Health Canada has confirmed it reviewed lab reports warning that dangerous chemicals not approved for any human use were found in cannabis sold at dispensaries in Vancouver, but took no action.
Health Minster Jane Philpott issued a statement late Friday acknowledging that her staff had discussed the lab results with Tilray, a licensed producer of medical marijuana based in Nanaimo, B.C., that sent the warning to Health Canada. Dr. Philpott's statement comes a day after the Health Minister was unclear about whether she had seen the lab results, telling The Globe and Mail, "I'm not sure what document you are referring to."
But in her statement on Friday, Dr. Philpott provided details of a meeting between her chief of staff, Geneviève Hinse, and executives of the medical marijuana company, in which the documents were discussed.
"Tilray expressed concerns about illegal dispensaries and shared the results of lab work suggesting contamination of cannabis," the minister said. "I was not present at the meeting, but I am informed that as the meeting concluded, the CEO provided a photocopy of six pages of lab results to my staff. I have confirmed that a copy was also provided to Health Canada employees."
Kerry Jang, a Vancouver city councillor, upbraided the federal government on Thursday for sitting on the documents and not warning the city about the problem. Dr. Jang, a psychiatrist who is a point person on marijuana issues for city council, called Health Canada's actions irresponsible.
Health Canada knew of a problem "and has chosen to go silent," Dr. Jang said. "That is not responsible. This is people's health here."
The documents, which The Globe and Mail obtained through the Access to Information Act, show that tests conducted at a Health Canada-accredited lab last September found harmful pesticides and fungicides such as carbamate and dodomorph in 13 of 22 cannabis samples from about a dozen Vancouver dispensaries. Carbamate is not approved for cannabis, while dodomorph is not suitable for human consumption. The names of the dispensaries are redacted from the documents.
The lab results were provided to Eric Costen, who headed Health Canada's office of medical cannabis, last October, and to Ms. Hinse in January. When asked early this week what the department did with the information about a potential public health risk, Health Canada would not provide details. A spokeswoman said the department considers cannabis dispensaries, which have proliferated across Canada this year as the government prepares to legalize the drug, to be illegal – and therefore beyond its responsibility.
Late on Thursday, the department issued a statement to The Globe acknowledging that it reviewed the test results and chose not to act.
"Departmental officials did receive information on testing of products that were allegedly procured from several dispensaries in Vancouver," the statement said. "This information was reviewed carefully by Health Canada and nothing in it necessitated a change to Health Canada's long-standing public position that storefronts selling marijuana, such as dispensaries, are illegal and their products may be unsafe."
Tilray spokesman Zack Hutson said the company is disappointed in the government's response to the test results, particularly because dispensaries bill the product as medicine.
"No one has a right to sell contaminated products to sick people without consequences. So when we became aware of test results documenting the presence of dangerous pesticides not approved for humans in medical products, we felt it was important to share those results in good faith with the minister and other officials at Health Canada out of concern for public health," Mr. Hutson said.
"We are disappointed and concerned that nearly a year after sharing these results, patients continue to be at risk. If dispensaries are going to be permitted to continue to operate, then they should be held to the same standards as licensed producers."
Hundreds of dispensaries across Canada are doing a brisk business, with some making tens of thousands of dollars a day in profit. Ottawa has left the industry to local governments to police.
In her statement, the Health Minister called the results of the Vancouver tests "unsurprising" since the government has long considered storefront dispensaries to be selling unregulated and untested products.
Dr. Jang said the government must do more to protect the public, and should have told Vancouver about the problem. "Whether it's illegal or not right now is not the question," he said. "We need to see some action from the federal minister. Not this, 'It's illegal and I am hiding.' It's just inappropriate."
With a report from Ian Bailey in Vancouver