Research recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives describes the public health risks associated with the lack of national standards for cannabis lab testing. Researchers from Arizona State University’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences partnered with labs that conduct cannabis testing to data mine compliance testing records, review publicly available medical cannabis use reports, and examine regulations in all 37 U.S. jurisdictions that have legalized medical and/or recreational cannabis.

The study found that 36 states and the District of Columbia listed a total of 679 “regulated” contaminants, with significant variations in the number of regulated contaminants themselves, as well as their action levels. Cannabis contaminants like pesticides, metals, microbes, and mycotoxins all post health risks to users. Typically, a legal and widely distributed crop would be the subject of many studies (frequently funded by the federal government); however, due to federal prohibition, there is a dearth of scientific research on cannabis.

Researchers found that because states are forced to create their own regulations for cannabis farming, use, and sale, they have turned to federal regulations for other crops and contaminants for guidance. This can be confusing to cannabis growers, manufacturers, and testing laboratories while subjecting cannabis users to a higher level of contaminant exposure in some jurisdictions.

For instance, microbes account for less than 3% of all regulated contaminants in the United States, but they are responsible for the most cannabis contamination outbreaks. This is especially risky for medical cannabis users, who are more likely to be members of vulnerable populations. Outbreaks will continue to be a public health issue as long as the industry lacks a unified regulatory approach and federal support for more research.

As the cannabis market continues to expand, studies like this one demonstrate the need for national-level guidance with input from the scientific and medical communities as well as the industry itself. The National Cannabis Laboratory Council has proposed such an approach and suggests setting national standards governing testing methodologies, sampling, and lab accreditation, among others. Lawyers at Perkins Coie assisted in the publication of a white paper outlining this proposal.