What Are You Really Lighting Up?

What Are You Really Lighting Up?

By Evelyn Indyka

Cannabis isn't hazardous to your health, but its contaminants can be.

Recently, cannabis from unidentified Northern California cannabis dispensaries was found to contain bacterial and fungal pathogens, which may cause serious—even fatal—infections if smoked or vaped by people with impaired or compromised immune systems, according to a new study by UC Davis scientists.

The tested cannabis—collected and cataloged by Berkley's Steep Hill Labs, with DNA extraction by MO BIO Labs in Carlsbad—contained a wide diversity of microorganisms, many of which are implicated in serious lung infections, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, and Aspergillus fungi and Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Acinetobacter baumannii bacteria.

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have passed medical or recreational cannabis laws so far. I recall in the nineties noticing a nice "Green Crack" that always arrived excessively moist and, in some cases, tainted with fungi that I tried to return. It ended up being bad business. Meanwhile back to the future, 20 dispensaries came up riding dirty (for lack of a better term).

This investigation came about when a cancer patient developed a rare and incurable fungal infection after using aerosolized marijuana (inhaled as a mist). Such unusual lung infections are usually attributed to hospital or community exposure, the investigator noted, and do not occur in most patients. Several doctors concluded that the source could be marijuana.

A number of cancer patients were undergoing intensive chemotherapy and, in one case stem cell therapy, so their immune systems were weakened. In one particular patient the fungal infection became lethal. Now what about the users whose immune systems are healthy? "There aren't any specific recommendations" said Dr. George Thompson, associate professor of the clinical medicine at UC Davis, who also contributed to the study.

"One particular young man had used recreational cannabis before his diagnosis with leukemia, and may have acquired the infection before he knew he was even sick," said Dr Joseph Tuscano. "Any type of marijuana inhaled has [a] risk, [because] inhaling provides direct portal of entry into the lungs, where infection can easily take hold" he said.

"The only way to avoid microbes is to plant in a sterile environment, like a ‘clean room’,” said biologist Anthony Torres of Steep Hill Labs. "With proper irrigation the plant can reduce risk," he added. Microbial testing can detect the levels of contaminants. “It is important for individuals who use cannabis to make sure it has been tested for pesticides, mold and mycotoxins and microbiological contaminants," said Torres.

As a patient, make sure that the dispensary you are purchasing from has reports available, to ensure that the cannabis is free from contaminants like those mentioned above. For those with compromised immune systems, and even allergies or sensitivity to molds, it is especially important that the market develop standard testing protocols.

Finally, in addition to relying on testing, make sure to carefully examine flower that is purchased. We don’t need casualties in the process of legalization.