Medical marijuana users don't have protections from sub-par pot
SEATTLE -- Everything about medical marijuana is based on trust.
Michael Van Ditto had been a card carrying medical marijuana smoker for years. It gave him respite from his the emotional pain he was suffering after his son died in a tragic plane accident.
"I started smoking it when I became depressed and it helped me tremendously," Van Ditto said from his north Seattle apartment.
But nearly a year ago, he said he stopped smoking his comfort weed after becoming very sick.
"I've never been so sick in my life," he said. "I had total weakness, inflamed lungs, total disorientation and I could only get out of bed for an hour or two for almost 12 weeks."
He suspected his sickness was brought on by fungus that may have been in the marijuana he bought from the North Seattle Medical Collective, a new dispensary he had started to use.
"I only became ill when I started shopping at this particular marijuana medical shop," Van Ditto said.
He said his doctor couldn't identify his illness, but his symptoms where akin to fungal pneumonia. For people with compromised immune systems, fungus in pot could can lead to a deadly infection call Aspirgoelosis, a condition where the fungus begins growing in a person's lungs.
Van Ditto considered the medial pot he bought a health hazard and wanted it tested by authorities. But he quickly realized a predicament facing all medical marijuana users: There's no public agency he could turn to for help because he allegedly got sick using an illegal drug.
Van Ditto asked for help from the KOMO Problem Solvers.
Since he no longer had the marijuana that he believes got him sick, he went back to North Seattle Medical Collective to buy some more for testing.
In a December visit, Van Ditto bought a small amount of marijuana called Grand Daddy Haze. He let the attendant at the Collective make the suggestion on what to buy and Van Ditto bought it.
State testing marijuana
We asked the Washington state Department of Health if it tests marijuana. The Department of Health is charged with protecting state residents from health hazards.
"The Department of Health has no authority to inspect or check quality of marijuana," said Donn Moyer, the spokesman for the department.
We also went to the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the agency that will be overseeing the rule making for Washington's new recreation use of marijuana. Language in Initiative 502, which decriminalized the possession of one ounce or less of a marijuana, provides some form of consumer safety and protection from bad pot.
"We are supposed to set quality standards, making sure consumer safety is involved in this," said Pat Kohler, administrative director for the WSLCB.
But Kohler admits there's no protections the state can offer for medical marijuana users, many whom are sick and may need the medicinal effects of marijuana the most.
"The state has no responsibility in the regulatory functions of medical marijuana and initiative 502 doesn't impact medical marijuana either," Kohler said.
Jonathan Modie of the Oregon Health Authority said Oregon is in the same boat. He said medical marijuana users here have to do their own research into providers and product.
"The packaging on medical marijuana doesn't contain nutrition labels or ingredients lists," he said. "You don't know precisely what you're getting without that."
"It's sending a wrong message to people," said Douglas Hiatt, an attorney representing users and growers of marijuana.
He blames the mixed messages on conflicting and poorly-written laws. He said marijuana is flat-out illegal in the eyes of the federal government, and because of that the state won't get involved in pot testing.
"You're subjecting state employees to federal criminal law," Hiatt said.
There is a proposed law in Oregon that would license and regulate marijuana dispensaries under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act. It would require testing for pesticides, molds and mildews.
Private labs will test pot
Concerned marijuana users are leaving it up to a growing industry of private laboratories like Analytical360 in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood to perform quality testing on pot.
"There is an issue of things being tainted," said Randy Oliver, Chief Scientist for Analytical360. "You can't tell what it is by smelling it, by tasting it. You have to have a chemical analysis done."
John Brown, the Chief Technical Officer for the lab, said Van Ditto's marijuana exceeded the acceptable range of fungus for therapeutic marijuana, but was in the acceptable range for recreational standards. The results suggest that sick people with compromised immune systems should not be smoking it.
In January, Van Ditto went back to the Collective and bought another sample for testing. This time the attendant suggested a strain called A-Train. Analytical360 performed the same series of microbial tests as they did on the Grand Daddy Haze.
Once again, the lab says the results shows fungus at levels above the acceptable range for therapeutic marijuana, but at lower levels than the Grand Daddy Haze.
We emailed links to Analytical360's results the collective. The lab has a full transparency policy. All of its test results are posted on its website so marijuana users can see the quality of product circulating the market.
"We inspect all the product, it seemed ok to us and we smoked it. Obviously, we try everything" says Lisa Dank, spokeswoman for North Seattle Medical Collective.
Dank said all of the product the collective sees from its growers undergo testing for fungus and mold using a ultra violet light.
"If there's anything that's moldy it would show up green," she said.
But after viewing the results online of Analytical360's testing, Dank said the collective has pulled Grand Daddy Haze and A-Train from its product line.
"It's no longer available and growers have been alerted," she said. "It's not acceptable".
Dank defends the product the collective sells as being the highest quality available. She said customers who have compromised immune systems should not be smoking anything at all, let alone marijuana.
She said buying marijuana is like buying fresh blueberries from a farmers market.
"You going to find a few bad berries because that's what happens with plants. Marijuana is the same way," she said.
Van Ditto never told the Collective he believe the marijuana he bought from it got him sick.
"We operating on certain level of trust with the patient," Dank said. "If there's something wrong or they are experiencing a negative side effect, they come and tell us".
Because of the test results done by the Problem Solvers, Dank said the collective will now offer full microbial testing on all of its fresh products.
"Trust is what our business is about," Dank said.
Van Ditto said he's not going to smoke marijuana anymore, at least not until there's a quality control system in place that he trusts.
"I don't want to take the chance of getting deathly ill again," he said.