What’s in Illinois’ legal weed? Sometimes contaminants, Sun-Times testing finds
Nearly two years and $1.9 billion in sales since recreational marijuana was legalized, consumers can’t be sure the heavily taxed legal weed they buy is free from mold, yeast and bacteria and meets the label’s promised potency, a Sun-Times investigation found.
That’s what lab tests commissioned by the Chicago Sun-Times found.
And that was for “pre-rolls” for which the marijuana in them had passed muster in state-mandated tests done for growers.
It’s been nearly two years and $1.9 billion in sales since recreational marijuana was legalized in Illinois. And the state has some of the strictest testing standards for cannabis in the nation.
Yet consumers still can’t be certain that the heavily taxed legal weed they buy from state-licensed dispensaries is free from excessive levels of contaminants such as mold, yeast and bacteria, the Sun-Times found.
And, in two of the 10 samples tested, the weed’s potency was found to be far less than advertised — meaning consumers wouldn’t be getting the high they paid for.
The Sun-Times commissioned an independent, state-registered laboratory to test a sampling of one of the most popular recreational marijuana products — pre-rolled joints. That testing found that eight of nine pre-rolled marijuana joints purchased by Sun-Times reporters from Chicago-area dispensaries contained levels of mold, yeast or various types of bacteria that didn’t meet Illinois’ standards for acceptable levels of such contaminants.
That’s even though the weed in those pre-rolled joints had been given a clean bill of health after harvest in state-required testing done for cultivators.
Though the test results were from a small sampling, they mirror the findings of testing that’s been done in other states that found moldy weed for sale to consumers.
“Am I surprised by these results? Absolutely not,” says James MacRae, owner of the Straight Line Analytics cannabis consulting firm near Seattle.
MacRae says he found widespread mold in pre-rolls during his own sampling and testing for a dispensary client in Washington state in 2019.
Cole Preston, a medical cannabis patient from the Carbondale area who hosts the “Chillinois” podcast and runs the popular “Illinois Trees” forum on Reddit, says the findings give him pause about the state’s efforts to ensure that legal weed is safe.
“It takes away from some of the points I use as an advocate — like the products are regulated and safe,” Preston says. “I don’t know that I can say that now that I’ve seen this.”
Cultivators say they aren’t to blame, that the marijuana they grew and sold that went into the pre-rolls was fine when it was initially tested soon after harvest and that any contamination must have occurred at some point after that.
Calling safety and quality “top priorities,” Pam Althoff, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, says the industry group “will continue to work with regulators and other key stakeholders on the continued development of testing standards to ensure consumers are protected and continue to enjoy the highest quality products.”
This isn’t the first time problems have been found in products on dispensary shelves in Illinois.
After getting complaints about mold in May, Illinois regulators flagged six batches of Mag Landrace cannabis flower — the dried plant material that users smoke — produced at Verano Holdings’ Ataraxia cultivation center in downstate Albion. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation told dispensaries statewide to quarantine the products. But the state agency left it up to each store to decide whether to inform consumers who already had bought the weed. One dispensary chain notified customers and offered store credit.
Illinois’ rules for cannabis safety and quality require marijuana that’s grown and sold in the state to pass tests for mold, yeast, bacteria and other contaminants that are much stricter than those in many states. Some states don’t require any testing at all for certain contaminants.
Illinois cannabis regulation: moldy weed but no consumer alert or recall, secret investigations.
State regulators largely rely on private testing paid for by cultivators.
The labs that cultivators hired to test the marijuana that ended up in the contaminated pre-rolls purchased by the Sun-Times stand by their own test results, saying the weed met state standards when they tested it, which was before it was processed and rolled into joints.
The tests commissioned by the Sun-Times can’t explain how or where or when the samples became contaminated — only that they were.
Experts say that could have happened during processing, transport or even while sitting in a dispensary waiting to be sold.
MacRae, the cannabis consulting firm owner, says pre-rolled joints are especially susceptible to becoming contaminated. He calls such products “rolled mold” and suspects that the rolling process causes the contamination.
The chunks of cannabis flower that go into the joints might pass all tests after harvest, MacRae says. But when the flower is ground up to make pre-rolls, he says the disturbed plant material releases moisture and the process mixes in naturally occurring mold spores that are in the air all around us.
