Updated: Oct 19, 2020
For most of my cannabis-consuming life, I enjoyed whatever was on hand. The dealer had a single variety for purchase – I didn’t even know if it was an indica or a sativa (or what an indica or a sativa was) – and when a pipe was passed my way, I didn’t ask what was in it.
Even rumors of the pesticide Paraquat failed to give me pause. (Fortunately, “A 1995 study found that ‘no lung or other injury in cannabis users has ever been attributed to paraquat contamination.’”)
Fast forward a few decades and I’m the person who doesn’t want to eat a steak unless I know the rancher who raised the cow (and is selling its meat at my local farmer’s market).
Ripping off the Band-Aid
That’s why I’m thrilled that, as of July 1, 2018, if you’re buying cannabis – “edible cannabis products,” “dried cannabis flowers” and “all other processed cannabis” – in the State of California from a licensed retailer, it must be lab-tested and receive a certificate of analysis clearing it for sale.
Hezekiah D. Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, recently called this “the most disruptive event in history” (presumably the history of legal cannabis) as “the transition period which exempts licensees from certain requirements will come to an end.” Many a cannabizzer, Allen included, has referred to this event as “ripping off the Band-Aid.”
“Tested for what?” you may be wondering. The 17 tests required in California assess cannabinoids, moisture content, residual solvents & processing chemicals, residual pesticides, microbial impurities, homogeneity, filth & foreign material – FILTH! – terpenoids, mycotoxins, heavy metals and water activity.
Let’s break this down, shall we?
“Tested for what?” you may be wondering.
CANNABINOIDS – one of my all-time-favorite cannabis terms. Say it with me now: “cuh-NAB-i-noids.” (I find the stress on the second syllable deeply satisfying.)
Per Wikipedia: “Cannabis plants produce a group of chemicals called cannabinoids, which produce mental and physical effects when consumed … Cannabinoids, terpenoids, and other compounds are secreted by glandular trichomes that occur most abundantly on the floral calyxes and bracts of female plants.” Mmm ... calyxes and bracts.
Cannabinoid testing tells you, among other things, how much THC is in your pot. Some folks like A LOT of THC as it’s the cannabinoid that gets you high (THC, BTW, stands for tetrahydrocannabinol).
THC & CBD
According to Smithsonian: “Modern weed contains THC levels of 18-30 percent – double to triple the levels that were common in buds from the 1980s. That’s because growers have cross-bred plants over the years to create more powerful strains.”
I don’t care to be “blasted into other realms,” as a friend once characterized it, so I like a hearty measure of CBD, another cannabinoid, in my pot. CBD – which stands for cannabidiol, pronounced ca-ni-bi-DIE-ol; note stress on the fourth syllable – does not get you high, but it does a lot of other wonderful things, like calm you down, help you sleep and ease your pain (its anti-inflammatory properties have created quite a buzz). In June the FDA approved a CBD-derived medication for kids with seizure disorders.
Of the other known cannabinoids (113 and counting), THCA, CBDA, CBG and CBN are also being tested for, with THCA emerging as an alternative to CBD, and one not listed here, THCV, a promising treatment in the fight against munchies.
Whether a cannabinoid exerts a psychoactive effect or not, they all interact with the body’s cannabinoid receptors. (Read about the fascinating endocannabinoid system – the discovery of which was led in 1992 by the same guy who, with a colleague, discovered THC – here.) Terpenes Then there are TERPENOIDS, per Wikipedia “a large and diverse class of naturally occurring organic chemicals derived from terpenes.” I’m so into terpenoids – as are you if you’re partial to essential oils – that I’m going to let Wikipedia school you further:
About 60% of known natural products are terpenoids. Although sometimes used interchangeably with “terpenes,” terpenoids contain additional functional groups, usually O-containing. Terpenes are hydrocarbons.
Plant terpenoids are used for their aromatic qualities and play a role in traditional herbal remedies. Terpenoids contribute to the scent of eucalyptus, the flavors of cinnamon, cloves, and ginger, the yellow color in sunflowers, and the red color in tomatoes. Well-known terpenoids include citral, menthol, camphor, salvinorin A in the plant Salvia divinorum, the cannabinoids found in cannabis, ginkgolide and bilobalide found in Ginkgo biloba, and the curcuminoids found in turmeric and mustard seed.
There’s nothing sexy about solvent.
