For years, Sharon Corbett would consume a gram of highly concentrated cannabis oil every week hoping to ward off a return of her esophageal cancer.

The 68-year-old Lincolnville retiree believed that $25-a-gram oil was saving her life. But over the summer, when she started feeling sick, a friend urged her to get it tested. A private lab concluded the oil contained high levels of naphtha, a chemical solvent used as a paint thinner or lighter fluid that can contain cancer-causing substances and is illegal to use in marijuana extractions in Colorado and Massachusetts.

“One day, I’ve got my oncologist telling me, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but whatever it is, keep doing it,’ and I think everything’s great,” said Corbett. “Then I open an email from the lab telling me I’ve been taking a daily dose of paint thinner for years. Even my doctor doesn’t know what that’s done to me, but it can’t be good.”

In Maine, nobody is checking to see if the cannabis sold now is safe. Medical marijuana has been legal since 1999, with 50,000 certified patients purchasing $50 million of cannabis a year to treat conditions ranging from glaucoma to AIDS, yet none of it must be tested. Oregon, Washington and Colorado test their medical marijuana for contaminants like mold, residual solvents and bacteria. Maine forbids the use of high-risk pesticides but doesn’t test for it.

 

The Maine Medical Association calls marijuana contamination “one of the most significant risks” facing the legal market. Threats can range from E. coli poisoning to deadly lung infections, but many of the risks cannot be accurately calculated because federally funded researchers are limited in their ability to study marijuana, much less the contamination risks posed by the many different ways that adults are legally using it in 33 U.S. states.

One marijuana testing lab says that Maine’s medical marijuana is rife with contaminants of all kinds, ranging from high levels of residual solvents like naphtha or rubbing alcohol in concentrates, to mold and bacteria, to pesticides. According to Nick Des Lauriers, the business manager of ProVerde Laboratories in Portland, failing cannabis products are the norm in Maine.

“There are some bad people out there doing some pretty shady things to make a quick buck that could make people really sick,” Des Lauriers said.

Falmouth doctor Dustin Sulak, a cannabis specialist, says with help, most patients can grow their own cannabis and even learn how to correctly create the proper concentrations and doses. He cautions patients about buying medical marijuana because of purity concerns, especially for the very young and very old consumers, Sulak said, as well as those who have seizures, chemical sensitivity or neurological illnesses.

“Nine years in, there is still not a single product in the marketplace that I can say with absolute certainty is quality-assured, for labeling of active ingredients or for freedom from contamination,” said Sulak, whose medical practice treats or consults on more than 8,000 medical marijuana cases. “I’m sad to say there isn’t a single product in the state that I can be certain meets my standards.”

RULES UNDERWAY

With the rollout of Maine’s recreational market looming in 2019, however, the marijuana testing landscape is about to change.

Maine will require mandatory potency and safety tests for marijuana that will be sold to the 325,000 Mainers and 8.5 million tourists expected to participate in the new recreational market. The state Department of Administrative and Financial Services has hired BOTEC Analysis of Los Angeles to help it pick which tests will be done on which products, establish acceptable limits for marijuana contaminants, and determine what happens when products fail.

Currently, Maine has just one medical marijuana consumer safety law on the books: only minimum-risk pesticides, like cinnamon and peppermint oil, are allowed. But Maine doesn’t release medical cannabis enforcement data, or even the number of times it inspects its eight dispensaries or 2,900 medical caregivers, so it is not clear if anyone breaks the pesticide law or if patients have complained about it. The state has denied repeated requests from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for this information.

The agency, which will oversee both adult-use and medical marijuana, wants to apply mandatory testing rules to all cannabis, including medical, said spokesman David Heidrich. It will try to do that through an administrative process, but if needed, DAFS will ask state lawmakers to adopt a medical marijuana consumer safety law, he said.

UNWARY CONSUMERS

In the absence of mandated testing, medical marijuana consumers are on their own to assess the purity of their medicine.

Christine Chicoine followed a doctor’s recommendation when deciding who would make oil for her now 16-year-old daughter, who has pain from a childhood bout of Henoch-Schönlein purpura, a disease that causes swelling of the small blood vessels. The 39-year-old Waldo County mother sought an oil with almost no THC, the intoxicating ingredient of cannabis. She wanted it extracted using food-grade alcohol to protect her daughter’s immune-compromised system.

The doctor referred her to LoveGrown, a Farmington caregiving operation run by Erica and Jack Haywood that advertises medical-grade cannabis and hemp.

