Testing Good Farming out of Legal Marijuana in Massachusetts

Photo from flickr under creative commons license.

Connecting the marijuana industry to the Massachusetts small farm could change the economic and financial picture for farms across the Commonwealth, help to insure local food security for generations, and provide a model for sustainable marijuana production on the East Coast. (As I and others have argued.)

There are 7,241 farms in Massachusetts according to MDAR. Over 79% of those are family owned small farms.

But as it currently stands, the Massachusetts farmers have been effectively excluded from the Adult Use market in MA. One reason is the technical difficulty of producing outdoor flower that passes the microbe testing required by the MA Adult Use Regulations, 935 CMR 500.160.

HERE’S THE PROBLEM: The Massachusetts regulations require microbe testing for recreational marijuana that is in direct tension with the best agricultural practices. Good growing practices incorporate and support microbial activity in the soil and plant canopy. Testing for the total presence of bacteria and fungus on marijuana, as currently required under MA law, does not differentiate between those microbes that are beneficial and those that are harmful.

To be clear, I am not advocating that MA does not require testing marijuana for microbial pathogens. I am arguing that MA, like most other legal states, should test for specific pathogens and allow for the presence of beneficial microbes. (And this requires more research.)

Biological balance removes the need to use poisons to fight pests and disease, and, when done correctly, can remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Over-simplified, there are currently two dominant, competing philosophies with respect to agriculture. The predominant agricultural model since roughly the end of WWII is based on simple salt nutrient applications, sterilization, and chemical elimination of biological threats to plant health. This form of agriculture is responsible for a significant portion of human carbon emissions.

In contrast, the so-called “regenerative” farming practices rely on a rich, biologically diverse and balanced environment in the soil and in the plant foliage. These practices can protect plant health, and can sequester carbon out of the atmosphere for a net negative “carbon footprint.”

Much like the human microbiome, which is largely responsible for human health, the soil and foliage microbiome are crucial to healthy plant biology. To quote the USDA website:

An incredible diversity of organisms make up the soil food web. They range in size from the tiniest one-celled bacteria, algae, fungi, and protozoa, to the more complex nematodes and micro-arthropods, to the visible earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and plants.

As these organisms eat, grow, and move through the soil, they make it possible to have clean water, clean air, healthy plants, and moderated water flow.

The Adult Use regulations require testing of marijuana to be sold to the market for “Total Viable Aerobic Bacteria (CFU/g)” at 100,000 CFU/g and “Total Yeast and Mold (CFU/g)” at 10,000 CFU/g.

There is little basis for Massachusetts’ strict and broad thresholds. Most regulated recreational states test for specific pathogens, and the current state of the science supports this approach.

California law (as does CO and OR) specifically requires testing marijuana and marijuana products for Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli, Salmonella spp., and Pathogenic Aspergillus species A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger, and A. terreus.

In 2015, four authors, including Harvard Immunology Faculty, Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, recommend the approach taken by CA and other states in their white paper, “Microbiological Safety Testing of Cannabis.” The authors recommend testing for specific microbial pathogens stating that “Cannabis is not a potential delivery vehicle [. . .] for most bacterial pathogens.” The paper goes on to recommend that “There is no need to test Cannabis for “total yeast and mold”. Total yeast and mold tests detect only a small fraction of the fungal species in the environment, and do not correlate with the presence of pathogenic species.”(Ibid, pp 29–34. Emphasis added.)

Let me make an analogy to highlight this point. Did you know your body is composed of more microbes than your own cells? Many of these microbes (bacteria, fungi, protists, and viruses) may be beneficial or necessary for your health.

Imagine going to the doctor, and in order to determine if you have a disease, like COVID-19, your doctor tested for the presence of “total viable bacteria” or “total yeast-mold” in your body. If your doctor found the presence of “total viable bacteria” or “total yeast-mold” above an arbitrary threshold, without determining which of the thousands of potentially beneficial species of bacteria or fungus are present, your doctor would conclude you are sick and need drugs or treatment to eliminate the bacteria. This is particularly nonsensical because SARS-CoV-2 is a virus.

Well, that’s how the MA Adult Use Regulations requires addressing the presence of microbes in marijuana for commercial sale.

PARENTHETICALLY, aside from the regulatory changes I’m proposing, there are technological solutions to the microbial testing thresholds in MA. Specifically, there are a number of remediation technologies available that reduce or eliminate the presence of microbes on marijuana. However, these remediation solutions are inferior to the simple regulatory change I’m proposing. Without giving a complete survey of the existing techniques, the remediation technologies have some or all of the following drawbacks: 1. Equipment cost; 2. Labor; 3. Energy consumption; 4. Terpene loss.

Simply put, the current, extremely strict and broad microbe testing thresholds set forth under 935 CMR 500.160 and the related protocols contradict the ability of the farmer to grow in a biologically active environment. This, in effect, selects away from the best, sustainable and regenerative cannabis cultivation techniques that are available and excludes small farmers who use biologically active techniques.

To be sure, there are other obstacles facing farmers who may wish to grow legal marijuana in MA. Among these are local zoning and other agricultural land restrictions that exclude marijuana, complicated and costly licensing, and lack of capital for required compliance and security infrastructure. However, the microbe testing thresholds are under the control of the Commission, and a change in this regard would remove a significant barrier to small farmers and regenerative, outdoor marijuana cultivation.

If you agree, please send your support for testing only specific microbial pathogens to Shawn Collins, Executive Director of the Cannabis Control Commission, at shawn.collins@cccmass.com, and Christine Baily, General Counsel for the Cannabis Control Commission, at christine.baily@cccmass.com.

(We filed a petition to amend the regulations in August 2020, and the Commission changed the testing section of the regulations as published in January 2021, but as of February 4, 2021, the CCC has not released the new testing protocols)

Seeker. Ape. Mostly ape.

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