Edible medical marijuana items lack safety regulation

Aa pedestrian walks past neon sign advertising a Aa pedestrian walks past neon sign advertising a medical marijuana provider along a street in Los Angeles. (Jan. 26, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

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In Washington state's scantily regulated medical-marijuana industry, no one is checking how marijuana-infused food and drink products are made, or how safe they are.

A dizzying array of cannabis-infused products, called "medibles" -- from taco mix to cotton candy, from pulled pork to carbonated colas -- have begun showing up in the past two years on the shelves at storefront marijuana dispensaries.

Medibles are the fastest-growing segment of Washington's fast-growing medical-marijuana industry. Their wares represent perhaps a third of sales at storefront dispensaries.

And business could really take off if voters in November approve Initiative 502. The measure would legalize marijuana sales for recreational use and create state-licensed marijuana stores that presumably would carry a variety of cannabis-infused food and drink. Those products are seen as a tastier, more healthful alternative to smoking, in which dosages of THC can be more exact, and more appealing to older users.

But for now, medibles producers operate even more underground than dispensaries. And even though they make food, no one is inspecting them because state officials defer to the federal ban on marijuana.

In legal ambiguity, some medibles entrepreneurs try to police themselves, paying for testing at special medical-marijuana labs.

Even with such tests, those in the industry are nervous that a patient will get sick, or overdose on a supercharged product coming from a grungy kitchen.

Washington in 1998 became one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana, long before the emergence of storefront dispensaries or medibles.

Since they've arrived, state law hasn't kept up. A 2011 bill, passed by the Legislature, would have regulated medibles, including requiring licenses, kitchen inspections and independent quality testing. Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed most of it, saying inspections opened state employees to federal jeopardy.

Because federal law defines marijuana as a Schedule I drug, with no medical value, cannabis-infused foods are considered "adulterated" -- or unsafe -- products under federal food-safety codes.

Other medical-marijuana states, including Colorado and Arizona, essentially ignore federal law and require inspections of medibles producers. But absent a state law here requiring them, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, which oversees wholesale kitchens, follows federal guidelines.

"Food products containing marijuana therefore fall outside WSDA jurisdiction because they aren't legal commercial products," said agency spokesman Jason Kelly.

The Seattle & King County Public Health Department, which inspects retail kitchens, also balks. "Certainly we want to assure the food safety across the county, but the circumstances are a little unclear in this situation," said spokeswoman Hilary Karasz.

Making edible marijuana products isn't easy. Many commercial kitchens won't rent to medibles. And it remains risky.

The closest thing to quality control in the medical-marijuana industry is the handful of local laboratories testing marijuana.

They, too, work without state inspections, but look and feel like small biotech startups, spending $100,000 or more to launch.

Their tests -- about $50 per sample, using varying methods -- provide results for six different chemical compounds -- or "cannabinoids" -- in marijuana, and can look for mold or pesticides, although those tests aren't popular.

Growers, dispensaries and medibles makers are the customers, and display test results on the packaging like a seal of approval -- so long as they're positive results.

Testing is particularly critical for medibles, said Klaas Hesselink, founder of CannaTest on Bainbridge.

The test for THC -- the magic cannabinoid -- is most popular; a finding of 21 percent can jack the per-pound price by $400. Other compounds, including those that provide pain relief without a high, are increasingly coveted among growers.

Labs can also serve as marijuana's Consumer Reports. One lab, Analytical 360, published a test result in April showing an apple-flavored soda, supposedly chock-full of THC, had only trace amounts.

Improved test quality is overdue, especially in the unregulated medibles, said Alex Prindle, a restaurateur who co-founded Northwest Botanical Analysis. "This is a product that's coming from some guy's basement, and it's being given to a cancer patient," he said.

A small group, including medibles makers and testing labs, is making the move to self-regulate. Guidelines from the group, the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics, include business basics: Pay all taxes. Get food-handler permits. Follow U.S.

Food and Drug Administration labeling standards. Don't produce anything requiring refrigeration, or hot handling, in a personal kitchen.

Those standards, however, are voluntary, not widely followed, and they don't provide any legal protection from state prosecution, let alone federal charges.

Ironically, that has likely helped dissuade bigger medibles manufacturers from moving in. Tripp Keber, managing director of Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, Colorado's largest medibles manufacturer, said Washington is an attractive market, but its laws are too loose to justify investment.

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