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Unregulated marijuana products, like these displayed at a Toronto pot dispensary in March, can contain contaminants. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Unregulated marijuana products, like these displayed at a Toronto pot dispensary in March, can contain contaminants. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Ottawa mum on inaction over toxins in pot sold at dispensaries Add to ...

Health Minister Jane Philpott’s office is not saying why the government did not act on information it was given almost a year ago that some cannabis samples sold at dispensaries in Vancouver contained pesticides and fungicides not approved for any human use.

The warning came in documents, obtained by The Globe and Mail through Access to Information laws, that included the results of tests done by a Health Canada accredited facility detailing the problem. The documents were given to Health Canada last fall, and then sent directly to the minister’s chief of staff in January. When asked on Tuesday why the minister did not respond to the concerns, a spokesman for Dr. Philpott referred questions to the department.

A spokeswoman for Health Canada did not address the question on Wednesday, nor did the minister’s spokesman.

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The names of the dozen or so dispensaries that were screened are redacted from the documents, but the test results show high levels of banned chemicals – such as the pesticide carbamate, which is not permitted for use on cannabis, and dodemorph, a fungicide used on roses that is not approved for human consumption – showed up in 13 of the 22 samples.

Although the Health Minister’s office has not responded to questions on the matter, Health Canada issued a statement Wednesday saying its position on cannabis sold at such dispensaries has been consistent, and that it considers the stores to be illegal.

“These facilities are unlicensed by the federal government, illegally supplied, and sell product that may be contaminated or otherwise unsafe,” the statement said.

Neither the minister’s spokesman nor the department responded when asked why, if the federal government considers cannabis dispensaries to be illegal, several hundred are operating openly in Canada, particularly in Toronto, where the industry is booming and some are making tens of thousands of dollars in profit a day.

Although some municipalities, including Toronto, have attempted to clamp down using local zoning laws, those efforts have done little to prevent new dispensaries from opening. Meanwhile, the industry has flourished despite Health Canada’s statements against it.

Evidence of contaminants in some of the products being sold at these dispensaries suggests they could pose a health risk, which brings the issue into Health Canada’s sphere, despite the government’s reluctance to address it.

A Globe and Mail investigation in July found that one-third of nine samples of cannabis obtained from dispensaries in Toronto contained excessive levels of contaminants such as potentially harmful strains of bacteria and mould, and would not have passed Health Canada safety standards. The samples were tested at a federally accredited lab, which did the screening on condition of anonymity because the practice was illegal at the time.

Two weeks after the report was published, the government changed the rules on testing, allowing patients with the proper paperwork to have cannabis samples tested at a Health Canada accredited lab. “The testing performed by The Globe and Mail is a powerful illustration of the department’s long-standing and very public position on the matter,” a department spokeswoman said in a statement.

To have the tests done, patients must have a certificate that proves they are registered under the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purpose Regulations (ACMPR), which were put into force in August. However, the restrictions on this new testing system are unclear. In its statement on Wednesday, Health Canada said lab access is available to patients who are registered to grow cannabis for themselves or purchase it from a designated grower.

Health Canada said it does not permit dispensary cannabis to be tested. However, several laboratories told The Globe and Mail that facilities cannot tell the difference between authorized product and dispensary product, and it would be impossible to prevent a consumer with the proper paperwork from having dispensary cannabis tested. Even a dispensary owner holding a certificate as an individual could have it done.

It is not clear how Health Canada plans to enforce the distinction.

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