Dr. Reggie Gaudino had a lot of cannabis at his disposal, but none of it fit the bill. His father, who had suffered a stroke a few years prior, had been unable to eat, talk or walk until he tried a high-CBD oil, which was made from a particular, top-shelf strain of bud. When the Oregon company that made the oil buckled under new state regulations, Gaudino was desperate to make the oil himself. He dug into his network and found a cultivator in Washington who sold the strain to him at a premium. But when it finally arrived, he was in for an unpleasant surprise.

“I rolled up a joint and the first hit made me cough so much I almost threw up,” Gaudino recalled. “I put it through our lab and it came up as so dirty that there was no possible way I could turn it into a medicine for my father.”

The “premium” cannabis Gaudino purchased was so contaminated that his laboratory, Steep Hill Labs, now uses the batch to help it develop methods for identifying harmful bacteria on bud sent to them by cultivators. Right now, though, this is an optional move in California, and the state’s cannabis cultivation process remains entirely unregulated. Gaudino’s story, he says, serves as a lesson: Anyone can be duped by savvy cannabis branding and, unfortunately, not everyone will have the resources he has to verify the packaging on what they purchase.

In theory, on Jan. 1, that will all change. The state of California is currently drafting regulations for seed-to-sale tracking (meaning from the time the seed hits the soil to the moment it’s sold to the consumer). In actuality, there’s a lot of debate among industry professionals about striking a balance between regulations that are strict enough to ensure safe cannabis but not so laborious that they bankrupt growers who don’t have the capital to revamp their cultivation process.

In preparation for the regulations, the industry standard is slowly moving toward cannabis that’s grown without pesticides and tested for contaminants that could pose health risks, including bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli, mold and fungi. A growing number of brands, akin to the craft beer industry, are emerging in and around Los Angeles with mission statements about offering trustworthy bud in a market that still feels much like the Wild West.

Southern California cultivators such as Lowell Farms and Canndescent are leading the way. Their websites are as appealing as their packaging, with sleek fonts and a minimalist aesthetic — they fit in seamlessly alongside brands such as Warby Parker and Blue Bottle Coffee. According to Canndescent’s CEO Adrian Sedlin, the company is all about replacing the “boobs and doobs” brands offering mediocre cannabis with something that’s cultivated in a transparent, consistent way. It’s not easy, though.

Canndescent spent millions of dollars setting up its high-tech micro-grow rooms. All its cannabis gets tested in-house for contaminants, and if it doesn’t pass muster (and inevitably it sometimes won’t, Sedlin says) it gets tossed. These are luxuries a lot of cultivators won’t be able to afford, and he predicts there will be a shortage of weed in dispensaries come 2018. “We’re very aware that most people are not prepared for what’s about to come,” Sedlin says.

Canndescent, a Southern California cannabis cultivator, tests all of its bud for harmful bacteria at its Desert Hot Springs facility.; Credit: Canndescent

Canndescent, a Southern California cannabis cultivator, tests all of its bud for harmful bacteria at its Desert Hot Springs facility.; Credit: Canndescent

There is limited data on what percentage of cannabis currently sold in Los Angeles dispensaries could be harmful to consumers, particularly immunocompromised patients such as those receiving chemotherapy or stem-cell therapy. Gaudino’s lab, Steep Hill, has found pesticides on 75 to 80 percent of samples from medical marijuana dispensaries across the United States. Thirty percent, he says, had a level of pesticides that would fail anyone’s safety threshold. From his perspective, though, that threshold is giving consumers “a false sense of security.” The “safety” levels for pesticide use in cannabis are based on studies that looked at the risks of eating food with pesticides.

“There’s a presumption that if you’re smoking or vaping pesticides, that may be worse and, arguably it could be, but there’s not any science on this,” says Anthony Smith, chief science officer of cannabis testing company Signal Bay.

In addition to pesticides, there’s the issue of bacteria, fungi and other contaminants. In 2016, Steep Hill tested 20 samples from California dispensaries and found that 18 of them contained something that “could be harmful to humans.” In most cases, these contaminants won’t cause serious health problems for a normal adult user, but in some rare instances they’ve been fatal for cancer patients. The risk is high enough that the team at Steep Hill recently submitted protocols to the state recommending an amendment to the current draft regulations.

“We said that there is no standard high enough that would make cannabis safe for an immunocompromised patient,” Gaudino says. “We’re taking a very public stance that the current regulations that are being proposed for California got that part wrong.”

As for everyone else, Gaudino and his colleagues say the safest way to guarantee clean cannabis now is to request a full lab report from the dispensary. Ryan Smith, CEO of LeafLink, an online platform that connects cannabis purveyors with dispensaries, agrees: Branding is a good start, but it’s not enough. Smith says there are a lot of companies that care, but there’s also a large incentive right now to appear high-end in order to compete in the growing marketplace.

“Anyone can put words on their website, and what objective standards are we using to understand that?” Smith says. “Really, I mean you can take people at their word, but that wouldn’t really be acceptable in any other industry and it shouldn’t be here.”

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