A Vancouver city councillor says federal Health Minister Jane Philpott's office took no action – and did not warn the city – after receiving lab results showing there were dangerous toxins in marijuana sold at some dispensaries in the city.
Kerry Jang, a point person on marijuana issues on Vancouver city council, said the actions of the minister were "irresponsible," and indicate the public was potentially put at risk.
Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail through the Access to Information Act show that test results from a Health Canada-accredited lab were sent to the federal government nearly a year ago, and revealed that cannabis from several Vancouver dispensaries contained pesticides and fungicides "not approved for any human use." The lab report was sent to Eric Costen, who headed Health Canada's office of medical cannabis, last October, and later sent to Dr. Philpott's chief of staff, Geneviève Hinse, in January.
In an interview with The Globe, Dr. Philpott said she wasn't aware of the lab report. "I'm not sure what you're referring to," she said when asked why the information wasn't also forwarded immediately to Vancouver officials.
The lab results show that 13 of 22 samples tested from about a dozen Vancouver dispensaries contained 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.
"I am kind of shocked and appalled that Minister Philpott knew about the issues and did nothing to alter it. It's just unbelievable actually," said Mr. Jang, who is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Colombia.
Though Mr. Jang said he is aware the federal government has assembled a task force to oversee its plans to legalize marijuana for recreational use next year, the concerns about toxins in the products being sold openly at dispensaries "is something that's immediate" that needs to be dealt with.
There is no evidence the government took any action on the information. Health Canada issued a statement this week saying that it considers dispensaries, which have flourished across Canada in advance of legalization, to be illegal. However despite this assertion, the storefronts are operating in the open and are doing a booming business, with some making tens of thousands of dollars a day in profit.
Asked by reporters in Ottawa whether her office has a responsibility to act on the information to protect public health, Dr. Philpott restated the government's position that the dispensaries are illegal. The minister did not explain why the government took no action on the information.
"We have made it very clear that Canadians should not purchase products from any illegal sales people no matter where they are found, whether in dispensaries or on the street corners," Dr. Philpott said. "These dispensaries that you are referring to are illegal. There are regimes in place for access to medical marijuana, those products are safe."
Until Thursday, the Health Minister's office had refused to comment on the test results. Though Dr. Philpott acknowledged the lab results when asked by reporters about the problem outside the House of Commons, during a later conversation with The Globe and Mail, she said she wasn't sure if she had seen any test results, and couldn't remember whether they had crossed her desk.
She then asked if The Globe could send the documents to Health Canada, despite those same documents being obtained from the files of the department through Access to Information, and despite them being sent directly to her chief of staff.
"I see a lot of documents in a day, so please send it my way," Dr. Philpott said.
Mr. Jang said Health Canada's handling of the matter is unsettling.
"Toxins aren't good for you," he said, referring to possible and immediate long-term damage to humans. "This is something that could be easily fixed and that's what makes me really upset – the fact that here's something that can really be fixed very quickly."
Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for the Vancouver Coastal Health authority, echoed Health Canada's position that dispensary products are technically illegal and therefore the market is buyer beware.
"The products sold in these places are illicit drugs," Dr. Daly said, adding that Health Canada is not the police for illicit drug sales. "In my view, it's not up to the [federal] Minister of Health to police the sale of illicit drugs."
But Mr. Jang disagrees, saying the government bears responsibility for public health. "Minister Philpott, in my opinion, has been negligent on this file."