Colorado Considers Product Labels to Notify Dispensary Shoppers of Decontaminated Weed | Westword

Should Dispensary Shoppers Be Notified of Decontaminated Weed?

A hefty portion of the cannabis industry says no, but government officials and some growers disagree.
Cannabis business owners and state officials are discussing new rules regarding decontamination.
Cannabis business owners and state officials are discussing new rules regarding decontamination. Jacqueline Collins

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Colorado's cannabis rulemakers are weighing new product testing and decontamination rules, including a potential label for products that have undergone remediation techniques after harvest.

Contamination from mold or illegal pesticides has been an ongoing problem since recreational pot sales began in Colorado at the start of 2014. Decontamination and remediation techniques for failed batches of cannabis were approved by the state Marijuana Enforcement Division in 2021, but the definitions and rules surrounding these techniques are slight. As more Colorado growers use decontamination techniques or try to skirt state contaminant testing and mold recalls increase, MED officials have called growers, public health administrators and other cannabis stakeholders together for rulemaking suggestions.

The latest hearing, held August 30, considered new reduced testing allowance rules for growers in good standing, as well as definitions of genetic material and guardrails for the transfer of cannabis tissue cultures. However, the bulk of the conversation centered on the future of cannabis decontamination rules in Colorado.

While the MED and majority of the pot industry believe these methods result in safer products for consumers, there are questions about the impact on the smell, potency and flavor profiles of cannabis after decontamination, as well as its medicinal value. There were also questions raised during the meeting about the long-term impact of smoking cannabis that has been treated.

"The inhalation of cannabis carries a unique set of dangers that we might not inherently recognize at this time," cannabis industry executive Christian Hageseth said. "Science knows what it knows until it knows something else, and then it evolves. I believe that scientifically, we really don't know enough about these decontamination methods to really make a statement."

The meeting wasn't a question of whether decontamination and remediation techniques will be approved — the MED has confirmed it is working toward that — but by which methods, and how.

Ultraviolet light and ozone machines are both commonly used in the cannabis industry to decontaminate plant matter, sometimes before laboratory testing as a preemptive move. Although the techniques are allowed by the MED, officials want to put them in writing. Ultraviolet light and ozone, as well as microwaves (not necessarily the ones in our kitchens, but similar) are all considered likely candidates for approval when the new rules take effect January 1 of next year. Hageseth represents a cannabis decontamination service, VIST Labs, which is proposing a form of pasteurization for MED approval.

"There were no approved methods or prohibited methods, and we saw what would be some concerning methods that were being employed, and we thought it was important to start the conversation," MED senior deputy director Kyle Lambert explained during the meeting.

Under the MED's first draft, non-approved decontamination or remediation methods would be considered breaking the rules, but business owners could petition for new methods under a "higher bar" of proof, according to Lambert. However, the department is still deciding whether or not to alert consumers to the fact that their reefer has been refurbished. And a large contingent of the cannabis industry pushed back against the notion.

"It puts a scarlet letter on there," Marijuana Industry Group executive director Truman Bradley said during the meeting. "If it has passed all the tests, and if it's gone through a method that has been widely vetted, I'm not sure what the added benefit is...other than make it unsellable."

A handful of other large players in Colorado cannabis, including Native Roots, one of the state's largest dispensary chains, and VS Strategies, one of the country's most influential cannabis consulting groups, expressed their desire to keep any notifications of decontamination off retail pot products — although VS Strategies later clarified that it is in favor of labeling products that initially failed testing and were then treated, or remediated, before being sold.

Many of the opposing parties compared retail cannabis products to meat, which goes under remediation without a stamp or label on the end product. Officials from the City of Denver and the state Department of Public Health and Environment argued against the idea of comparing cannabis to non-smokeable products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

"Just because a product has gone through testing doesn't necessarily mean that a product is safe; that's not what the rules say. I think, from a consumer standpoint, it might be helpful for consumers to know what they're getting into," Reginald Nubine of the Denver City Attorney's Office pointed out. "We don't know the long-term effects of a product that once might've been contaminated and is no longer contaminated, but I think as a consumer, I'd want to know that."

The timeline of cannabis product decontamination and remediation can be more complicated than moldy weed being nuked into something smokeable, some industry representatives argued. A growing portion of cultivators treat their flower before sending it in for state testing to ensure better chances of passing, while some product is grown with the intention of treatment and extraction for infused products, such as hash or edibles.

They consider this step "decontamination," while products that failed state testing and were later decontaminated are considered "remediated" by the industry. Yet even though cannabis business owners and their lawyers argued for that distinction, they didn't want either identified to dispensary customers.

"'Decontamination' may be a better term for that when we're talking about it prior to testing, and perhaps 'remediation' would be a better step after testing, but I do think that it's super important that we distinguish entities who are doing this as part of their process and ensuring their entire batch is clean, versus just what may have passed through testing," Native Roots head grower Jason MacDonald said. "Where this becomes important is product marked with remediation is significantly less valuable on the market, whereas product that has been decontaminated — [that's] a step in the process that is always done to every batch and really shouldn't be considered that way."

There was not unanimous agreement among growers and extractors regarding the potential labeling, however.

"I think that customers should know what they're purchasing, [and] whether it's been treated," argued Seth Lee, chief of cultivation at High West Cannabis. "I don't think it's the scarlet letter people think it is. I think it's perfectly benign."

The MED has issued a dozen recalls over the past five months, all of them connected to forms of mold and yeast, and fifteen recalls overall this year. The majority of recent recalls from the MED also included alerts for marijuana that was "improperly submitted for testing" or "not submitted for testing in accordance" with MED rules.

According to T.J. Fisker, co-founder of rosin extractor Mountain Select, a quarterly facility test would better guarantee clean products in dispensaries.

"I think the issue is that a lot of people are doing this just to get their samples in and pass them instead of decontaminating their whole facility," he said.

The MED will submit the final draft of new decontamination and remediation regulations on October 30, with the rules set to take effect on January 1, 2024 — ten years to the day that marijuana sales began in this state. On September 18, the department will hold another rulemaking hearing, with this one centered on 2023 legislation implementation, regulatory efficiencies and cannabis hospitality.

Update: This article was updated on September 13 to add further comment from VS Strategies.
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