 1 January 2018.
It is expected to unleash profound changes across the state. The Salinas Valley, an agricultural zone south of San Francisco nicknamed Americas salad bowl, has already earned a new moniker: Americas cannabis bucket. Silicon Valley investors and other moneyed folk are hoping to mint fortunes by developing technology to cultivate, transport, store and sell weed. Entrepreneurs are devising pot-related products and services. Financiers are exploring ways to fold the revenue estimated at $7bn per annum by 2020 into corporate banking.
Cannabis is a notoriously finicky drug. Take the right amount and you get relaxation or euphoria, but take too much and it’s a long ride of paranoia. Which makes marijuana tricky for casual users, and potentially problematic for new users who want to use cannabis to treat ailments like pain.
It's difficult to quantify just how much of the drug you’re inhaling through a bong or vaporizer—especially because marijuana contains some 500 chemicals that interact in ways scientists are just beginning to understand. And really, how you end up feeling depends as much on your physiology and state of mind as it does on the plant.
But, some good news. For one, science only has more to learn about how marijuana works on the human body. And two, companies making cannabis devices are figuring out ways to tackle the dosing problem.
Take the Resolve One smart inhaler (formerly known as Breeze) for medical marijuana users who also happen to be data nerds, coming out in May. Think of it like the Keurig of cannabis: Insert a “Smart Pod” of marijuana and the device administers a precise blast of vapor. The device pairs with a smartphone app, where users begin by inputting their pain level. The inhaler calculates the right dose, followed by a drag. Ten minutes later, once the cannabis has kicked in, the app pings them to rate their pain again. This helps the user determine how effective the dose was.
And it helps Resolve One's maker, Resolve Digital Health, do the same: By gathering more and more data, it can build pain profiles. Some folks wake up in pain, for instance, while for others the pain builds throughout the day. So how might cannabis help mitigate these different experiences? How might the drug interact with other medications the person is taking? (Users are encouraged to log these in the Resolve One app.) How do other medical conditions factor into the pain problem? (You log these too.)
Resolve’s goal is to use data from Resolve One to help not only individual users, but to build a better understanding of how cannabis can treat pain. “I think patients of the future, and we're seeing it right now with cannabis patients, are data-empowered patients,” says Rob Adelson, president and CEO of Resolve. “They want information, they want to collect it, they want to share it, they want to compare it.”
Now, it’s clear that accumulating more and more data hasn’t cured cancer or helped humans figure out how to stop aging. But in the case of cannabis, scientists have so little detailed information about user responses that it makes sense to start looking. Especially because the effects of cannabis can vary wildly from user to user. Some people, for instance, can handle higher THC content than others without having a conniption. And how marijuana affects you can even vary based on how much food you’ve had that day, especially if you’re consuming edibles.
“It's going to take a long time for us to get to the level of knowledge that we all need to be at to understand how this plant works, specifically for very specific health conditions,” says Adelson. “But what we'll do is collect that data, and then put some of those insights and findings into clinical studies where we can go deeper into it.”
The uncertainty is especially challenging given how potent cannabis has become. One study found that THC levels have gone up three-fold since 1995, thanks to selective breeding. But patients may be more interested in high levels of CBD, the non-psychoactive component that could help treat ailments like epilepsy.
“Our focus is on mitigating the intoxicating effects of cannabis, which is a very different mindset than a lot of cannabis brands,” says Gunner Winston, CEO of Dosist, which makes dose pens. “A lot of people don't want to be intoxicated.”
The trick may be something called the entourage effect, the idea that the plant’s various compounds interact with one another to put a check on the psychoactive effects on THC. Specifically, you’d want a lot of CBD in there. Yet science hasn’t proved out this effect.
“I think the anecdotal mountain of evidence says that it does exist,” says Jeff Raber, CEO of the Werc Shop, a lab that tests cannabis. “But we don't know why or how or which ones are doing what.”
And that’s just when it comes to ingesting and inhaling cannabis. “We actually know very little about other modes of administration,” says UC San Diego researcher Igor Grant, who studies cannabis. “People talk about having skin patches and various kinds of gels. The work just hasn't been done to show whether that actually delivers the cannabis in the way that you would want in an effective dose.”
But as far as inhaled marijuana is concerned, companies like Resolve Digital Health and Dosist are starting to tackle the quantification problem, the former catering to patients and the later to a more general audience. And they’re betting that demand for a more predictable cannabis experience is only going up.
“People are asking for this,” says Winston of Dosist. “We can debate all day how much science has been done and should be done, but when you look across the country people are demanding cannabis for therapeutic purposes.”
Remember: Until there’s a fool-proof system for accurately dosing inhaled cannabis—and there may never will be—go low and slow. Your brain will thank you.
