As cannabis sales soar and a growing number of states declare dispensaries essential amid a growing pandemic, consumers are increasingly turning to medical marijuana and hemp for their health benefits. But in some states, those products may not be as beneficial as they seem.
At a time when public health is in the limelight, the team at North Coast Testing Laboratory LLC, based in Streetsboro, Ohio, is advocating for more stringent microbial testing requirements from states to prevent people from getting sick from harmful yeast and mold on marijuana products.
North Coast Testing became one of the first medical marijuana testing facilities approved in the state in 2018, and it has also received ISO 17025 accreditation.
The lab conducts cannabis microbial contamination tests for yeast and mold levels using two different methods—but the one method mandated in Ohio, as well as in most states around the country, they argue, is inferior. And in the face of a growing public health crisis, both the testing method and regulations need an overhaul, says Dave Moorhead, the president of North Coast Testing, along with other company leaders.
“The frustration lies in, are we putting patients at risk right now using this technology?” says Joe Moorhead, the head of customer relations for North Coast Testing and Dave Moorhead’s son. “We need to be able to utilize the technology that’s now available so we can really know the products going out are safe.”
10,000 Colonies and Aging Technology
Medical marijuana products in Ohio are currently tested for total yeast and mold counts using a method called plating. With this method, scientists spread a sample of marijuana onto a plate that encourages the growth of yeast and mold microbes. After letting the sample sit for a few days, the microbial colonies grow large enough for scientists to physically count.
Like many other states, Ohio mandates that medical marijuana products should have no more than 10,000 total yeast and mold colonies—a standard set forth by the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia in its 2014 publication, "Cannabis Inflorescence: Standards of Identity, Analysis, and Quality Control.”
But that colony limitation and testing method are both flawed, the North Coast team says.
For one, not all yeast and mold is bad to ingest. In fact, some yeast is beneficial for gut health and the immune system.
And cannabis may be naturally susceptible to picking up microbes, as they tend to get stuck in its sticky trichomes. “Some plants attract harmless fungi more than others,” Joe Moorhead says. “It’s just a sticky plant.”
Additionally, some biocontrols that have been approved for use on cannabis are actually fungi, like mold, and can be included in the total pathogen count even though they are harmless to ingest, says Adam Scavone, general counsel and compliance director for the company. That could drive farmers to use more harmful pest control agents, he adds. “The rule forces displacement of biological controls in favor of chemicals,” Scavone says.
Taking the above factors into consideration, the total pathogen count method could be inadvertently hurting producers who are otherwise putting quality products on shelves. “We have taken these samples out and sent them for sequencing to see what types of yeast and mold are growing on these plants,” Joe Moorhead says. “A majority of cultivators that are failing are growing beneficial yeasts and mold.”
Conversely, an abundance of harmful microbes, like aspergillus, could be growing on the sample but could still pass if as long as they remain beneath the limit the state sets.
Scavone explains that some states, like California, currently require labs to test medical cannabis samples for a variety of specific, harmful microbes, such as E. coli, salmonella and aspergillus using a testing method called qPRC, which is essentially genetic testing.
It’s the method the team at North Coast is advocating for, but it isn’t currently allowed in states like Ohio, as its regulations need to be changed first.
The Moorheads and Scavone also oversee operations for North Coast Analytical Laboratories LLC, a separate hemp testing company that is ISO 17025-accredited as well. North Coast Analytical is also registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The North Coast Analytical team is also rallying around more stringent microbial testing for hemp grown for flower, as it can have the same contaminant issues as marijuana. When it comes to hemp testing, guidelines tend to be even looser, as federal regulations simply require pre-harvest cannabinoid potency testing.
In Ohio, the North Coast team says it worked with the state department of agriculture to include testing for other contaminants such as mycotoxins, heavy metals and residual solvents.
However, it’s up to individual states to decide what to test for beyond cannabinoids.
The good news: The lab team’s advocacy may soon be paying off. Joe Moorhead and Scavone say they’ve been in discussions with Ohio’s medical marijuana authorities, and the state has indicated its interest in creating more stringent microbial testing guidelines.
“States are moving in that direction,” Joe Moorhead says. “We know it’s coming down the pipeline, and we’re hoping Ohio follows suit.”
For now, the North Coast team is advocating for all cannabis companies to test their products for harmful pathogens, especially aspergillus, which can cause fever, chills, a cough with blood and shortness of breath. The mold grows on cannabis buds, and its presence has been proven to cause severe illness in cannabis users.
“We just started looking at how we could reduce sending people to the hospital. One of the clear things we could stop in particular is aspergillus poisoning,” Scavone says. “It’s really a low-hanging fruit on the testing tree.”
And as cannabis companies wait for more stringent and unified testing guidelines from states or from the federal level, Moorhead and Scavone say they can improve testing efforts by seeking out labs that are ISO 17025-accredited and have successfully completed proficiency testing with accredited organizations like Emerald Scientific.
As for lawmakers, the North Coast team is continuing a push for, among other testing revisions, more stringent microbial regulations with updated methodology.
“It’s incumbent on all of us, especially in the medical marijuana field where patient safety is of utmost concern, to do everything we can. This crisis has really shined light on some technology we’ve been using and has really highlighted areas for better service to patients and patient safety,” Scavone says. “We have a good system now, but it could be better. If there was ever a time that was apparent, that time is now.”