“It was organic this and organic that, we never do this and we always do that,” Chicoine recalls. “Based on the way she talked, she is the last person I’d have ever expected to mess around with a child’s medicine. I can’t tell you how many times she preached to me about the evils of isopropyl alcohol. It’s junk and it will make you sick, she said. Well, guess what was used to make my daughter’s oil?”

After a negative experience with a previous caregiver, Sharon Corbett, 68, of Lincolnville, who uses medical marijuana products as part of her recovery from esophageal cancer, now shops at New World Organics in Belfast. Shopkeeper Justin Olsen, above, with Corbett, says, “I believe in the power of healing through cannabis.”

Her daughter had been taking the oil for about a month when the itching started. Headaches and stomachaches followed. Chicoine sent the oil to a lab for testing, which showed rubbing alcohol was used to extract the oil. Her daughter stopped using the hemp oil and her symptoms faded. Instead, Chicoine treated her with a low-THC tincture made from her personal medical marijuana grow until she eventually found a new caregiver who tests every batch of hemp oil.

“I’m not a big government person, but I think anything for a kid, it ought to be tested,” Chicoine said.

Robin Crawley was also a LoveGrown patient. The raw hemp oil extract the Vassalboro information technology specialist bought from Erica Haywood was a lot stronger than Chicoine’s, as it hadn’t been diluted. When she began to feel sick, she took the oil to a testing lab. It contained 17,620 parts per million of rubbing alcohol, or more than three times the Massachusetts legal limit, results show.

Crawley is angry, but she doesn’t want to say anything that could prompt regulators to require unreasonable tests that could drive up prices or hurt the community.

“It was an ugly thing, all around, causing a big uproar, but I never stopped believing in the plant or the program,” she said. “Now I ask a lot of questions and I test when I can.”

Haywood blamed the problem on a third-party processor. LoveGrown had started to grow so much hemp that its board decided to farm out the extraction, like most Maine caregivers were doing at the time. Haywood instructed the extractor to use food-grade ethanol, but didn’t test the oil she got back for contamination. The third-party processor, Wholesale International, said it warned Haywood the extraction had gone awry but that she sold it to patients anyway.

“No way should that stuff have been sold to patients,” said Matt Fournier, one of Wholesale International’s principals.

The dispute devolved into a he said/she said argument, with Haywood saying Fournier never told her the extraction had failed, while he claims he did.

In the aftermath, LoveGrown tested the product on its own, informed a third client who had bought the contaminated oil and offered client refunds, according to Haywood. LoveGrown now always does its own extractions, in house, even if it takes longer to do it, Haywood said.

THE COST OF TESTING

Despite the risks, the marijuana industry worries mandatory testing could slow down the rollout of the adult-use market and drive up the price of medical cannabis. Some caregivers question the accuracy of the results, claiming that different labs will come back with widely varying results from tests performed on the very same batch of cannabis products, depending on the kind of equipment the lab uses.

Maine doesn’t have any state-licensed cannabis testing labs yet. State lawmakers passed a law requiring medical marijuana test labs to be state-licensed, but the law was never implemented by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. But DAFS is now working with the Colorado firm of Freedman & Koski to develop rules to start issuing state laboratory licenses soon. Independently accredited labs can operate without those rules in place now, however.

Currently, Maine has two independent cannabis labs: ProVerde Labs, which opened a new Portland lab in November, and Tested Labs in Kennebunk, which was started by Sulak, the Falmouth doctor, but sold to Nelson Analytical in 2017. Some Mainers use Massachusetts labs, but they take the risk of crossing state lines with a federally illegal drug. With just two Maine labs, however, customers can expect to wait two to four weeks for results unless they pay higher rush fees.

A full slate of tests – potency, residual solvents, pesticides, heavy metals, fungus and bacteria – costs $550. If mandatory testing is expanded into Maine’s medical market, small-time caregivers who produce relatively small harvests could get priced out of the market and patients would likely see the price of their flower, salve, oil or edible go up as producers pass along at least some of the higher production costs.

At least two other labs have expressed interest in coming to Maine once the state begins licensing labs, which could help cut down on testing delays and prices.

Most of Maine’s eight medical marijuana dispensaries have developed in-house labs to help fine-tune their manufacturing process and confirm both potency and consumer safety and use ProVerde and Nelson labs to independently confirm those results. Now that Maine allows wholesale medical cannabis sales, dispensary managers say they will use outside labs to run a full panel of purity tests on all third-party cannabis before selling it.

DISPENSARY ADVOCATES FOR MANDATED TESTING

Those third-party cannabis tests have been surprising for Wellness Connection CEO Patricia Rosi, who runs four of Maine’s eight dispensaries. About half of those who approach Wellness about wholesale opportunities balk when they find out Wellness is only interested if they can visit the grower’s cultivation site. Of those that agree to a visit, only 29 percent can pass the outside testing screening, with most failures stemming from too much yeast or mold in the smokable marijuana.

