Some cannabis products sold in unlicensed stores in New York are not only illegal, but also contaminated with harmful bacteria, heavy metals and toxic pesticides, according to an industry report released Wednesday.
Lab tests performed on smoking weed, edibles and vaporizers purchased at 20 smokehouses and dispensaries detected prohibited levels of eight different contaminants, including E. coli, salmonella, nickel and lead. The investigation also found that the strength of some products was mislabeled, according to the report by the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association, a state trade group.
The association, which represents operators of licensed medical dispensaries in New York City, said the findings underscore concerns raised by elected officials and regulators about the danger posed by the rampant growth of retail stores across the state that claim mistakenly that their products are legal.
Currently, legal cannabis sales in New York are only available to patients at 38 member-operated medical dispensaries. But the report follows regulators awarding 36 of the state’s first retail dispensary licenses earlier in November. Regulators have said legal recreational cannabis sales will begin in December.
“Just as the Empire State is on the verge of achieving this important goal,” the industry association said in the report, “new illicit operators have sprung up, clinging to the footsteps of the legacy market pre-existing respected and threatening both public health and the long-term safety and success of legal operators.
Medical dispensary operators have long expressed frustration at being shut out of the New York retail market as illicit storefronts operated unregulated and with impunity. The report amounts to an attempt to put additional pressure on authorities to curb illicit sales as the medical industry seeks to change proposed regulations that would require them to pay a minimum of $3 million to enter the retail market.
The underlying lab results show the tests were authorized by Curaleaf, a national chain with four New York locations that has faced fines, lawsuits and product recalls in at least five states, as well as a license suspension in Oregon.
Curaleaf defended the company’s reputation in a statement to The New York Times, noting that the Oregon suspension was a first for the chain in its 12 years in business. Finding the incident, which involved mislabeled products, proved industry oversight was working, a top spokeswoman said, and regulators noted the company’s cooperation.
“There are no such checks and balances for the illegal market in New York or any other state,” she said.
The Times obtained the underlying lab reports for the tests, but did not independently verify any of the test results. Experts advised caution in interpreting the results, noting that bacteria die when incinerated to be smoked and that some metals and pesticides are considered safe at trace levels. City officials and cannabis regulators said they are reviewing the report.
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With recreational marijuana becoming legal in several states, cannabis products are becoming more readily available and increasingly varied.
In total, the tests revealed contaminants in 16 items out of a total of 40 products. Nine contained less THC – the intoxicating compound of cannabis – than their advertised labels. But a type of gum whose label suggested it had a potency of 100 milligrams of THC per piece was actually twice as strong, according to the analysis.
The most common contaminants were E. coli and salmonella, which were detected in nine items, mostly loose flowers and pre-rolled joints. State regulations prohibit the sale to consumers of cannabis products contaminated with E. coli and salmonella. Both types of bacteria can cause infections that usually result in diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and cramps. Severe cases can be life threatening.
None of the products tested met New York standards, said Michael Bianco, president of Talon Analytical, a state-licensed lab. The company, which counts most of the medical cannabis companies among its customers, carried out the tests on the illicit products.
Dr Bianco, who is also an anaesthesiologist, said in an interview that the results showed how unlicensed stores were undermining the success of those waiting to be compliant.
“What we can extrapolate is that there are a lot of bad things and a lot of bad actors ruining the market for people taking the legal route into the industry,” Dr. Bianco said.
The contaminated products found in New York City were sold at 11 of 20 unlicensed stores the association’s shoppers visited in high-traffic areas of the city. The stores included popular Manhattan and Brooklyn chains that received cease-and-desist orders from the state. All the businesses were listed on Google Maps, which helped them look legit.
Ngiste Abebe, the chairman of the medical industry group, said there was an urgent need for consumers to be better informed about what they are buying and for civil penalties to be imposed on companies that take advantage of people who can legally possess drug. cannabis but do not yet have a legal means of accessing it.
“We know that people don’t die from cannabis overdoses, but people still deserve a safe and enjoyable cannabis product,” Ms Abebe said.
Materials unfit for human consumption are commonly used by growers, especially to protect crops from threats such as pests, said David Abecassis, a professor in the cannabis program at LIM College in Manhattan, who was not part of the investigation.
“It is not uncommon to find traces of pesticides on these products due to emergency response by growers,” he said. “Well, that’s something that would be illegal in a licensed market and yet is financially rewarded in the gray.”
The biggest risk raised in the findings, Abecassis said, is exposure to pesticides, which have been linked to a range of serious illnesses, including deadly cancers and organ damage. According to the analysis, six of the products tested contained chemicals like myclobutanil and pyrethrins at levels well above state limits.
Those products included three items from Empire Cannabis Club, a Manhattan-based nonprofit chain whose members pay a fee to access its supply. A STIIIZY-branded vape cart purchased from Empire in Chelsea contained almost five times the maximum allowable amount of pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide, according to detailed lab results provided to The Times.
Steve Zissou, Empire’s lawyer, called the report a smear campaign of medical cannabis companies – particularly Curaleaf – who have themselves been disciplined for breaching testing standards and have a lot to lose on a competitive market.
“Corporate oligarchs spread such libels when they feel their bottom line is under threat and – like the people who make them – they are untrustworthy,” he said. “Empire’s products are safe, reliable and tested to the highest industry standards.”
Three out of four tainted products sold at Noise NYC, a Brooklyn-based chain with six locations in the city, contained E. coli and salmonella, including a pack of falsely labeled Trolli Crunchy Crawlers gummies, a popular candy aimed at children.
The state previously sent Noise a cease and desist order in July. A man to whom the letter was addressed did not respond to a call to a phone number listed for him.
Nickel and lead were found in four of the items tested, with a disposable vape from Cannaa World in Brooklyn containing 250 parts per million of lead, an amount 500 times over the limit, according to lab results. Mr. Abecassis said the plants may have been grown in contaminated soil or, in the case of vaping liquids, contaminated with leach cartridges or infused additives. Attempts to reach a Cannaa representative were unsuccessful as there was no payphone or owner listed for the store.
Aaron Ghitelman, spokesman for the Office of Cannabis Management, said the report confirmed what officials have long been saying about the risks of unregulated products and the need to shut down unlicensed storefronts. The agency’s board passed regulations last week that would deny licenses to people selling cannabis from unlicensed storefronts or vehicles, or otherwise claiming to be legitimate.
The bureau is currently conducting a cross-agency law enforcement pilot project with the city. Mayor Eric Adams said the initiative led to more than 100,000 items being seized and 300 civil and criminal offenses issued.
Officials did not say whether they would take action against any of the specific companies that sold the products tested in the report.
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