TERPENES [more frequently name-checked in mainstream cannabis literature than terpenoids] are “a large and diverse class of organic compounds, produced by a variety of plants, particularly conifers, and by some insects. They often have a strong odor and may protect the plants that produce them by deterring herbivores and by attracting predators and parasites of herbivores. Terpenes are the major components of rosin and of turpentine produced from resin. The name ‘terpene’ is derived from the word ‘terpentine,’ an obsolete form of the word ‘turpentine.’” There are hundreds of terpenes. The 10 most commonly found in cannabis are limonene, pinene, myrcene, linalool (a great terpene name if ever there was one), delta-3-carene, eucalyptol, beta-caryophyllene, humulene, borneol and terpineol. High Times says myrcene is the most prevalent and that “multiple analytical labs claim the myrcene concentration dictates whether a strain will have a sedative indica effect or the effects of an energetic sativa.” Also, “Beta-caryophyllene, humulene and pinene all have anti-inflammatory effects.” MOISTURE CONTENT, MYCOTOXINS and WATER ACTIVITY are all related to mold. The fearsome five are: Aspergillus, Penicillium, Rhizopus, Mucor and Botrytis aka “grape disease.” RESIDUAL SOLVENTS & PROCESSING CHEMICALS are integral to the production of most concentrates. Sometimes you can actually detect these in the taste of the product. May as well huff paint thinner if you ask me. When I taste the slightest hint of solvent – which inspires me to grimace and say “mediciny” – in my oil vape pen, I give it the heave-ho and never buy it again. (I’m looking at you, Dosist Passion, which is supposed to be good for sexy time. There’s nothing sexy about solvent.)
Aside from residual butane, labs are testing for acetone, benzene, chloroform, ethanol, isopropyl alcohol and propane, as well as a bunch of shit you’ve never heard of that sounds really bad. If you like concentrates but don’t enjoy, say, dichloroethane (1 or 2), I direct your attention to the Leafly article “The Many Types of Solventless Cannabis Extracts.” Speaking of chemicals you’ve never heard of (and may be hard-pressed to pronounce) here are a few of the pesticides found lurking in cannabis: Azoxystrobin, Chlorantraniliprole, Dimethomorph, Fenpyroximate, Imidacloprid and Spirotetramat. There are more than 65 to choose from. MICROBIAL IMPURITIES include old favorites Salmonella and Escherichia “E.” coli. HOMOGENEITY speaks for itself. Which brings us to FILTH & FOREIGN MATERIAL. Yep, you guessed it: hair, insects (mites, for instance), feces, packaging contaminants, manufacturing waste and byproducts and … wait for it … mammalian excreta. Everybody now: “Ew.” Finally, I’ve got four words for ya: arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium. Those are the HEAVY METALS found in cannabis. I dig some heavy metal in my earholes, but not heavy metals in my anything else. As you may have gathered, cannabis-lab techs are the new rock stars of the industry. L.A. Weekly recently did a story on CannaSafe, a testing lab in the canna-friendly San Fernando Valley hamlet of Van Nuys, that ventured: “Just look at Eagle 20, a common pesticide in cannabis-land. It’s safe to eat vegetables and fruit treated with Eagle 20 (active ingredient myclobutanil), CannaSafe scientists say. But burning cannabis containing Eagle 20 turns the mold-killing pesticide into cyanide gas.
Even if you don’t have cancer, I can’t recommend inhaling cyanide gas.
Even if you don’t have cancer, I can’t recommend inhaling cyanide gas. “ … Close to 50 percent of marijuana flowers CannaSafe tests contain mold or pesticides, while 10 percent contain Eagle 20. ‘That’s a problem for people using cannabis for medicinal reasons,’ says Aaron Riley, CannaSafe president. ‘It’s all about quality control. We pride ourselves on helping patients with dosage and safety. If you have cancer, you shouldn’t be inhaling cyanide gas.’” But back to potency. The state has stated that “a cannabis fails potency testing if the amount or percentage of THC exceeds the labeled concentration of THC, plus or minus 15 percent.” Plus or minus 15 percent may seem like a significant margin of error, but this is medicine – people with compromised immune systems can’t risk mystery cannabis – and we’ve got to start somewhere. I trust testing for this standard – as well as the allowable parts per million of, oh, I dunno, Trifloxystrobin – will become more sophisticated as the industry matures. Now that you know all this, are you gonna try to save a few bucks buying on the illicit market? For me, the answer is a resounding “no.” When someone asks ME what I’VE been smoking, I want to be able to tell them.