What’s in New York’s Illicit Cannabis: Germs, Toxins and Metals

Some cannabis products sold at unlicensed storefronts in New York are not only illegal, but also contaminated with harmful bacteria, heavy metals and toxic pesticides, according to an industry report released on Wednesday.

Lab tests conducted on smokable weed, edible candies and vaporizers purchased from 20 smoke shops and dispensaries detected prohibited levels of eight different contaminants, including E. coli, salmonella, nickel and lead. The survey also found that the strength of some products was mislabeled, according to the report from the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association, a state trade group.

The association, which represents licensed medical dispensary operators in New York, said the findings underscored concerns raised by elected officials and regulators about the danger posed by the unbridled growth of retail stores across the state that falsely claim their products are legal.

Currently, legal cannabis sales in New York are only available to patients at 38 medical dispensaries operated by the association’s members. But the report comes on the heels of regulators awarding 36 of the state’s first retail dispensary licenses earlier this month. Regulators have said that legal sales of recreational cannabis would begin in December.

“Just as the Empire State is poised to achieve that significant goal,” the industry association said in the report, “new illicit operators have sprung up, latching on to the coattails of the respected pre-existing legacy market and threatening both public health and safety and the long-term success of legal operators.”

Medical dispensary operators have long expressed frustration about being shut out of New York’s retail market while illicit storefronts operated without regulation and with impunity. The report amounts to an attempt to add pressure to the authorities to curtail illicit sales as the medical industry seeks changes to proposed regulations that would required them to pay a minimum of $3 million to enter the retail market.

The New York Times obtained the underlying lab reports for the tests, but has not independently verified any of the test results. Experts advised caution in interpreting the findings, noting that bacteria die when incinerated for smoking and that some metals and pesticides are considered safe in trace amounts. Both city officials and cannabis regulators have said they are reviewing the report.

More About Cannabis

With recreational marijuana becoming legal in several states, cannabis products are becoming more easily available and increasingly varied.

  • Marijuana Pardons: President Biden pardoned thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law. But many others, including those convicted on state charges, are not eligible.
  • High Times: New York took a significant step toward launching a legal market for recreational cannabis by approving the first licenses to operate retail dispensaries in the state.
  • Illegal Dispensaries: Shops selling unlicensed weed have sprung up throughout New York since the state legalized cannabis, thriving in confusion over their legality and a lack of enforcement.
  • Use on the Rise: Federal survey data on substance use shows the growing mainstream acceptance of cannabis and hallucinogenic compounds among young adults.

In all, the tests revealed contaminants in 16 items out of a total of 40 products. Nine contained less THC — the intoxicating compound in cannabis — than their labels advertised. But one type of gummy whose label suggested it had a potency of 100 milligrams of THC per piece was actually twice that strong, according to the analysis.

The most common contaminants were E. coli and salmonella, which were detected in nine items, mostly loose flower and prerolled joints. State regulations prohibit cannabis products tainted by E. coli and salmonella from being sold to consumers. Both types of bacteria can cause infections that generally result in diarrhea, vomiting, fever and cramps. Severe cases can be life-threatening.

None of the products tested met New York’s standards, said Michael Bianco, the president of Talon Analytical, a state-licensed lab. The company, which counts most of the medical cannabis companies as clients, ran the tests on the illicit products.

Dr. Bianco, who is also an anesthesiologist, said in an interview that the results showed how unlicensed shops were undermining the success of those who waited to be in compliance.

“What we can extrapolate is, there’s a lot of bad stuff out there and there’s a lot of bad players that ruin the market for the people who are taking the legal route to get into the industry,” Dr. Bianco said.

Credit…Evelyn Freja for The New York Times
Credit…Evelyn Freja for The New York Times

The tainted products found in New York were sold at 11 out of 20 unlicensed shops that the association’s buyers visited in high-traffic areas of the city. The stores included popular chains in Manhattan and Brooklyn that have received cease-and-desist orders from the state. All of the businesses were listed on Google Maps, which helped them appear legitimate.

Ngiste Abebe, the president of the medical industry group, said that pointed to an urgent need for consumers to be better educated about what they are buying and for civil penalties to be levied against businesses that are taking advantage of people who can legally possess cannabis but do not yet have a legal way of accessing it.

“We know that people aren’t dying from cannabis overdoses, but people still deserve a safe and enjoyable cannabis product,” Ms. Abebe said.

Materials unfit for human consumption are routinely used bygrowers, especially to safeguard crops from threats like pests, said David Abecassis, a professor in the cannabis program at LIM College in Manhattan, who was not part of the survey.

“It’s not unusual to find traces of pesticides on those products because of emergency intervention by the growers,” he said. “Well, that’s something that would be illegal in a licensed market and yet is financially rewarded in the gray.”

The biggest risk raised in the findings, Mr. Abecassis said, is the exposure to pesticides, which have been linked to a range of serious illnesses including fatal cancers and organ damage. Six of the tested products contained chemicals like myclobutanil and pyrethrins in concentrations far above state limits, according to the analysis.

Those products included three items from Empire Cannabis Club, a Manhattan-based nonprofit chain whose members pay a fee for access to its supply. A STIIIZY-branded vape cart purchased from Empire’s location in Chelsea contained nearly five times the maximum allowable amount of pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide, according to detailed lab results provided to The New York Times.

Three out of four tainted products sold at Noise NYC, a Brooklyn-based chain with six locations in the city contained E. coli and salmonella, including a pack of gummies falsely branded as Trolli Crunchy Crawlers, a popular candy aimed at children.

The state previously sent Noise a cease-and-desist order in July. A man to whom the letter was addressed did not answer a call to a phone number listed for him.

Nickel and lead were found in four of the tested items, with one disposable vape from Cannaa World in Brooklyn containing 250 parts per million of lead, an amount 500 times the limit, lab results showed. Mr. Abecassis said the plants may have been grown in contaminated soil or, in the case of the vaping liquids, tainted by leaching cartridges or infused additives.

Three products sold by the Manhattan-based Empire Cannabis Club were found to contain chemicals in concentrations far above state limits.Credit…Julia Nikhinson/Associated Press

Aaron Ghitelman, a spokesman for the Office of Cannabis Management, said the report confirmed what officials have long said about the risks of unregulated products and the need to shutter unlicensed storefronts. The agency’s governing board adopted regulations last week that would deny licenses to people selling cannabis from unlicensed storefronts or vehicles, or otherwise pretending to be legitimate.

The office is currently conducting a joint interagency enforcement pilot with the city. Mayor Eric Adams said the initiative had led to seizures of more than 100,000 items and the issuance 300 civil and criminal violations.

Officials did not say whether they would take action against any of the specific businesses that sold the products tested in the report.

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