Government-approved marijuana producers and unsanctioned dispensaries alike are giving priority to quality control testing after recalls of pesticide-contaminated marijuana.

The focus on testing for contaminants — and sharing those results with the public — was highlighted this past week by Alberta-based firm Aurora Cannabis. Aurora began posting certificates of analysis for all its products online on Thursday, a move that came after voluntary recalls of medical marijuana produced by New Brunswick’s Organigram and Ontario’s Mettrum.

Those recalls involved the use of pesticides unapproved by Health Canada for use on cannabis plants. Aurora issued its own voluntary recall for marijuana produced by Organigram and sold under the Aurora name.

Aurora is following in the footsteps of the pharmaceutical industry, where “quality control is job one,” said Cam Battley, executive vice-president at Aurora.

“Quality control is the price of entry into a regulated industry, just like biotechnology and pharmaceuticals,” said Battley.

Licensed producers act

The board of the Cannabis Canada Association voted unanimously on Thursday to implement mandatory product testing among all its members.

The association, which represents Aurora and 14 other Health Canada-licensed producers of medical marijuana, recommended that testing should screen for contaminants including bacteria, heavy metals and unapproved pesticides. It also called for those test results to be made public, for consumers to see.

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There’s a lot at stake for Canada’s legal medical marijuana producers, said Cannabis Canada’s executive director Colette Rivet. Her organization’s member companies have made large investments in their operations, she said, and most are not yet turning a profit.

“They’ve managed to get their licence for selling, and they’re committed to patient safety and public safety,” said Rivet. “They don’t want to jeopardize this at all.”

Canopy Growth Corp., Canada’s largest licensed marijuana producer, parted ways with the Cannabis Canada Association in November. But the Ontario company formerly known as Tweed will also be making its test results available to the public within the next month, said spokesperson Jordan Sinclair.

Canopy ended up taking responsibility for Mettrum’s November recall, which was expanded in December — before Mettrum was acquired by Canopy in February. In an open letter to customers, Canopy CEO Bruce Linton vowed that the company was working to ensure “a recall like this will never happen again.”

After the Organigram and Mettrum recalls, Health Canada said it would begin random testing of products from Canada’s 39 legal medical marijuana producers.

Why a clean product matters

Ensuring a contaminant-free product is “paramount” for medical marijuana producers and their customers, said Steve Angelo, founder of Massachusetts marijuana marketing agency BrandHigher.

“These are compromised individuals, some with significant, severe medical conditions, and the last thing that anybody in this industry wants to do is further compromise somebody that’s already compromised by introducing something else into their system that shouldn’t be there,” said Angelo.

Aurora Cannabis is making its lab test results available to customers online and through its smartphone app. (Julien Lecacheur)

Still, Angelo believes sharing raw laboratory test results could be overwhelming for some users.

“If producers are going to be sharing these results, they need to distil the data down for the average person to understand it,” he said.

But Cam Battley of Aurora Cannabis said many of his company’s customers are enthusiastic about getting access to detailed scientific analyses of their medical marijuana.

“A lot of our patients really are quite passionate about their medical cannabis, and they want to know as much as possible about it,” said Battley.

Dispensaries move to set up testing

Some unsanctioned dispensaries are also looking at testing the marijuana sold at their stores.

On Wednesday, the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries announced it would set up its own testing standards for member dispensaries. The association, which represents 25 dispensary groups, mostly in B.C., wants those standards to be in place by early May.

In September, Health Canada warned its government-approved labs against testing marijuana from unauthorized sellers. (Julie Gordon/Reuters)

Government-licensed laboratories are prohibited from testing marijuana from dispensaries, as Health Canada made clear in September.

“Dispensaries and other such entities are illegal, and it would be inappropriate for the health product regulator to sanction consumer testing of product obtained from these sources,” said a statement from Health Canada.

Some CAMCD member dispensaries were already testing their products with local labs when Health Canada issued its decree, said CAMCD president Jeremy Jacob. After that, he said, those labs stopped working with dispensaries.

Jacob described testing by dispensaries as an interim measure in a quickly changing industry.

“Producers and growers should eventually bear responsibility for having their product tested, but in this transition period, CAMCD believes consumers should be empowered to make educated choices about the cannabis products they buy,” he wrote in an email.