Inside the Lab That’s Making Sure Your Weed Is Safe
As cannabis use goes recreational in California, producers are facing a reckoning: They’ll either have to clean up their act, or get out of the legal market.
As more US states legalise marijuana, more women are stepping up to meet the need for weed. Meet the entrepreneurs cutting through the stigma
Like most other American industries, marijuana has traditionally been dominated by men. Overwhelmingly they grew it, they dealt it and they smoked it. Hopes that the legal marijuana industry would be more egalitarian than others have largely deflated. According to a 2017 survey, women hold 27% of executive positions in cannabis, only slightly more than in the country at large. Nevertheless, the plants status as a quasi-legal drug has created an opportunity for women to forge groundbreaking careers.
Cannabis businesses are obsessed with tearing down the stigma that continues to dog the plant. Many of the most ambitious companies want to make inroads with affluent adults and parents who dont use, or no longer use, cannabis; if the prevailing stereotype is that weed is a drug used by low-achieving men, the thinking is that women will be better at getting their husbands and boyfriends to use pot.
Thirty US states have legalized medical marijuana and it is among the countrys fastest-growing industries. Sales rose 33% last year, topping $10bn, even though only a few states, including California, Colorado, Nevada and Oregon, have robust industries, and product cant be transported across state lines. But compared with other lucrative industries, such as tech, it is far more open to people who lack highly specialised education and have lived unconventional lives.
There is immense interest in marijuanas potential as a medicine, but in most cases the evidence is more anecdotal than confirmed by mainstream science. Its far easier for a pot business to enter the more nebulous wellness category. Today, in every dispensary in the US, there are cannabis products packaged like high-end personal care products; and even pharmaceuticals, designed to convince women its OK to try cannabis.
Female entrepreneurs believe legalization will bring immense medical and social benefits. The five women who share their story here all photographed by Pietro Chelli in recent years are a doctor, a mother of a young child with cancer, and three very different entrepreneurs. Each in her own way is cutting through the stigma.
Cheryl Shuman, 57, Beverly Hills Cannabis Club, Los Angeles, California
I first tried cannabis in 1996, after I was sexually assaulted. Doctors had put me on anti-anxietals and antidepressants and they turned me into a zombie. I had got to the point where I didnt want to get out of bed. Eventually, my therapist said to me: Cheryl, with all due respect, you just have to smoke a joint. Only in LA, right? Until then Id been a good girl. Ive still never had a beer, never had a cigarette.
My therapist had his plants in his back yard and kept his stash in mason jars. He rolled a joint. I was impressed he could roll it with only one hand. I took the first puff and almost coughed my lungs up. By the second puff, I said: You know what, this is really great. I felt instantly better.
Instead of taking pills, I would just roll a joint every day. I told my kids, as I didnt want to lie to them. It was an entry to an underground society of professional, smart, dynamic, educated people, who use this for wellness. Who knew?
Today Im a pot evangelist. Ive spoken all over the world Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. Last year, I was only home in Beverly Hills for 16 days, and those were for events. My business now is basically being a matchmaker, pairing investors with exciting opportunities, ranging from biotech companies to branding, to a music festival. Its like being a real-estate broker I make things happen: What do you need?
Back when I first got involved in cannabis it was largely used by gay men to deal with the nausea and wasting of Aids. Ultimately, cannabis was legalized because of love for them. Many in the cannabis community have also had an experience similar to coming out of the closet the grass closet. Now we can hold our heads up high and lead an authentic life.
Tracy Ryan, 42, CannaKids, Los Angeles, California
The South American countrys move to full legalisation of cannabis has so far proved a success, especially for its 17,391 users
Every afternoon a long queue of people gathers outside a tiny neighbourhood pharmacy in Montevideo. The shop is so small that they can only be let in one at a time. Its a slow process but the mostly young clients dont seem to mind. They stand outside or sit on doorsteps chatting in groups of twos and threes as they wait their turn in the warm southern spring.
A chemist inside in a green medical coat asks them each to press their thumb on a fingerprint scanner. The electronic device is connected to a central government computer that will either authorise or deny the purchase of their allotted 10 weekly grams of legal marijuana. It is a state-controlled, high quality product guaranteed to provide excellent highs.
On the street 25 grams of marijuana would cost you 3,000 pesos, thats about $100 for something with probably a large amount of pesticide, seeds and stems, says Luciano, a young buyer who is next in line. But here the same amount would cost you only $30, and it comes in guaranteed, premium quality, thermosealed 5g packs.
The most important thing has been the change of paradigm, says Gastn Rodrguez Lepera, shareholder in Symbiosis, one of the two private firms producing cannabis for the governments Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis. Uruguay dived in at the deep end without too much international support. They said it wouldnt work. Well, its working now.
