Three years after voters approved medical marijuana in Massachusetts in 2012, the first dispensary has received approval to open – but only after being granted a temporary waiver from strict and controversial testing guidelines.
Massachusetts’ testing guidelines have come under intense scrutiny and criticism. Acknowledging that their standards are the strictest in the nation and very difficult to meet, the MA Department of Public Health will be reconsidering their state standards.
“We appreciate that the Administration will review their testing levels during this three month reprieve,” said Kevin Gilnack, executive director of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, a trade group representing dispensaries. Other advocates for dispensaries and patients also praised the administration for granting the waiver. “Massachusetts has the most conservative testing standards in the nation,” Gilnack points out. Colorado, for example, sets a limit on lead of 15,000 parts per billion. Massachusetts’ limit is 212 parts per billion. And, it is “the only state that has established its standards on the unsupported assumption that a patient might consume an entire ounce of cannabis in one sitting.”
Nichole Snow, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which represents medical marijuana patients, agrees. She said the alliance would like to work with the state to develop standards that reflect realistic dosages of medical marijuana. “Part of [the problem] is that the DPH doesn’t understand completely how patients use this medicine.”
The testing standards issue is just the latest in a series of difficulties with rolling out Massachusetts’ medical marijuana program. Of the many dispensaries that began the process, only four have received permission to grow. Alternative Therapies Group in Salem is the first company to reach and begin the testing phase.
The testing was performed by ProVerde Laboratories. Christopher Hudalla, ProVerde’s chief scientific officer, points out that one problem with such strict standards is that the tests pick up naturally occurring metals, which are always present in the soil and in foods in trace amounts, and do no harm. These background amounts of metals do not mean the sample is contaminated in any way, yet under these testing standards, the sample would be rejected.
The Department of Public Health said it will review its standards for naturally occurring material. “We carefully considered the initial testing results,” said Dr. Monica Bharel, commissioner of the DPH. In fact, in April, Governor Charlie Baker announced that he would be reviewing and revising the entire licensing process. Dispensaries which have already received provisional licenses could continue taking the steps needed to get final approval.
ProVerde was also unable to test for seven of 18 mandated pesticides. Testing to the level stipulated by current standards for the different pesticides requires many specialized instruments and techniques, all expensive and time consuming. The lab has been gradually acquiring the equipment and developing the techniques it needs to test for all eighteen pesticides, but it is still unable to test for the level of sensitivity required on all of them.
Testing for the pesticides is not crucial for public safety, says Hudalla, because the growing facilities are banned from using them, and they have been inspected to ensure that the pesticides are not present.
“I don’t have concern over consumer safety because I know dispensaries are not using these pesticides,” Hudalla said. However, Hudalla also added that the state acted responsibility by beginning with very conservative limits. Marijuana’s controversial status as a Federal Schedule 1 Drug means that there is little public research about proper standards, or anything else. Beginning with conservative limits is proper, Hudalla said, with the understanding that “as they learn more information, they can loosen the limits to make it more realistic.”
The testing lab, dispensary advocates and the DPH all emphasize that the medical marijuana that Alternative Therapies Group will be selling will be safe to consume. There is no health threat, even though it has met some but not yet all of the state testing guidelines.
“We believe these levels [which have been met] provide for patient health protections while allowing the first dispensary to distribute marijuana for medical use as voted on in 2012,” Bharel said.
The marijuana sold by Alternative Therapies Group will be labeled to show the chemicals that it has not been tested for. The waiver of testing standards will last for three months. Alternative Therapies Group will be permitted to dispense a limited amount of marijuana to each patient – 4.23 ounces for a 60-day supply – with an instruction that they consume no more than 2 grams per day.
“Patients have waited to access marijuana for medical purposes for far too long,” Governor Baker said. “This waiver will allow industry laboratories a little more time to reach full operation while providing safe amounts of medical marijuana for qualifying patients who need it.”