Skip to main content

Part of cannabis laws and regulations

From the archives: This article was originally published on July 29, 2016

The caramel bar, cake pop and freezie all came with a big promise. Although they looked like typical junk food, the products, from cannabis dispensaries in Toronto, were billed as medication. And all were claimed to contain a potent dose of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces the intoxicating effects its users seek for pain relief or to get high.

But none of those products contained anywhere close to the amount claimed.

In an effort to examine the safety and efficacy of products sold at illegal marijuana dispensaries, which have multiplied across Canada in recent months, The Globe and Mail subjected several edible cannabis products to tests at a Health Canada-accredited laboratory to determine if they were properly labelled.

The results showed misleading claims were made for most of the products, raising questions about quality control in this burgeoning new industry. In a business filled with retailers and manufacturers out to make a fast buck, and no rules governing how they act, the edibles market is particularly problematic because numerous products appear to be misrepresented.

Even among licensed producers, edibles are not permitted in Canada because of concerns that their appearance – from lollipops and ice cream to gummy bears – could be enticing to children. But they are produced and sold in the dispensary grey market nonetheless, with no oversight.

Four out of the five products The Globe and Mail had tested were well below the THC amounts claimed: A cake pop purported to contain 80 milligrams of THC had one-fifth that amount; a peanut-butter caramel bar labelled as having 260 mg contained about half that; and a freezie claimed to have 60 mg actually contained less than a third. Meanwhile, a small bottle of cannabis extract claimed to have 900 mg of THC had slightly less than one-half that amount, the tests showed.

Only a flavoured syrup intended to be added to drinks came close to the 500 mg listed on the bottle.

Mislabelled products can lead to toxicity problems if the THC is too high, and labelling products as more potent than they are could lead to consumers buying fraudulent merchandise.

Edibles emerged as a way for consumers to ingest cannabis without smoking it. People looking to treat health conditions or for pain relief with less intoxication sought products rich in cannabidiol (CBD), the therapeutic compound in marijuana. However, edibles have evolved into an industry in which THC potency is the primary seller.

None of the edible products The Globe tested turned up significant levels of CBD, and most were undetectable. Similar results were found in broader tests The Globe had conducted on dried marijuana samples, which also did not register detectable amounts of the ingredient. The tests were part of an investigation into contaminants such as bacteria, mould and pesticides in dispensary products.

The Globe results found one-third of the nine dried cannabis samples it had tested at a federally certified lab do not meet Health Canada's safety standards for licensed medical marijuana. Three samples turned up excessive levels of bacteria that some microbiologists believe could also lead to infections and other illnesses (others contend the health risks are minimal). One of those samples contained potentially dangerous levels of yeasts and moulds, which can lead to serious health issues, including lung problems.

The results raise concerns about the oversight and safety of dispensaries as the federal government prepares to legalize marijuana use next year. The Globe's tests are the first independent screening of dispensary products in Canada since such retail stores began to multiply in Toronto, Vancouver and elsewhere selling cannabis products openly despite reservations from Health Canada. Although consumers can obtain these products easily, the government considers them illegal.

While Ottawa says virtually all dispensary products are dangerous, and the dispensaries argue that they are universally safe, The Globe's results demonstrate neither claim is accurate. As well, The Globe discovered troubling gaps in our current testing regimen, which does not inspect for certain harmful pesticides that were common among growers in the United States before states revamped their guidelines to crack down.

The Globe had to go to unusual lengths to have the dried cannabis and edibles screened because the acquisition and testing of those products is technically illegal. The lab that agreed to perform the tests for The Globe as a public service did so on condition that we did not name the facility.

The questionable THC levels in the edible products is evidence the industry in Canada is making up its own rules, potentially putting consumers at risk or ripping them off.

Tracking down the manufacturers of the edibles was difficult because the products often have no contact information on the packaging – and there are no regulations on how they are labelled. Most also do not list ingredients, product size or expiry dates.

"You can't access public records that will show you who owns it or who's behind it," said Hugo Alves, a Bay Street lawyer who specializes in medical marijuana laws. "With regulation, you have to tell people who you are and what you're doing. There's much more transparency."

Black Sheep Medibles, the maker of the cake pop, could not be reached for comment. Mota Green Meds Ltd., the manufacturer of the cannabis extract, also could not be reached. The president of Langley, B.C.-based Canna Co. Medibles, maker of the caramel bar and freezie, declined to answer questions when contacted.