With a population of only 3.4 million, squeezed in between its two giant South American neighbours Brazil and Argentina (population 208 million and 43 million respectively), Uruguay has long been at the forefront of liberal policies not only in South America but worldwide.
A divorce law that allowed women to separate from their husbands simply by asking a court for permission was passed as far back as 1913. Abortion was legalised in 2012, with Uruguay the only country in Latin America to do so apart from Cuba.
Part of the reason for Uruguays liberal temperament is a longstanding separation of church and state in a region where the Catholic Church remains dominant. There is no official Christmas day on Uruguays state calendar. Most Uruguayans refer to the holiday by its government denomination of family day. Easter week is referred to as tourism week.
Uruguays switch to a legal marijuana market has not been without its hitches, however, notably the resistance of most pharmacists to act as outlets for the recreational marijuana (medical marijuana remains illegal in Uruguay).
Only 12 of the countrys 1,100 pharmacies have signed up so far to supply the 17,391 government-registered consumers served by the system, which explains the long queues outside. The low price and slim profit margin partly explain their reticence. But the main problem is that banks have threatened to close the accounts of pharmacies selling marijuana, said one chemist who sells marijuana in Montevideo, but who did not want to reveal his name for fear of such bank intervention.
Although sales of the drug have been legalised in various US states, they remain illegal at federal level, leading to a situation where most banks refuse to handle marijuana-related accounts anywhere in the world. Even now that sales in Uruguay have been completely legalised, the fear of running into trouble with the US federal authorities has become concrete.
The problem with the banks was an unforeseen hitch, says Eduardo Blasina, president of Montevideos cannabis museum, set in an old house in the artsy Palermo district of the capital city. But these bumps will get smoothed out eventually.
The potency of the original government-licensed marijuana also failed to satisfy consumers at the start. The government made a mistake because the first batch they released to the market in July had a potency level of only 2% THC, says Blasina.
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis content. This is much lower than the levels found in legal recreational weed in US states like Colorado.
The government quickly got the message and has now upped the content to 9% THC, says the Montevideo pharmacist. A consumer himself, he adds: Ive tried it and I can assure you that it provides a most satisfactory experience.
The actual wreath is made of eucalyptus, evergreen, dried wheat and grasses, moss, berries, and pine cones, and plastered throughout is an ounce of sun-grown “artisanal cannabis” grown in Mendocino County. Henry’s Originals assures customers that the cannabis can easily be removed for consumption without disrupting the structural integrity of the wreath.
The wreath will set you back $400, which isn’t an insane price considering the amount of pot it comes with. However, due to the legal status of cannabis in the United States, it is only available in the Los Angeles area, and you must have a valid medical marijuana card.
This is a story about marijuana that begins in a drawer of dead birds. In the specimen collections of the California Academy of Sciences, curator Jack Dumbacher picks up a barred owl—so named for the stripes than run across its chest—and strokes its feathers. It looks like a healthy enough bird, sure, but something nefarious once lurked in its liver: anticoagulant rodenticide, which causes rats to bleed out, and inevitably accumulates in apex predators like owls. The origin of the poison? Likely an illegal cannabis grow operation in the wilds of Northern California.
“It's a mess out there,” says Dumbacher. “And it costs taxpayers millions of dollars to clean up the sites.”
Marijuana doesn’t just suddenly appear on the shelves of a dispensary, or the pocket of a dealer. Someone’s gotta grow it, and in Northern California, that often means rogue farmers squatting on public lands, tainting the ecosystem with pesticides and other chemicals, then harvesting their goods and leaving behind what is essentially a mini superfund site. Plenty of growers run legit, organic operations—but cannabis can be a dirty, dirty game.
As cannabis use goes recreational in California, producers are facing a reckoning: They’ll either have to clean up their act, or get out of the legal market. Until the federal prohibition on marijuana ends, growers here can skip the legit marketplace and ship to black markets in the many states where the drug is still illegal. That’s bad news for public health, and even worse news for the wildlife of California.
If you’re buying cannabis in the United States, there’s up to a 75 percent chance that it grew somewhere in California. In Humboldt County alone, as many as 15,000 private grows churn out marijuana. Of those 15,000 farms, 2,300 have applied for permits, and of those just 91 actually have the permits.
Researchers reckon that 15 to 20 percent of private grows here are using rodenticide, trying to avoid damage from rats chewing through irrigation lines and plants. Worse, though, are the growers who hike into rugged public lands and set up grow operations. Virtually all of them are using rodenticide. “At very high doses the rodenticides is meant to kill by basically stopping coagulation of blood,” says Dumbacher. “So what happens is if you get a bruise or a cut it you would you would literally bleed out because it won’t coagulate.”
