With the medical-marijuana industry caught in a tainted-cannabis scare that Health Canada has yet to fully confront, one company has struck out on its own to devise a solution to the controversy – and hopes the rest of the sector will voluntarily follow suit.
Aurora Cannabis Inc., one of 38 federally licensed producers of medical cannabis, is expected to announce on Thursday that it is unveiling the industry's strictest consumer safety regime, testing all of its products for contaminants at a federally accredited lab, then making those certified test results public.
The program, which will test for moulds, bacteria, aflatoxins, heavy metals and 51 pesticides, including banned substances such as myclobutanil, goes beyond Health Canada requirements, and exceeds the standards used by the rest of the sector by making the information public on a continuing basis.
Some federally licensed companies in Canada's medical-marijuana sector test for contaminants, but don't make the data available for consumers to see. Others don't test at all for substances such as dangerous pesticides, because Health Canada does not require it.
Aurora is expected to table the new procedures at a meeting of the Cannabis Canada Association on Thursday, urging the industry group's 14 other members to adopt similar consumer safety plans. The company also hopes licensed producers who don't belong to the trade association will adopt the same testing guidelines and make all of their results public.
"It is imperative that patients have confidence in the safety of the products they consume, and in the integrity of the medical cannabis system. We believe our testing disclosure process will raise the bar for the entire sector, and offer a model for other companies to follow," Aurora chief executive Terry Booth said in a statement accompanying the company's announcement, which was seen by The Globe and Mail.
The move comes after the sector was hit by a series of recalls late last year when the banned pesticide myclobutanil was found in products sold by OrganiGram Inc. and Mettrum Ltd. The chemical produces hydrogen cyanide when burned and can lead to serious health problems if inhaled.
The recalls have raised serious questions about Health Canada's oversight of the sector, since the regulator acknowledged to The Globe that it hadn't required companies to test for banned pesticides, because they should know the products are not permitted and therefore should not be using them.
Since then, Health Canada has attached new conditions to the licences of OrganiGram and Mettrum, requiring each company to test products regularly. It also announced it would begin conducting random spot checks on the rest of the sector.
However, with no regular testing, some patients told The Globe they can't be sure if the products sold by the industry can be trusted.
In the wake of the recall, several companies have come out in favour of bolstering testing requirements. Aphria Inc. said it would support testing for banned pesticides to comfort consumers, while CanniMed Therapeutics Inc. went a step further, saying it had independently tested a quarter of its products for banned pesticides and was willing to make the test results public to show it had passed. A company spokeswoman said CanniMed is preparing to release that data soon.
Until now, no company had gone as far as Aurora, by testing all of its products for pesticides then making the results available online. The company is working with B.C.-based Anandia Labs Inc., a federally accredited facility, and will post a two-page summary of each test result, which will be certified by the lab.
Aurora said it has conducted such testing internally, but wanted to start making the results public to reassure consumers. The company was the one that detected the myclobutanil problems in OrganiGram's products late last year after it purchased a bulk shipment from the company, then had it tested before sending it out to patients. Had Aurora not found the problem, the myclobutanil in OrganiGram's products may not have been caught, since Health Canada had not been monitoring for the pesticide.
Some companies, not wanting to criticize Health Canada publicly, have complained privately in recent weeks that the entire industry was being tarnished due to the myclobutanil recalls at OrganiGram and Mettrum. The chemical is known as an effective but very dangerous shortcut to ridding crops of mildew infestations, and its manufacturer, Dow AgroSciences, warns against using it on cannabis.
Asked why the federal government isn't now introducing mandatory testing on a regular basis for banned chemicals in medical marijuana, which is often consumed by cancer patients and people with compromised immune systems, Health Canada did not provide an answer.
The regulator did say it has concerns about the number of labs that could perform the work and whether that would create a backlog for the companies. However, a few licensed producers have said that stricter testing requirements – along with public disclosure – would not be onerous on their operations, nor would it be cost-prohibitive.