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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Paige Berger and Vicki Christophersen: New rules make marijuana safer for Washington adults

Paige Berger and Vicki Christophersen

By Paige Berger and Vicki Christophersen

On March 2, Washington’s legal cannabis products started to get a lot safer for adult users and patients. After nearly four years of process, we applaud the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board for cutting through the noise and mandating testing for pesticides in cannabis products. As with most every facet of the cannabis industry – which is being built from scratch before our eyes – more work remains to align our state’s product safety standards with our peers in other legal cannabis markets. But we believe there is promise in this momentum and are hopeful for increased focus on both safety and science in Washington state cannabis policymaking.

Today, cannabis has been legalized for adult recreational use in 18 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, plus another 16 states and territories have legalized cannabis in some form short of recreational use for adults. As a result, the spotlight on the safety of products will be unrelenting. That’s how it should be. Cannabis plants can be grown for many purposes from textiles, seed milk and construction materials to THC-infused beverages. One innate ability they have is to absorb carcinogenic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium from the soil or medium in which they are grown. For this reason, some strains are specifically cultivated to remove pollutants from soil, water or air. For cannabis cultivated for consumption, this natural attribute can prove problematic which is why testing for heavy metals is mandatory in most states. But in Washington, heavy metals testing remains voluntary. Thanks to WSLCB progress, identifying pesticides in products is on the horizon and we can focus now on encouraging license-holders to develop heavy metals testing protocols and engage them voluntarily to signal yet another way we share the regulatory priority for safety first.

Somehow, not everyone in the regulated industry agrees with this higher level of safety assurance. Pockets of industry resistance are one reason testing standards for cannabis have languished for four long years. For policymakers statewide, it is no secret that the industry does not always agree. There is regular tension on issues from economics to innovation and growing technique. But an industry that is still only partially emerged from deeply held, decades-old suspicions cannot allow itself to waver on any halfway approach on safety. Of the 34 legal cannabis markets in the United States, Washington is now one of the 32 that require pesticide testing. But we are one of only five that do not require testing for heavy metals. We can work together to support the development of best practices in collaboration with our regulator and with public safety as our north star.

While the entirety of consumer safety testing for the regulated industry is so far incomplete, there is absolutely no doubt that regulated cannabis purchased in a licensed retail store reflects a heavily regulated system. Cannabis plants are individually labeled as part of state regulation. The rigor of Washington’s regulated system – among the toughest in the country – is vastly preferable for adult use than anything purchased in the illicit market that is grown, processed and packaged in circumstances that are unknown, uninspected and potentially dangerous. In licensed stores, patients can find products certified by the Department of Health and adult users may choose from a spectrum of products subject to quality control and labeling standards that are nonexistent from whatever an armchair chemist or botanist is peddling out of their garage. When the 2019 public health crisis concerning vitamin E acetate in vape products led to cases of severe illness and even death, it was heartening that none of these products were purchased from a licensed retailer in our state. As we look toward what’s next for the cannabis plant, we believe the WSLCB has some momentum built in its approach to pesticides, and we strongly support their ongoing advancement toward a safer marketplace for Washington consumers.

The mission of the Washington CannaBusiness Association is to advocate for a safe, quality-controlled and well-regulated marketplace that works to keep products out of the hands of kids. In the nearly 10 years since voters adopted Initiative 502, we have learned a lot about how we can best support local legal cannabis businesses so they may succeed in the face of growing competition nationally and internationally over the next 10 years. The new mandate for pesticide testing is a relief and shows another step toward leading the nation in the production of the finest cannabis products. We look forward to the day when a mandate for heavy metals testing allows Washington to fully claim, once again, that it is a leader in enforcing a safe legal market for pot in our state.

Paige Berger and her husband own Hygge Farms, a small, licensed cannabis producer in Springdale in Stevens County. She is a member of the Washington CannaBusiness Association alongside Vicki Christophersen, of Kirkland, who serves as executive director of the Washington CannaBusiness Association.

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