By Bryan Donoghue
Cannabis quality is taken seriously by both consumers and producers alike in Humboldt County. In today’s cannabis market, people expect to buy weed that meets a certain standard. Nallely Orozco, a 20-year-old zoology major at Humboldt State University, is from Los Angeles County and finds the marijuana to be of a higher standard in Northern California.
“It’s way better quality up here,” Orozco said. “It’s fresher, it smells better, and it gets you way higher.”
However, the quality of marijuana in Northern California is currently being questioned. An article written by UC Davis microbiologist G.R. Thompson III published earlier this month in the publication Clinical Microbiology and Infection shows the quality of medical marijuana is now raising questions of safety. In Northern California, researchers tested marijuana from various dispensaries and found multiple bacterial and fungal pathogens that could possibly lead to lethal infections. This is especially true for immunocompromised patients, or patients with a higher risk of getting sick.
“Medical marijuana obtained from dispensaries does not differ in form from recreational marijuana and consists of dried material from the cannabis plant purchased in a variety of preparations,” Thompson said in his report. “Legalization has impacted the public’s perception of safety, and inferences on safety are implied by the ability of physicians to write prescriptions for medical marijuana.”
The bacteria and fungi on weed has a limited ability to cause someone severe illness, but it still poses an issue with general safety. Dr. Mark S. Wilson, a professor of microbiology at Humboldt State University, commented on a group of organisms known as ESKAPE.
“It’s an acronym based on the first letter of the genus of the six most common human infections,” Wilson said. “These six bacteria are getting more and more of a big deal because they’ve evolved resistance to many antibiotics, so it’s difficult to treat infections.”
According to Thompson’s article, all the tested cannabis had two-thirds of the bacteria known to the ESKAPE acronym, including bacteria like E. coli or salmonella. The fungi cryptococcus, mucor and aspergillus are also present in the sample. These pathogens are most likely a problem for a person who is immunocompromised or sick.
Wilson said that bacteria and fungal cells are everywhere, and their numbers are incredibly high.
“In something like a stream of water that looks perfectly clear to you, there can still be a million cells in one gram of that water,” Wilson said.
Existing on our skin, food and inside our body, bacteria isn’t always an unhealthy thing to have. “It’s really difficult to extrapolate from the presence of that organism to the danger of that organism,” Wilson said. “Organisms can be there, but not be causing any problems whatsoever.”
“This was, I guess, part of the idea too is for medical marijuana, many of people who are smoking it have seriously weakened immune systems,” Wilson said. “So that is the population that should be more concerned about smoking.”
Thompson’s study is still troubling to people who see a risk in the presence of pathogens. “It’s never something that’s caught my attention before,” Orozco said. “But it’s something that could be going on, and something that could be an issue. But I’ve never personally had an issue with it.”
Humboldt is known for its high quality cannabis and dispensaries in the area. Collectives and dispensaries are aware of the recent study and seek to uphold the quality of their products. Robert Gale, the CEO of Kind Solutions, a medical marijuana delivery service, works to provide a quality service that the members of his business will appreciate.
“As a medical collective, people are turning to cannabis to alleviate and treat symptoms, therefore we don’t want to exacerbate their problems by providing meds that aren’t clean to the standards provided,” Gale said.
The process to ensure the quality of cannabis takes time, but running it through a laboratory gives the results guaranteeing a safe and standard quality.
“First we establish relationships with cultivators through an interview process, asking them about their methods for cultivating as well as asking about their methods and techniques for pest prevention,” Gale said. “With new farmers, we work with CW Analytical Laboratory and we have the flowers tested for pesticides, bacterias, molds, certain types of residual fertilizers; all that can be tested for.”
According to Wilson, marijuana is tested in a lab and DNA is extracted from it. After extracting the DNA, scientists put it through a high-sequencer and get back millions of sequence reads. They are then able to compare those readings to a database to see where the sequences came from.
Once the cannabis reaches the hands of the consumer, however, there’s an entirely separate issue.
“You can get the cleanest cannabis in the world, then you go home and you go to the bathroom. You don’t wash your hands thoroughly, and then you pick your nose, then you roll a joint. You’re smoking bacteria that was never on the flowers,” Gale said. “Part of it is, if you’re immunocompromised, treat your medicine like you treat your food. You have to wash your hands really thoroughly.”
Cannabis is also a perishable agricultural commodity. “Just like you can have a tomato that goes bad, just as you can have apples that bruise and turn brown, cannabis goes through the same kind of degradation,” Gale said.
Gale encourages his patients to ask questions and continue to educate themselves. “We just have to be wary of sensationalistic headlines. We have to continue to educate patients,” Gale said. “Make people not afraid to ask questions.”