With rapidly changing legalization laws across the country, cannabis has become more popular and more accessible than ever before, but there are still people who are buying their weed the old-fashioned way. Black market weed, however, can contain contaminants like fentanyl, because they don’t have to go through a rigorous testing process.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have been working to combat the illegal market of synthetic marijuana products, but despite best efforts different entities continue to produce and distribute these products, according to a statement from the FDA.
According to the California Bureau of Cannabis Control, contaminants can range from mold to e coli, to pesticides to heavy metals to toxic substances such as fentanyl. With an unregulated product, consumers can never be sure what they will be getting.
“Sometimes I am scared that I am sacrificing my safety for the bargain,” journalism senior Olivia, who wishes to keep her last name anonymous to protect her professional identity, said. “In a perfect world I would like to be buying my stuff from a dispensary, but the bottom line is that I cannot afford it. We are college students. What did they expect, that money is spilling out of our pockets?”
All of these contaminants can be extremely harmful when ingested, inhaled or applied to the body, especially fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, according to Cal Poly professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Scott Eagon.
“It was designed and created by people, so it is not found in nature,” he said. “It is a very simple molecule to make.”
This compound triggers the pleasure centers of the brain and acts similar to opium, heroin or oxycodone, Eagon said. However, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than any of the aforementioned opioids.
To put that into perspective, a lethal dose of fentanyl is 2 milligrams. About the same amount as a grain of sand.
“You aren’t going to know there is fentanyl in there until it is too late,” Eagon said.
Video by Lili LeBaron
So where to go to avoid contaminated bud? Licensed cannabis retailers say that safety is part of what they’re selling.
Licensed cannabis retailers have to have a state license to operate commercially in California. But before a dispensary can even apply for a state license they have to be licensed on a local level.
To acquire these licenses there has to be a land use permit acquired and a community outreach performed including anyone within a radius of 1,000 feet. There are also regulations regarding security, employment and mitigation that the facilities need to adhere to. After this grueling licensing process is complete, the dispensary moves on to the regulation stage of production.
The regulated cannabis market has a system to track and trace the movement of products throughout the commercial supply chain. In shorthand, it is referred to as seed to sale. This system is meant to keep tabs on industry inventory as well as make sure there are no corners cut when providing products for the public.
“Right now, cannabis in California is the cleanest crop because of phase 3 testing labs that all products have to go through before they get to market,” said Drayten Howell, CEO of Indacut, the first weed delivery service in Santa Barbara County, with a delivery range that includes San Luis Obispo County. “That’s why the legal market is there for the consumer. It’s more than just selling an 1/8th; there are a lot of things going on in the background.”
In conjunction with this system, every distributor has to provide Certificates of Analysis (COA) with their products. COAs are extensive reports that provide details regarding the lab the product was tested in, the potency it has, what ingredients or compounds are present within the product and if it will be harmful to consumers. If a batch of product fails even one of the requirements, licensed retailers legally cannot accept that product.
The COA is also becoming more accessible to the consumer. Many verified retailers are including QR codes within their packaging so that the customer can access the COA at any time.
Howell, 23-years-old, is aware of how high taxes on cannabis products can dissuade younger demographics from buying at dispensaries, making it harder to combat “black market” prices.
“These retailers are gauging your guys’ pockets, and I hate charging that tax. That’s why I price like I do. It is also why I don’t have a delivery fee and my minimum is $20,” Howell said. “If I am targeting college students, I have to give them a product that they can afford.”