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Mold in marijuana? Connecticut's rules are less strict than other states

A marijuana sample at the beginning of the testing process at MCR Labs in Framingham, Massachusetts February 10, 2023.
Joe Amon
/
Connecticut Public
The testing process begins for a marijuana sample at MCR Labs in Framingham, Mass., Feb. 10, 2023.

Connecticut is joined by only Florida and Maryland in setting the mold limit as high as 100,000 CFU/g. But safety standards vary widely across the nation.

Branford resident Alex London uses cannabis to help with lingering back pain and migraines that stem from a car crash.

London said he used to buy it from medical marijuana dispensaries near his home. But now, because of changes in how Connecticut regulates cannabis, he’s back to using his “local guy” — a grower in Maine.

“At least with him, I’m aware of where it comes from,” London said.

That matters for London because he’s worried about the amount of mold in the marijuana he smokes.

Mold is present wherever we go: It’s in our food, our medicine and our air. Because avoiding mold entirely is impossible, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows for small amounts of it in lots of consumer products. But because marijuana isn’t legal at the federal level, it’s up to states to decide how much mold in the product is too much.

And in Connecticut, that limit has been in flux. It’s currently set at 100,000 colony-forming units per gram of cannabis (a measurement expressed as CFU/g). A review by The Accountability Project found that that’s 10 times higher than the threshold in most other states that have a numeric limit for mold in marijuana.

London said his decision to procure medical marijuana elsewhere was driven by his desire to protect his own health. Mold poses a bigger risk for medical marijuana patients who are older or have compromised immune systems.

“I feel like there’s still a lot of people that aren’t aware of the fact that these standards have changed,” he said.

When medical marijuana was legalized in Connecticut in 2012, the acceptable standard was less than 10,000 CFU/g. But, in 2021, the state Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) approved a request from one of the state’s testing facilities, AltaSci Laboratories, to increase the threshold to 1 million CFU/g.

State regulators have since rolled back the limit to 100,000 CFU/g, where it now stands.

Meanwhile, Northeast Laboratories, the only other lab that tests for mold in marijuana in the state, kept its standard 10 times lower. Neither lab responded to requests for comment.

DCP did not address the reasoning behind its shifting guidelines, but the agency said in a statement that the most recent change was drafted in consultation with independent microbiologists and regulators in other states and that it represents industry best practices from across the country.

The agency also said it requires tested samples to contain no detectable traces of specific strains of mold or yeast that may be harmful to humans, specifically aspergillus, a fungus that can cause an infection in the lungs.

Lead lab tech Vince Barcinas preparing marijuana samples for the testing process at MCR Labs in Framingham, Massachusetts February 10, 2023.
Joe Amon
/
Connecticut Public
Lead lab tech Vince Barcinas prepares marijuana samples for testing at MCR Labs in Framingham, Mass., Feb. 10, 2023.

Connecticut is joined only by Florida and Maryland in setting the mold limit as high as 100,000 CFU/g. But safety standards vary widely across the nation. Some states don’t measure mold levels at all, and some look only for specific, dangerous molds, operating on a pass-fail system.

“[Connecticut’s standard] isn’t as rigorous as some would like, but it is a modest level,” said Michael White, a distinguished professor at the UConn School of Pharmacy. “It can give people a moderate sense of security when they're using these types of products.”

Patients should consult with their doctors about risk associated with mold, said Cassin Coleman, vice chair of the scientific advisory committee at the National Cannabis Industry Association, an industry group. But in general, most mold in marijuana is not more dangerous than other common mold exposures.

“If a medical patient in Connecticut can have pain as the reason that they they’re getting cannabis, unless they have some other underlying immune compromising [condition], you’re not talking about things that are going to be any worse off than if you were walking down the street,” Coleman said.

As part of The Accountability Project’s research, we asked MCR Labs in Massachusetts to test a sample of marijuana from a dispensary in Connecticut. It came back showing 100 CFU/g of mold — well below the cutoff in both Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Michael Kahn, CEO of MCR Labs, said it’s evident that the marijuana safety regulatory system is piecemeal.

Michael Kahn, Founder and CEO of MCR Labs in the MicroBio suite where marijuana is tested for mold at MCR Labs in Framingham, Massachusetts February 10, 2023.
Joe Amon
/
Connecticut Public
Michael Kahn, founder and CEO of MCR Labs, in the MicroBio suite where marijuana is tested for mold at MCR Labs in Framingham, Mass., Feb. 10, 2023.

“We really do have a state-by-state-by-state experiment, I guess, in public health,” he said. “I just wish that the states would talk to each other more and adjust their regulations based on each other’s data.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: After publication, this article was updated to reflect a statement from DCP which says the following: "The laboratory standard codified in regulation in Connecticut as of July 2021 is 100,000 CFU/g and no detectable traces of specific strains of mold or yeast that may be harmful to humans, specifically aspergillus."

Kate Seltzer is the Howard Center for Investigative Reporting Fellow for Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project. She completed her master’s in journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism in December.