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How Should Arizona Test Its Medical Marijuana? Advisory Council Takes First Steps

By Ben Giles, Steve Goldstein
Published: Monday, September 30, 2019 - 2:02pm
Updated: Tuesday, October 1, 2019 - 9:18am

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Claire Caulfield/KJZZ
At Grow Sciences’s cultivation facility in Phoenix, medical marijuana is hand-raised, harvested and packed for dispensaries across Arizona.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: In June, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law that requires mandatory testing of the medical marijuana sold to patients. Scientists at the Department of Health Services now have to create rules and regulations to test marijuana products for contaminants like pesticides and heavy metals. To help them out, lawmakers also created a testing advisory council that includes lab owners, dispensary agents and medical marijuana patients. That council held its first meeting on Thursday. KJZZ's Ben Giles was there as the Health Department outlined its first steps to the council. Ben, what has the department accomplished so far?

BEN GILES: Well, it's important to remember they're starting from scratch. There's never been required testing of marijuana in Arizona. So Steve Baker, he heads the Office of laboratory licensing and certification at DHS. He instructed his staff to basically go to other states and look for places where there were existing medicinal and recreational programs. They were on the hunt for best practices, and what they found is a real wide ranging variety of testing methods. Whether you're testing for solvents for heavy metals for pesticides, there's little consensus on standards for testing for cannabis. There is also the problem of such a wide variety of products that are going to need to be tested to comply with the law.

STEVE BAKER: What you have to realize is, if it were just the flower or just the plant, the methods are pretty good and established for that kind of thing.

GILES: So like Steve said, in addition to the flower, there's edibles. There's vape products. There's a whole host of ways to use marijuana. And the department has a tall task ahead to develop standards and methods to test those products. And then labs are going to have their hands full complying with all those new standards and methods.

GOLDSTEIN: And Ben, when is the new testing requirement going to go into effect?

GILES: So by law, dispensaries have until Nov. 1, 2020 to get their products tested. And what that means is after that deadline, if it hasn't been tested by a certified lab, you've got to take that product off the shelf. It can't be sold to a medical marijuana card holder. Dispensaries also have to make sure that those test results are easily available to patients.

GOLDSTEIN: OK,so where are all these labs that are going to do the testing?

GILES: So there's actually a handful of labs in Arizona that are already testing cannabis products. There's just no framework for that. It's voluntary, almost, for the dispensaries that want to have some quality assurance of their products right now. There's 11 labs, and they are the likeliest candidates to apply to be certified by DHS. And the department is already accepting their applications. But even if a lab is approved and certified, say by the end of the year, Baker at DHS said the department doesn't expect to publish new rules and regulations for what those labs are supposed to do until next spring at the earliest.

GOLDSTEIN: So what happens, then, if this rulemaking process drags on, and dispensaries and labs don't have enough time to catch on?

GILES: That's definitely a concern that the department is aware of, and so are the medical marijuana patients, at least the representatives for them on this council. Joe DeMenna serves on the council as a registered, card-holding patient.

JOE DEMENNA: If these labs can't get accredited in time, if DHS can't get everything together in time, that creates a situation where patients may not have access to the medicine that they normally have access to on an ongoing basis.

GILES: One big topic to discuss that the council didn't quite get to yet is the matter of potency. The law states that labs will be tasked with "confirming potency." And according to DHS — they listed goals for this council — one of those goals is to recommend potency standards. So it's unclear, what does that mean exactly? Does that mean there's going to be a limit on the potency of cannabis? Or maybe as the letter of the law states, does it just mean you need to be able to know and find out what the potency is? That's something that patient advocates are really concerned about, the limits part, that is. They don't want to have limits per se, because different patients for different maladies need different potency levels. But they're all in favor of listing that potency because then that makes sure that patients aren't taking the wrong thing, which is also very important. If you're new to this, if you if you're a new cardholder, you probably don't want to take something with a dramatic potency. So the advisory council is supposed to tackle potency in greater detail at their next meeting in October.

GOLDSTEIN: And that is KJZZ's Ben Giles. Ben, thanks for the update.

GILES: Thanks, Steve.

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