The thousands of Canadians who buy their cannabis from illegal dispensaries still have no assurance their products are safe from contaminants or as potent as advertised, even though Ottawa is changing its rules on the testing of medical marijuana.
Changes announced on Thursday that take effect on Aug. 24 will allow registered home growers to take their products for testing at a handful of laboratories that are accredited by Health Canada. Under the new system, patients whose doctors authorize them to grow medical marijuana will be able to pay for tests to find out how much of the psychoactive compound THC is in their crop and ensure it is free of harmful pesticides and contaminants such as mould or bacteria.
But the new rules – seen as a temporary response to a recent court ruling that the current mail-order system is too expensive and inaccessible for some Canadians – will not include dispensaries.
That is because many get their products from growers who operate outside the legal medical cannabis system. These growers supply hundreds of illegal marijuana dispensaries, which a Federal Court judge said are spreading across the country because patients are "voting with their feet" to ditch the mail-order system.
"Dispensaries are here, they're not going way," said Dieter MacPherson, president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, a trade association representing 45 pot stores across the country. "And it would only be prudent to include them in a public-health framework, insofar as to at least allow them to openly and transparently have the products that they're selling tested for safety and quality."
The shift in rules follows a Globe and Mail investigation into the contents of marijuana from nine unregulated Toronto dispensaries. Tests showed that three of nine samples of dried cannabis would not meet Health Canada's safety standards for licensed growers – with one strain showing signs of potentially harmful yeasts and mould. That investigation also revealed that labs have been warned not to test samples provided by anyone other than one of the 34 licensed producers – a threat taken so seriously that the lab that tested for The Globe did so on condition that it would not be identified.
Some owners of dispensaries say they get their supplies from the thousands of home growers who were licensed under a system that predated efforts by the former Conservative government to force patients to use larger commercial producers. During the court challenge, 28,000 previously licensed home-growers were granted rolling injunctions to continue producing their own pot, sometimes in single crops of more than 100 plants each.
The problem is that many dispensaries buy from underground growers, and no system is in place to determine the difference.
Hubert Marceau, founder and director of development at Quebec-based Laboratoire PhytoChemia, said if his lab receives a sample from a licensed home grower, there is no way to verify if the product is going to a dispensary.
Jonathan Page, co-founder of Vancouver-based Anandia Labs and leader of the team that first sequenced the cannabis genome, said most home growers produce medicine only for themselves or a patient designated by Health Canada to have someone grow for them, but a lab can do little to determine whether the legal medical marijuana will end up.
"If they're properly licensed as a personal grower, you're not able to say 'what are you doing with all this stuff,'" Dr. Page said.
Dr. Page said the average home grower – who can have up to five plants – is unlikely to pay for anything more than a basic test for levels of THC or CBD, a compound that has been reported to have therapeutic properties.
That will cost from $90 to $125, he said.
He suspects only larger home growers supplying more than one patient will pay about $900 for further tests, including for contaminants such as pesticides and bacteria.
"I don't think individual patients growing are going to be doing testing on every batch," Dr. Page said. "A personal grower knows if they've applied pesticides or not."
Jodie Emery, who operates several Cannabis Culture stores in Vancouver and Toronto with her husband, marijuana-legalization crusader Marc Emery, said the government should allow all producers – legal or otherwise – to have their products tested.
A sample from the Emerys' Toronto store exceeded Health Canada's limit for yeasts and moulds in the Globe investigation.
Ms. Emery said the onus for quality control should be on growers – not the dispensaries.
"No restaurant, bar, coffee shop, or even a clothing store is required to test everything they sell," Ms. Emery said. "That responsibility is only on the producer or the wholesaler."