Every summer, across the United States, people flock to their local farmers' market to purchase fresh produce, homemade baked goods, and tasty treats. Naturally, most assume that the locally produced goods are high-quality, organic foods. But how do they know? Anyone can label a product and say it's naturally produced, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is.
Shoppers have the best intentions when supporting a local business, a mom-and-pop shop, or a bohemian brand. But do the producers have the best of intentions when it comes to their consumers? Horrifically, many small cannabis producers are shrugging compliance under the guise of free enterprise. Unfortunately, in doing so, they aren't just setting themselves up for failure; they are threatening consumer safety and possibly permanently damaging the integrity of an industry.
A recent study published in the Journal of Rural Studies surveyed 362 cannabis farmers in California and found that many were skirting compliance and still dealing in illicit market activities. Many cultivators blame the cost of compliance and administration hassles for the defiance.
The study raises an interesting question – what comes first in cannabis, consumer safety, or company profit? Unfortunately, the answer isn't as straightforward as we'd hope.
Cashing in on Cannabis
When cannabis started its path toward legalization, compassionate care was the most common phrase heard in support of the change. Decriminalization and the establishment of medical programs meant alternatives for those who had few other options. As the success stories started leaking out into the world about a natural herb that held the potential for a different approach to health and wellness, and industry began to blossom.
Yet, if we go back in time and listen to the pioneers, the activists, and the advocates, no one said, “Let's legalize cannabis; I want to get rich!” Well, at least not solely, and not out loud. No, they wanted to legalize cannabis to help people who were suffering. Thus, the industry began on a more altruistic foundation than just simply enterprise.
State by state, the movement grew, and today, what was once considered a pipe dream, is coming to fruition. But, sadly, the mad dash to cash-in on the Green Rush also created opportunities for less-than-stellar business practices, both intentional and unintentional.
Produce, Pesticides, Toxins, Oh My!
Shoppers are becoming increasingly conscientious of what they put in their bodies. We are learning that preservatives, artificial ingredients, contaminants, and toxins in everyday products can cause more harm than good. But without regulation, consumers don't know what they're consuming.
New research on sunscreens found an alarming number of products containing benzene, a known carcinogen that can cause leukemia. In the world of agriculture, pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers have been used for decades, and we are acutely aware that most of our foods contain trace levels of residual cultivation chemicals.
But we don't inhale broccoli. While slathering carcinogens on our skin, or eating trace amounts of pesticides, sounds terrifying enough, think about inhaling them directly into a delicate and critical internal organ, your lungs.
As a natural phytoremediator, hemp and cannabis absorb toxins within their environment. Therefore, without regulation, cultivation standards, and testing requirements, cannabis, and hemp crops and the products produced with them can present significant health concerns. For example, suppose a farmer in Iowa, who's been farming pesticide-heavy corn and soybeans for decades, decides to try his hand at hemp instead. In that case, the first several rotations of his hemp crop will likely contain toxins, as hemp will work to remediate the contaminated soil.
Even if the cultivator is supremely careful in their cultivation processes, thanks to pesticide drift, it may not matter. If their neighbor, who doesn't care about compliance, uses Eagle 20, or some other toxic substance, their crop will likely be contaminated, too.
Post-Harvest Processing Mistakes and Shortcuts
Poor cultivation practices aren't the only way to introduce contaminants into cannabis products. Hemp and cannabis both go through extensive post-harvest processing, including drying, curing, extracting, production and packaging. Each step introduces another area for possible contamination.
- Drying and Curing: If drying and curing are not done properly, the plant material can develop molds and fungus, which can be dangerous for humans to consume. If excess, unprocessed organic biomass isn't appropriately stored in a facility, it can become a breeding ground for bacteria and mycotoxins.
- Extraction Processes: The process of extracting cannabis is based on chemistry, and variables can happen which can create potentially hazardous byproducts. Improper techniques can leave behind residual solvents. But, most importantly, if a processor starts with contaminated plant material, extracting the oils concentrates not only the cannabinoids but also the toxins.
- Purification Processes: The art of creating hemp and cannabis-derived isolates, distillates, and synthesized cannabinoids take complex chemistry processes that often require the use of caustic chemicals. Done improperly, products can contain numerous toxins and unidentified substances.
- Food Production: Edible products introduce several contamination risks, such as foodborne pathogens. Edibles must follow all the regulations for food production, as well as cannabis compliance. Dosing accuracy can also be problematic in under-equipped kitchens. Food production regulations aren't specific to cannabis, however. Cottage food laws from state to state also put regulations and restrictions on the sale of homemade goods, such as cookies, pastries, and candies.
- Packaging: In the case of cannabis vape cartridges, additives such as PG and PEG are used to change the viscosity of the oils. As we learned during the 2019 Vitamin E Vape Crisis, sometimes FDA-approved food additives aren't meant to be vaporized and inhaled. Additionally, some vape cartridges have been found to contain metal components that release carcinogens when heated.
Regardless of the industry, in a for-profit business model, the goal is always to reduce expenses and increase revenues. So whatever product or service is being sold, someone is looking for ways to do it better, faster, and cheaper. But, unfortunately, in the race to be the best, humans are sometimes tempted to take shortcuts, especially if they think no one is looking. And typically, cutting corners rarely works out well for the end-user.
Protect the Consumer, Honor the Culture, Grow the Enterprise
As the world opens the door to cannabis enterprise, the race to build the biggest bank account begins. Cannabis is a lucrative business, and too often, we can let greed can outweigh integrity. Taking shortcuts at the expense of the consumer is a losing proposition.
Saying that cannabis regulation is killing small business is like saying restaurants that aren't chains shouldn't have to meet cleanliness standards. You wouldn't knowingly eat a hamburger containing e. coli, regardless of who undercooked it for you. Consumers deserve to know what they are consuming, which will only happen with regulation, standards, and testing.