The dispensaries that sell the products are also at a loss to explain how their suppliers work. WeeMedical in Toronto, which sold the freezie and the caramel bar, said it had no control over the company that makes the products.

"With edibles, there's no regulation. You can slap whatever sticker you want on. There's no law saying you can't," said James Sully, who identified himself as the manager of the dispensary.

Luke Roberts, the manager of Toronto Cannabis Dispensary, where the cake pop was bought, was surprised to hear it tested so low for THC. He said the dispensary had no problems with the supplier, but said it recently stopped carrying the product after police visited the location and instructed them to stop selling edibles like cake pops because they could appeal to children.

While contaminants like bacteria, mould and pesticides are a particular concern in dried cannabis due to their potential to cause health problems, the potency of cannabis edibles has become a pressing issue in several U.S. states that have legalized the drug.

Lack of regulation, poor quality control and improper labelling have resulted in many products that are either far less potent than claimed or much more potent, putting consumers at risk, U.S. regulators say.

Colorado, which in 2014 became the first North American jurisdiction to legalize marijuana for recreational use, found consumers increasingly gravitating toward products of higher potency. Policy makers were soon caught off guard by an increase in patients at hospital emergency rooms with signs of cannabis toxicity, including psychotic episodes such as panic attacks and hallucinations.

"We continue to see the short-term health consequences of edibles show up in our ER data, in our poison control data and in our hospitalization data," said Andrew Freedman, director of marijuana co-ordination for the State of Colorado.

"With legalization comes a rise in edible consumption. … But it was a surprise to Colorado that we saw such a massive increase."

The products now make up half of the state's recreational cannabis consumption, he said.

Oregon, which legalized recreational use this year, has found edibles that are more snake oil than medicine, and do not contain anywhere near the amount of THC claimed.

Regulators in those states have struggled to clamp down. Some, like Colorado, have tried to limit THC content as the market for edibles grows.

Although police periodically crack down on the sale of illegal edibles in Canada, The Globe found dozens of varieties readily available in Toronto dispensaries, which are doing a brisk business. Industry sources suggest some stores are pulling in upwards of $20,000 a day, operating in plain sight.

Part of the problem in determining the safety and efficacy of edible products is how difficult they are to test for toxicity.

Microbiologists say that if an effective method is developed to test a cannabis-infused cookie, for example, it might not necessarily apply to other products on the market, such as candies, ice cream and pizza.

But inaccurate potency claims are not limited to edible cannabis products at dispensaries. Dried marijuana is also affected.

When The Globe visited Cannabis Culture in Toronto to acquire samples for testing, the dispensary clerk assured customers all strains were above 30 per cent THC. The test results for that particular strain, Durban Poison, showed it contained 19.6 per cent.

Similarly, when The Globe visited Toronto's Canna Clinic and requested a strain rich in CBD, the therapeutic ingredient in cannabis, the clerk recommended one called Shishkaberry. However, that compound was undetectable in the tests.

As well, one of the federal government's licensed medical producers recalled dried cannabis in 2015 after it was found to have inaccurate THC labelling. In this case, the product was labelled 9 per cent, but a Health Canada test determined it was 13 per cent.

When Colorado began to uncover problems in its legalized market relating to contaminants in dried cannabis and toxicity in edibles, the state introduced emergency legislation requiring new testing standards, random sampling of dried cannabis and more stringent screening of edibles.

The tight scrutiny came after several deaths linked to mislabelled or misused edibles, including an intoxicated man who fell from a bridge after eating several high-potency marijuana cookies, the state's coroner determined.

"It's different for different products," Mr. Freedman said of the tests. "In edibles, every batch has to be tested."

In Canada, the federal government has signalled that it is aware of the problems in the U.S. and acknowledges the unique public-health risks posed by the edibles market, according to a discussion paper on the future of legalization released in July. In the meantime, however, Health Canada's restrictive policy on testing means products that have become ubiquitous will continue to be sold with no consumer protections.

Rodger Voelker, director at OG Analytical, an Oregon lab that tests edibles, said the government needs to take responsibil ity. The vast majority of the products he sees have inaccurate labelling.

"Overall, things won't get better until there are standardized methods, which are being developed, and regulatory agencies take a firm hand," Mr. Voelker said.