Then, after being wrapped in rolling paper and sealed in an airtight package, the pre-rolls are shipped by truck and can sit on a store shelf for months before being bought and consumed, he says.
“It was OK when it was tested, but now you’re testing the stuff when it’s been on the store shelves,” MacRae says of the Sun-Times testing. “The thing is, what you were testing represents what consumers are buying. So it’s a problem.”
Smoking moldy weed can cause allergic reactions and bring on asthma for people who have a cold or another infection, says Dr. Enid Neptune, a Johns Hopkins University Medical School professor and former co-chair of the American Thoracic Society’s Tobacco Action Committee.
Common symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, chest pain and airway inflammation.
And people who are immunocompromised — because they take certain types of medications, have a rheumatological disorder or have received an organ transplant, among other reasons — can become seriously ill, Neptune says.
“They run the risk of being exposed to mold and potentially getting a very serious infection,” she says.
Sang Hyuck Park, a senior scientist at Colorado State University’s Institute of Cannabis Research who’s delved into the health effects of mold-contaminated weed, says: “The person might experience coughing, nausea and vomiting. It should not be dangerous if the event is a one-time event. But if it becomes occasional, it will raise numerous health issues. If the person is allergic to mold, the person could experience a serious allergic inflammation chain reaction.”
Illinois cannabis companies whose legal weed ended up in the pre-rolls that the Sun-Times tested say they have full confidence in their products.
David Spreckman, vice president of marketing for Verano Holdings, the Chicago company that owns Ataraxia as well as the Zen Leaf dispensary chain, says: “We’re dedicated to providing patients and customers with an array of high-quality, safe cannabis products. Zen Leaf stands behind the product it sells, and we will work with customers over any concerns they have after taking the product home, always following strict product-specific protocols mandated by state regulations.”
Spreckman says the cannabis in question “passed independent testing prior to being packaged, sealed and entering the state’s distribution system to dispensaries.”
He also says Verano is creating a new, in-house lab at Ataraxia’s grow facility in Albion to help spot and prevent problems with quality control, adding another layer of safety to the independent, third-party testing its products must undergo.
Asked about the results involving its products, Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries, known as GTI, which owns grow sites and dispensaries in multiple states, says it “strictly abides by state testing regulations in each of our respective markets to ensure the safety and quality of our products. Each of these specific batch numbers reported results well within Illinois’ potency and microbial standards as certified by state-approved, independent, third-party testing labs.”
PharmaCann — another Chicago marijuana company with retail and cultivation operations in multiple states — also says its products initially “met the quality testing standards currently in-force for cannabis products in Illinois at the time of production. … The conditions under which the dispensaries that stored and handled our products or the bulk of the time between the two tests are outside of our control or visibility.”
New York-based Ascend Wellness Holdings, which operates cultivation sites and dispensaries in Illinois and four other states, says it’s “committed to providing safe and trusted products to our patients and customers.”
Acreage Holdings, another multistate operator based in New York, didn’t respond to requests for comment about its In Grown Farms greenhouse in downstate Freeport that produced one of the samples the Sun-Times bought.
State Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, who sponsored a law this year overhauling the state’s legalization law, says he isn’t surprised by the Sun-Times testing results. He says similar alarms have been raised to him about potentially problematic cannabis flower and edibles causing a “bad experience” for users.
Ford says he’s looking into those issues in an effort to “improve the quality of cannabis in Illinois.”
He notes that lawmakers legalized the drug with a promise that what would be sold at dispensaries would be safe.
“You have to be able to say that we know when it left the grow site that it was safe,” he says. “And we can then narrow the blame. We’ve got to be able to point the finger.”
What the pre-roll tests found
For the Sun-Times-commissioned tests, reporters bought nine packages of pre-rolled marijuana joints from seven dispensaries and one chunk of marijuana flower at an eighth dispensary — buying them as any consumer might.
The newspaper hired a cannabis testing laboratory from the state’s list of registered labs — Origo Labs in Jefferson Park — to perform tests on the products. The samples were dropped at the lab on the day of purchase, each labeled with only a number and letter.
