The rules and regulations of the NM Medical Cannabis Program, Title 7, Chapter 34, Part 4, Section 9 (220.127.116.11) – Non-Profit Producer Testing of Usable Cannabis is where we find the strange conglomeration of rules regarding testing of medical cannabis in our state. I say “strange” because the requirements are so off the mark in some regards. There IS NO testing required for pesticides, (which the use of is prevalent and reported in every state that allows cannabis medically or recreationally), and because the testing for mycotoxins, one of the most dangerous and life threatening contaminants that may be found in cannabis, is required, but not currently being done yet in New Mexico. It will be soon, I am told, and like everything else the days, I will believe it when it happens.
A mycotoxin (from Greek (mykes, mukos) “fungus” and (toxikon) “poison”) is a toxic secondary metabolite produced by organisms of the fungus kingdom and is capable of causing disease and death in both humans and animals.
Although this requirement went into effect 2/27/2015, the enforcement has not happened yet. I have been told that was because not all, (or enough?) of the cannabis testing labs in our state were prepared, not having the equipment needed to preform the tests. I have also been told that enforcement of this rule will begin on May 1, 2017, a full TWO years after the rule was created. Are all of the labs ready yet? Unknown. The equipment needed for accurately testing for and identifying harmful mycotoxins is an HPLC machine. High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC; formerly referred to as high-pressure liquid chromatography), is a technique in analytical chemistry used to separate, identify, and quantify each component in a mixture.
The cannabinoids in cannabis are often anti-fungal and antibacterial, making it somewhat unlikely that pathogens will even survive on a living plant, but there are mold and mildew pathogens that CAN survive on the plant. Many these are quite dangerous, and many are plant pathogens only, not human pathogens, meaning they target the plant, not the animal that consumes it. Outdoor plants are much more likely to contain fungus and mold, but indoor plants are also very susceptible especially when using fertilizers, having out of control humidity and not having a grow well ventilated. These micro organisms will most likely be present no matter what, but it is the drying and curing process that will either kill off the organisms or give them conditions to thrive and multiply. Certain types of these organisms may seem to disappear during the drying/curing, but can return if given prime conditions for growth by the end user. It is paramount that this crucial drying/curing step be closely controlled and watched by growers, but I have seen first hand in my years as a cannabis consumer in NM, that this isn’t always the case.
Concentrated Cannabis Products
With concentrates, the use of chemicals, temperature extremes and pressure during the processes make it very unlikely that non-spore microbial organisms will survive, but spores still present CAN survive even the extreme heat of a lighting a pipe or joint, or high temperature vaporization. There are many methods of processing and using cannabis now that don’t even heat the product to a safe temperature for killing off all harmful organisms, like raw cannabis juicing and low temperature concentrate extraction, and these methods have higher risks than methods of delivery and preparations that involve high heat. Non-ingested methods like topicals in the form of creams and transdermal patches present the least risk because our skin is an effective barrier to infection by the typical organisms found in cannabis.
Mildew is the most common mold fungus we humans encounter. It tastes awful in our cannabis but it’s probably the least harmful, unless you are allergic or have lung disease. Mildew spores can be resistant and even heat by smoking or vaping may not kill them.
Some forms of the Aspergillus fungus that may enter the lungs by inhalation, can colonize and cause lung infection. This is especially important to people with lung diseases or those who take medications that promote lung issues or compromised immune systems. But there is much more to be said about this potentially life threatening group of fungus.
This is a mold that is present nearly everywhere in our lives, and the majority of Aspergillus is not pathogenic to humans. Farmers and gardeners breath in thousands of these spores every day in the fields or gardens, and under normal conditions our body’s immune system will remove or neutralize the nasty ones in the lungs. You may even inhale these spores in the city while walking the dog. But there are forms of Aspergillus that can cause very invasive lung infections, and this can be deadly for people with autoimmune issues and more serious lung conditions such as cyclic fibrosis. Cannabis smoking is a big risk factor for these people and this has been documented in the medical world. Some spores can and do survive the heat of smoking and are transferred to colonize in the lungs by smoking. Aspergillus is a species of mold that can be very toxic and is sometimes seen on cannabis. The worse the cure is on the cannabis, the higher the risk. Note: the majority of Aspergillus are not pathogens, but a few are, such as:
Many Aspergillum fungi produce mycotoxins. One friend of mine calls mycotoxins “mold poop”, and as if that isn’t disgusting and scary enough, what it really is is an offensive survival tactic of the mold or fungus, because this by-product of the Aspergillius can survive and colonize when the fungus alone cannot.
A. fumigatus is the one to watch for because it’s responsible for 75% of Aspergillus infections in the U.S. Cannabis showing this form of Aspergillus should never be sold for smoking/vaping, but can be safe to make concentrates destined to be used for edibles. Aspergillus spores are not dangerous when ingested orally.
Toxins, bacterial or fungal, produced by fungi or bacteria present on a plant that has been given prime conditions for these organisms to grow can happen, but is not likely when the processing steps of removing these conditions, such as the proper drying and curing techniques, are practiced. These things do not thrive in a dry environment, and will degrade with heat.
Many of us suffer from the very illnesses that can be caused by mycotoxins, and whether or not these pathogens were the initial cause is immaterial to me at this point, but we should be doing everything we can do not expose ourselves. In my next post I will explore some of the horrific consequences of exposure to mycotoxins.