While newcomers to legal cannabis may assume that all the stuff on store shelves is safe, this isn’t always the case.
The State of Washington Department of Health requires that cannabis grown for medical use be tested for illegal pesticides, heavy metal, bacteria, or other contaminants prior to sale. But recreational-grade products are only tested if there’s a specific complaint or a grower pays for voluntary testing.
This isn’t good enough for many retailers who want to make sure their customers always have safe products. Not only could the businesses be potentially liable if anyone gets sick, but providing safe, clean items is just good customer service.
“As far as many consumers know, weed is weed, but we’ve put together a way to celebrate the producers/processors doing things right, as well as pull items that aren’t safe,” said Tobias Coughlin-Bogue, a former cannabis writer for Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger. “Plus, the state already had a 40% failure rate for illegal pesticides for the items it was testing.”
Last fall, Ian Eisenberg, owner of Uncle Ike’s shops in Seattle area, invited Coughlin-Bogue and Jim MacRae, an expert in testing methods and owner of Straight Line Analytics, to create a product evaluation program for his locations.
The “Ike’s OK” testing program began with randomly selecting five inventory items each month and sending them to Confidence Analytics, a testing lab in Redmond. Coughlin-Bogue said this independent lab has a good reputation for being reliable, accurate, and consistent.
If levels of certain pesticides, microbes or metals were found to be above the state’s acceptable thresholds, that particular product is pulled and refunds are offered to recent customers.
This is followed up by testing of another product by that same producer/processor. If it also fails, all of that company’s products are taken off the shelves. If that company ever wants to return, it must provide testing results for all products over the next six months.
The program has since expanded to more than 10 other stores. Now called OK Cannabis, it also brought in the expertise of Rachael Brower, a former Seattle budtender and now a cannabis industry consultant and budtender trainer.
The OK Cannabis process is similar to Ike’s OK: Each month, someone from each participating store will randomly choose at least five products that Brower will deliver to Confidence Analytics. Test results are shared with all participating stores, including a request to pull items that have failed, and offer refunds. Follow-up failures could lead to removing everything from a brand. Testing history is also shared with the public online.
“We’ve come up with a pretty fair procedure,” Brower said. “The stores are receptive and excited about this.”
She and others are inviting more stores around the state to participate, which would mean more products could be tested each month. Brower said the program is designed to be more educational rather than something punitive.
“If a business fails, it gives them an opportunity to get better,” she said.
For instance, an early failure led one grower to examine their processes and vendor partners. Some processors may combine cannabis from several growers in their oils and extracts and sell them under one brand, making it difficult to know which one may have introduced a restricted pesticide.
Another loophole that OK Cannabis could address is when a batch of product from a company passes an initial quality test, but then the company adds other items to increase potency or terpenes.
Brower said the participation of unified multiple retailers in testing and pulling efforts makes it more difficult for ‘failed’ companies to find a store to carry their products.
She said OK Cannabis will also welcome involvement from producers/processors, not just retailers. Being marked as OK by OK Cannabis could be a great selling point in distinguishing one brand of cannabis over another in the very competitive marketplace.
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