The samples were tested for heavy metals, pesticides and these five categories of microbiological contaminants: aerobic bacteria, yeast and mold, coliform bacteria, bile-tolerant gram-negative bacteria and E. coli and salmonella. They also were tested for mycotoxins — toxic compounds created by molds or fungi — and for potency.
One of the nine pre-roll samples and the lone fresh flower sample passed all of the contaminant tests.
But eight of the nine pre-rolls were found to have two or more microbiological contaminants at levels above Illinois’ limits. Those were produced by five major cannabis firms, each with operations in multiple states: Green Thumb Industries, Verano Holdings, PharmaCann, Ascend Wellness Holdings and Acreage Holdings.
Four of the pre-rolls failed four different microbiological tests.
None of the samples had detectable levels of E. coli, salmonella, mycotoxins or 53 types of pesticides.
And none of the samples tested above state limits for heavy metals: lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury or chromium.
READ THE LABEL
How to obtain and understand the label information for what’s in your weed.
State regulators say the Sun-Times tests show that legal weed is safer than what’s on the street.
“The product tested showed no evidence of heavy metals, E. coli, salmonella or any detectable mycotoxins or pesticide residue, all common in the illicit market,” a spokeswoman for the agriculture department says.
Beware the smell of ‘wet dog’
Moldy cannabis has long been a problem in Illinois, according to consumers and people who work in the booming legal weed industry.
Just in the past week, a former supervisor at PharmaCann’s cultivation center in Dwight filed a whistleblower lawsuit in Cook County, saying the cannabis company fired him in July because he wouldn’t stop flagging batches of moldy weed that had been cleared for sale. In his lawsuit, William Sanford says he and his co-workers often “discovered excessive mold growing” on batches of cannabis that previously had been sampled and tested.
“A dangerous public health problem arises when batch samples pass testing standards but the batch still contains excessive visible mold either because the particular sample did not capture a portion of the plant with mold or the mold grew after the time the sample was collected,” the suit says.
In June, a supervisor told Sanford to “bypass quality control to pass more batches of natural cannabis flower that were actually infested with excessive mold despite prior laboratory testing,” according to the suit.
When Sanford persisted in raising the alarm, the supervisor told him that PharmaCann’s cultivation director wanted him to stop reporting moldy flower, according to the suit, which says that, after disregarding that order, Sanford was fired on July 15.
Asked about the lawsuit, Jeremy Unruh, a spokesman for the Chicago cannabis company, wouldn’t comment on the accusations but says PharmaCann has procedures in place to spot problems: “Flagging these microorganisms during the production process is strictly controlled by the company’s standard operating procedure.”
Danielle Meade recently alerted the nearly 18,000 subscribers to Reddit’s “Illinois Trees” forum that a strain of Verano flower she bought in March called Motor Breath tasted so moldy it made her vomit.
Meade, 34, a stay-at-home mother who uses medical cannabis to treat anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and a degenerative disc disease, says that strain is a favorite of hers. But when she opened the two containers of it that she bought from the Greenhouse dispensary in Morris, she says the smell and taste were unmistakable.
“I would 100% say it was mold,” Meade says. “It was like an attic or a wet dog. It was just horrible. I’ve never had an experience where I threw up after smoking.”
Meade says she was able to exchange the bad bud at the dispensary where she bought it, now owned by Curaleaf, but only for more Motor Breath, which she took but hasn’t smoked.
She says that, since then, she’s bought vape cartridges that also tasted moldy.
“It makes me wonder, what is it doing to my body?” Meade says. “Are there potential health risks that I’m inhaling mold, inhaling some sort of spores? Is this making me sick?”
In a private Facebook group for medical cannabis patients that counts more than 2,000 members, one user said over the summer that a particular flower batch left her “hacking a lung.”
“Smelled the jar, straight wet mold smell!!” she wrote. “I’m done, no more chances!!”
In his 2019 sampling program for a dispensary client in Washington, MacRae says he found that 10 of 10 randomly selected pre-rolls contained too much yeast and mold.
“In some cases, it was like 10 times as much” as typical state limits, he says. “It was really disgusting.”
The state of Washington did away with yeast and mold testing requirements in 2017 for recreational weed, instead relying on tests for certain mycotoxins produced by molds. MacRae says the retailer he worked with wanted to know, given the change, whether products offered for sale were moldy. They were.
