As the federal government explores how to properly legalize marijuana, hundreds of dispensaries have sprung up in Vancouver and Toronto – all of them selling a product that is still illegal and having no obligations in terms of labelling, safety or quality assurance.
Dispensary proponents say concerns about contaminants amount to fear mongering – akin to the sort of propaganda that brought the world the infamous 1936 film Reefer Madness. The government favours a heavily regulated market and argues that dispensaries can't be trusted to provide consumers with a sterile and safe product. These entrepreneurs, Ottawa argues, need to be held to the same stringent standards required of the 31 companies licensed to sell medical marijuana to consumers through mail order.
Throughout all of this debate, no one has tried to scientifically analyze the quality of the cannabis being openly sold over the counter in Canada's major urban centres. Until now.
The Globe and Mail procured nearly 400 grams of dried cannabis flower from nine Toronto dispensaries in the hopes of determining what exactly is in the pot that has suddenly become so accessible. The findings show that much of the rhetoric on both sides is inaccurate and misleading: Samples from three dispensaries would not be permitted for sale if they were held to the same standards that Ottawa imposes on licensed medical-marijuana producers. But The Globe's investigation also found that some of those standards have been inappropriately mandated by Health Canada, and there is much debate over how much of a risk those failing samples actually pose. And although Ottawa has publicly praised the virtues of a tested product, behind the scenes the government has actively discouraged laboratories from helping people ensure whether their dispensary marijuana is safe.
HOW WE DID IT:
In order to assess the true risk posed by the rise of dispensaries, The Globe had to persuade one of the country's accredited laboratories to take on a considerable amount of risk. We needed them to break the law.
After months of searching and a series of negotiations, one finally agreed. We promised not to identify the laboratory because of legitimate concerns that its licence could be stripped by Health Canada because it had performed a basic, but valuable public service.
The next step was procuring the marijuana, which was both a logistical and financial challenge. In order to run the full set of tests required of licensed producers, the lab required an ounce and a half per strain. Over the course of one day in June, The Globe purchased nine samples from various downtown Toronto dispensaries.
Each sample, usually supplied in a sealed plastic bag or Ziploc-type bag, was immediately placed in a larger Ziploc bag, and catalogued. None of the samples were handled or taken out of those bags until they were analyzed by the lab. The lab only had access to the type of strain and the number associated with the sample to ensure that the tests were blind and that the results wouldn't be biased.
(And because we will inevitably get asked: No marijuana was consumed during the researching and writing of this story.)
Grant Robertson and Greg McArthur are award-winning reporters with The Globe and Mail's investigative team who have covered business, crime and politics, among other subjects. They can be reached at the e-mail addresses below, or through SecureDrop, which allows for the secure, encrypted transfer of sensitive files.