The Truth Behind California’s Dirty Secret

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Shareef El Sissi

California’s regulated cannabis market is often hailed as a pioneering model for the legalization and commercialization of cannabis. However, beneath the surface lies a dirty, dangerous secret that few are willing to address openly. The state’s legal cannabis industry is failing and the black market is thriving, and in the absence of the right incentives, positive or negative, regulated businesses are adopting an unregulated mentality. 

This paradox raises critical concerns about the safety and integrity of products reaching consumers, especially when regulated and unregulated markets intersect. The LA Times expose, “The Dirty, Dangerous Secret of California Legal Weed” brings the conflicting incentives that exist within the industry to light. Testing labs are incentivized to protect their book of business, not consumer safety. The Department of Cannabis Control is incentivized to protect their licensing revenue, not consumer safety. Brands are incentivized to maximize profits, not consumer safety. Retailers are incentivized to protect their profits, not consumer safety. So in the absence of the threat of enforcement, the fragility of the system is exposed and the end result is no one looks out for consumer safety beyond passing the bare minimum required compliance testing. The honorable folks at Anresco and Infinite, bucked that trend and worked with the journalists at WeedWeek and LA Times to deliver a dose of accountability. Or so we thought. Within 48 hours of the article dropping a lawsuit brought by these honorable labs against a number of California licensed labs began making its rounds. Showing us that the pursuit of profit can actually work in favor of consumer safety, haha, when testing labs sue each other for malpractice in the hopes of gaining more customers. I think the last 6 years have shown us what happens when compliance is mistaken for commercial execution. The markets will remind you that they reward rational behavior and rational actors are taking on risks in the absence of enforcement. 

In the defense of 100% cannabis vapes, we thought it was in everyone’s best interest to share the lowdown on how contaminants from the food supply chain find their way into cannabis products. Pesticides are ubiquitous in the American food supply, making them practically unavoidable. They are not just being used to control pests or weeds, they are being used to help crops dry down before harvest. It’s a really nasty secret of the food industry and the large chemical companies have paid their fair share of damages when they are found to have been negligent. However, cannabis safety testing is more stringent than food safety testing but it was created by a policy committee rather than through scientific analysis of toxicology data. It’s not perfect by any means. The California list is primarily composed of pesticides not registered for food use in California, California restricted materials, and pesticides on the groundwater protection list. Had the limits been based on toxicology data, each method of administration would have its own set of limits; oral ingestion for solid food and beverage, oral inhalation at both vapor and combustion temperatures, and topical applications. Many pesticides in use today, including glyphosate which is known to cause cancer, are not on the list but were mentioned in the article as a means to work around the compliance testing rules. What they failed to mention is that there are more extensive pesticide panels available in the ag community today. 

Cannabis raw materials are not the only sources of pesticide contamination. Food-grade flavorings are used by unregulated vape manufacturers without any concern for safety. It is common to find a high concentration of pesticides in food-grade natural flavoring, especially citrus. The presence of a pesticide in the biomass of an orange crop will concentrate in the extraction process exposing whatever pesticide was applied and picked up in the extraction. The solvent, or lack thereof, determines the selectivity of the extraction which can leave the pesticide in the waste stream rather than in the concentrate. 

The issues do not stop there. There are two groups of compounds common to food flavoring that are not always safe for inhalation: carrier oils and non-native flavor molecules. Common carriers like propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, used to dissolve flavorings, can themselves decompose into formaldehyde and acrolein, which are toxic when inhaled. The interaction between these solvents and flavoring agents can exacerbate toxicity. Regulatory bodies like the FDA and EPA assess the safety of these compounds for ingestion but not for inhalation, leaving a gap in safety data. 

When the FDA created the generally recognized as safe designation in 1958, it grandfathered in all consumption behaviors that had not caused measurable harm to consumers. While cannabis does not have the same depth of consumption history, Terpene Belt Farms believes that 100% cannabis extracts are safe to be consumed based on the lack of measurable harm to consumers of regulated vape products. Food-grade flavorings, on the other hand, are designed for ingestion, not for heating and inhalation, and in the absence of historical inhalation data, they should not be assumed to be safe. When heated, they can decompose into harmful byproducts not present when consumed in food. Inhalation of vaporized flavoring agents can also cause respiratory irritation and damage. Diacetyl, a flavoring agent used to create a buttery taste, is known to cause bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn lung,” a severe and irreversible lung disease. The lungs are sensitive to many chemicals that are harmless when ingested, such as cinnamaldehyde (used for cinnamon flavor), which can cause significant lung irritation and damage when inhaled. The unregulated market is rife with vape products that may contain undisclosed or harmful substances. In the absence of sensible vape flavoring regulation, consumers may unknowingly inhale toxic chemicals. Ensuring consumer safety in the vaping industry requires rigorous testing and regulation specific to inhalation exposure to prevent harm from these products.

The dirt exposed in the LA Times articles surfaces the tip of the iceberg in the California regulated market. The levels of dysfunction demonstrated translate to a thriving export market that rewards risk and fails to punish compromising consumer safety. The transitional period is over and it is clear the DCC is unable or unwilling to regulate to improve industry health. They fail to understand that in the absence of the right incentives the immense potential of California will not be realized. What do we expect the DCC to do? Continue to turn a blind eye to real issues, busying themselves with money getting for the state, and demonstrating their lack of mastery over the system they govern. Anything short of chaos would be welcomed. In the words of Elon Musk, “The most entertaining outcome is the most likely.” 

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