And what’s bad for the rats can’t be good for the barred owl. How the poison might affect these predators isn’t immediately clear, but researchers think it may weaken them.
Scientists are used to seeing rodenticides in owl livers—but usually, those animals are picking off rats in urban areas. Not so for these samples. “When we actually looked at the data, it turned out that some of the owls that were exposed were from remote areas parts of the forest that don't have even roads near them,” says Dumbacher. When researchers took a look at satellite images of these areas, they were able to pick out illegal grow operations and make the connection: Rodenticides from marijuana cultivation are probably moving up the food chain.
The havoc that growers are wreaking in Northern California is worryingly similar to the environmental bedlam of the past. “We can't just take exactly the same historical approach that California did with the Gold Rush,” says Mourad Gabriel, executive director of the Integral Ecology Research Center and lead author of the study with Dumbacher. It was a massive inundation of illegal gold and mining operations that tore the landscape to pieces. “150 years down the road, we are still dealing with it.”
And Northern California’s problems have the potential to become your problem if you’re buying marijuana in a state where it’s still illegal. “We have data clearly demonstrating the plant material is contaminated, not just with one or two but a plethora of different types of pesticides that should not be used on any consumable product,” says Gabriel. “And we find it on levels that are potentially a threat to humans as well.”
Across from an old cookie factory in Oakland, California sits a lab that couldn’t look more nondescript. It’s called CW Analytical, and it’s in the business of testing marijuana for a range of nasties, both natural and synthetic. Technicians in lab coats shuffle about, dissolving cannabis in solution, while in a little room up front a man behind a desk consults clients.
Running this place is a goateed Alabama native named Robert Martin. For a decade he’s risked the ire of the feds to ensure that the medical marijuana sold in California dispensaries is clean and safe. But in the age of recreational cannabis, the state has given him a new list of enemies to test for. If you're worried about consuming grow chemicals like the owls are doing, it's scientists like Martin who have your back.
“We're trying to do it in legitimate ways, not painting our face or putting flowers in our hair,” says Martin. “We're here to show another face of the industry." Clinical. Empirical.
Labs like these—the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories, which Martin heads, counts two dozen members—are where marijuana comes to pass the test or face destruction. Martin’s team is looking for two main things: microbiological contaminants and chemical residues. “Microbiological contaminants could come in the form of bacteria or fungi, depending on what kind of situation your cannabis has seen,” says Martin. (Bad drying or curing habits on the part of the growers can lead to the growth of Aspergillus mold, for instance.) “Or on the other side, the chemical residues can be pesticides, herbicides, things like that.”
The biological bit is pretty straightforward. Technicians add a cannabis sample to solution, then spread it on plates that go into incubators. “What we find is of all the flowers that come through, about 12 to 13 percent will come back with a high level of aerobic bacteria and about 13 to 14 percent will come back with a high level of fungi and yeast and mold,” says laboratory manager Emily Savage.
With chemical contaminants it gets a bit trickier. To test for these, the lab run the cannabis through a machine called a mass spectrometer, which isolates the component parts of the sample. This catches common chemicals like myclobutanil, which growers use to kill fungi.
Starting July 1 of this year, distributors and (legal) cultivators have to put their product through testing for heavy metals and bacteria like E. coli and chemicals like acephate (a general use insecticide). That’s important for average consumers but especially medical marijuana patients with compromised health. One group of researchers has even warned that smoking or vaping tainted marijuana could lead to fatal infections for some patients, as pathogens are taken deep into the lungs.
“This is why we have to end prohibition and regulate and legalize cannabis, so that we can develop the standards that everybody must meet,” says Andrew DeAngelo, director of operations of the Harborside dispensary in Oakland.
After testing, a lab like CW has to report their results to the state, whose guidelines may dictate that the crop be destroyed. If everything checks out, the marijuana is cleared for sale in a dispensary. “That gives the public confidence that these supply chains are clean for them and healthy for them,” says DeAngelo.
That safety comes at a price, though. To fund the oversight of recreational marijuana, California is imposing combined taxes of perhaps 50 percent. “They're too high,” says DeAngelo. He’s worried that the fees will push users back into the black market, where plants don’t have to hew to the same strict safety standards. “This shop should be a lot fuller than it is right now.”
And the black market gets us right back to the mess we started off in. Illegal cultivation is bad for consumers and bad for the environment. The only real solution? The end of prohibition. At the very least, the owls would appreciate it.
A New Crop of Marijuana Geneticists Build Better Weed
There are thousands of strains of weed. Cracking their genetic codes may be the key to transforming pot from a budding business to a high-flying industry and a cannabis analytics lab is trying to unlock the true potential of weed. Pictures by Preston Gannaway.