The health and safety testing of cannabis products is, literally, all over the map. For instance, California mandates laboratory testing for sixty-six different pesticides, while Colorado’s list specifies only thirteen. Most states require heavy metals testing that includes the “big four”—arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury—but New York includes others, like copper, nickel, and zinc.
The reason for these variations? In the absence of federal rules, a state-by-state approach to legal cannabis has led to a national patchwork of rules and regulations.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a not-for-profit organization that oversees the development of standards for products, now including cannabis, recently held its annual Legal Issues Forum with a look at the cannabis industry. The November 6 event, part of the ANSI’s World Standards Week in Washington, DC, explored the challenges of trying to standardize cannabis product testing so that consumers receive consistent quality control. Those challenges include knowledge gaps in the basic science behind cannabis and its effects, which means that appropriate limits to potency and other values are unclear, even as further research remains hindered by federal prohibition.
Cannabis Wire followed up with one of the panelists, Matthew Sica, about these issues. He works as an accreditation manager at the ANSI National Accreditation Board and specializes in conformity assessments for cannabis testing labs. Here is what Sica had to say: (This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Meeri Kim, Cannabis Wire: Could you give an overview on the current landscape of regulatory testing standards for cannabis products?
Matthew Sica, ANSI National Accreditation Board: Typically, public safety initiatives start at the federal level when it comes to consumer goods, but that’s not the case with cannabis because of its scheduling as a controlled substance. Many states have adopted regulations to protect consumers, such as limits on pesticide use, heavy metals, bacteria, yeast, and mold. But, there’s a patchwork across the country right now of what these limits are, and what the actual regulatory lists are.
CW: What were some of the issues discussed at ANSI’s Legal Issues Forum?
Sica: Headlines such as the vitamin E acetate issue—[the additive found in some THC-containing vaping products closely associated with lung injury]— have really caught people off guard, that states have these regulatory programs yet there are still incredible failures going on within the system. The biggest point that came out of the panel is that there’s a greater need for public-private partnerships in terms of using accreditable standards. Two markets are important. One will be the testing market, which is governed by a standard of competency for testing and calibration labs. The other is the product certification market, which says the product is authentic and safe. The laboratory side is really strong in the U.S., since most states require the standard for accreditation, whereas we’re seeing limited or no implementation of the standard for actually certifying the product. A growth in product certification may prevent dangers like the vitamin E acetate issue from arising.
CW: As for the future of regulation, what will it take to get from this patchwork, state-level regulation to an overarching standard at the federal level?
Sica: I believe it will get there, but the timing could be decades. There are already federal regulations available, such as the ones for nutraceuticals or pharmaceuticals, but those aren’t being applied right now because of the federal prohibition. It’s going to take time to hash out those details. Plus, the market is already open, so how do you put the genie back in the bottle?
CW: Any thoughts on what the ideal federal lab regulation would be? Is it still a gray area because more research is needed?
Sica: Because there is limited research, it would really be hard to go beyond the current nutraceutical regulations [Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which defines and regulates dietary supplements under the FDA]. If you want to take it a step further, if you’re going to treat it as medicine, you then need clinical trials. We can look for impurities such as pesticides or heavy metals, and even microbial and residual solvents for extracted products, but it needs to be done with a more common-sense approach. There might be actually two sets of limits, one for compromised people under a medical program and one for the general population. But without research, we don’t know what the real potential harm is on either population.
CW: Is this research ongoing, or is it largely hindered by the federal prohibition?
Sica: I think it’s hampered because of the federal prohibition. There needs to be enough public awareness. Organizations, companies, and universities need to look at this as a potential public health issue in order to allow their researchers to do this type of work.