Wellness has had its own contaminant trouble. In 2013, the state fined Wellness $18,000 for using pesticides at a time when state law prohibited the use of any pesticides in cannabis production. After the investigation, Wellness and other dispensaries successfully lobbied for a law allowing minimum-risk pesticides, like peppermint oil or cinnamon. Now, Wellness relies on integrated pest management to do the work of pesticides.

According to Rosi, the pesticide violation forced Wellness to become a leader in producing clean cannabis. Now the company is lobbying Maine to implement mandatory testing for all medical marijuana, both as a protection for patients as well as a market equalizer, she said. The law will force caregivers, who are the dispensaries’ top rivals for medical marijuana patients, to meet the same quality standards and pay the same testing costs as dispensaries do, she said.

Sulak launched Tested Labs in 2013 to help him calculate the potency of the cannabis that his patients were buying from caregivers and dispensaries. Without it, he couldn’t establish safe, effective dosage levels. Patient after patient would come into his office with an unmarked bottle of cannabis oil and ask him how much they should take. Without testing, he wouldn’t even know what was inside, much less how much of it they should take.

But Sulak does not think the answer to the substandard quality lies in mandatory testing. That would force caregivers out of business and undermine the diversity of the Maine market, which is its greatest strength, Sulak said. The state’s patchwork network of 3,000 caregivers and eight dispensaries allows for thousands of different cannabis products made from a dizzying array of plant strains, he said. Curb that and patients will suffer.

“Put it in the hands of the consumer and let them decide, just like they do at the grocery store,” Sulak said. “Do they buy organic food or not?”

Data from regional hospital intakes and poison control records indicate that Maine consumers haven’t been getting sick from contaminated marijuana. The Northern New England Poison Control Center received fewer than 15 calls about contaminated cannabis over the last three years, and none of those led to hospitalization, according to director Karen Simone. But it’s too early to say what long-term exposure to marijuana contaminants will do, she warned.

PRICE, NOT PURITY, TOPS FOR CONSUMERS

In the last year, ProVerde has seen potency testing in Maine steadily grow, but contaminant testing only spikes when a shocked patient like Crawley posts failing test results on Facebook, Des Lauriers said. The lab usually keeps its mouth shut when it comes to test findings, especially since Maine does not have any rules, but occasionally it comes across something so shocking, like Corbett’s results, that it will send out a warning email to customers.

Corbett ended up with a naphtha-contaminated oil because of price. Some caregivers had charged her as much as $100 a gram, but the caregiver who used the naphtha to make the oil only charged her $20. She believed that was because she got a price break as a full-time patient, usually bought in bulk at harvest time when the price of marijuana drops, and bought from somebody who worked out of his home, who didn’t have to factor in the overhead costs of running a store.

According to ProVerde, which tested Corbett’s oil, the product contained 1,339 parts per million of naphtha-related chemicals. Because marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, national food and drug regulators won’t weigh in on naphtha marijuana extractions. And there are no clinical medical trials showing the impact of a long-term exposure to its use in cannabis oil, but regulators warn that naphtha levels of 1,000 parts per million are immediately dangerous to life and health.

Corbett isn’t angry with her caregiver, who was just following an online recipe, and refused to name him. She still buys smokable cannabis from him.

Corbett doesn’t know if the depression and respiratory problems she experienced while using the naphtha-made oil were related to the residual solvent, or if they were linked to her cancer, but they have gotten better since she stopped using the contaminated extract. The lack of reliable medical research on cannabis, or its contaminants, leaves her doctors unable to predict how long-term daily exposure to naphtha may impact Corbett’s future health.

Doctors also can’t say what role cannabis played in Corbett’s recovery from cancer. Without clinical trials in thousands of human subjects, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says the federal government can’t properly assess the benefits and risks of medical marijuana, but it notes the cannabis plant may contain chemicals that help treat a range of illnesses and symptoms. Research in mice shows marijuana extracts may help kill certain cancer cells and reduce the size of others.

Corbett considered forgoing the oil altogether, but her oncologist’s warning – “nobody survives esophageal cancer, even with surgery. … I can’t explain why you’re still here” – drove her back out into the medical marijuana marketplace looking for the perfect mix of purity and affordability. What she found was New World Organics, a caregiver storefront in Belfast, where shopkeeper Justin Olsen gives her a cannabis oil made with food-grade alcohol every month for free.

“The neediest patients are oftentimes the ones least able to afford treatment,” said Olsen. “I believe in the power of healing through cannabis.”

 


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