Among problems found elsewhere:
- In June, Arizona officials announced a voluntary dispensary recall for seven flower products and one pre-roll product for possible salmonella and a type of mold called Aspergillus, which can cause deadly lung infections.
- Last winter, Canada recalled 330,000 packages of cannabis gummies after consumer complaints about mold.
- In February, the state of Nevada recalled flower and pre-rolls from five dispensaries after independent testing found excessive yeast and mold, telling consumers, “Consumption of the affected cannabis should particularly be avoided by individuals with suppressed immune systems.”
- In September, the state of Michigan announced a voluntary recall from dispensaries of fresh marijuana flower, pre-packaged flower and pre-rolls from eight batches of weed contaminated with the pesticides bifenthrin and chlorfenapyr, possibly from a mechanical trimmer contaminated with chemical residues.
- In November, Michigan issued a massive recall of $230 million of cannabis flower products at 400 dispensaries. The products had been tested by a lab the state said used “inaccurate and / or unreliable” safety testing. The lab challenged the state’s action in court and succeeded in getting part of the recall overturned.
The state where you buy legal weed could affect the levels of contaminants in what you get.
In Illinois, microbiological contaminants such as mold, yeast and various bacteria are measured in colony-forming units per gram, or CFU/g, with labs culturing them on testing plates to count them. For yeast and mold, Illinois allows up to 1,000 CFU/g.
But Michigan allows yeast and mold of up to 100,000 CFU/g for recreational weed and up to 10,000 CFU/g for medical pot — much higher than Illinois’ limits.
The five samples that the Sun-Times had tested and which failed for mold and yeast came in at 5,671 CFU/g, 9,647 CFU/g, 11,357 CFU/g, 18,894 CFU/g and “too numerous to count.”
That means four could have been sold for recreational use in Michigan, and two would have been good enough for medical use there.
Some states don’t worry much about any but the most serious strains of mold. California requires labs to test only for Aspergillus mold. Connecticut used to limit yeast and mold counts to 10,000 CFU/g but recently loosened that to 1,000,000 CFU/g as long as there is no Aspergillus present.
Wide variations in potency
Even if the marijuana products consumers buy are free of contaminants, another issue is potency — in terms of getting less-potent marijuana than you’re paying for and also possibly getting something far stronger than the label says.
Under Illinois’ rules, tested potency must be within 85% to 115% of labeled potency. Five of the samples in the Sun-Times testing were outside that range, the lab found. Three came in higher than the label said. Two came in lower.
DECODING WEED POTENCY
Here’s how to decode the four main components of cannabis potency:
- Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) are found in raw cannabis plants.
- When cannabis is heated or dried, THCA turns into psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol or THC — the primary type being delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol.
- THC is what makes a user feel high. It’s also promoted for medical use for ailments including glaucoma, migraines, multiple sclerosis and seizures.
- CBDA converts to cannabidiol or CBD, which is non-psychoactive but increasingly recognized for health benefits including pain relief and nausea reduction in cancer patients.
- Scientists are looking for more health uses for CBDA and THCA, including possible analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial or antioxidant benefits and as an appetite stimulant and nausea suppressant.
That’s key because consumers buying inhalable cannabis products primarily decide which ones to buy based on how much THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana — they contain, according to Kelly Nielsen, vice president of insights and analytics of BDSA, a Colorado cannabis research firm.
Nielsen says people buying cannabis flower and pre-rolls know that its potency might vary — unlike those buying edibles, who expect more precise dosing.
But Preston, the cannabis podcast host, who has used medical marijuana since 2018, doesn’t buy that.
“How are we supposed to learn what a serving size is if we aren’t provided accurate numbers?” he says. “Imagine if this was happening with alcohol or other drugs and medications. It would be unacceptable and, in some cases, abhorrent.”
The biggest potency variation in the Sun-Times tests was found in an Ozone brand package of Gelatto pre-rolls produced by Ascend and sold at Dispensary 33 in West Town. The label said its total THC was 18.96% — but the Sun-Times testing found total THC of 11.681%.
Dogwalker brand Orange Pie pre-rolls produced by GTI and sold at PharmaCann’s Verilife dispensary on the Near North Side had the second-biggest potency variation. They had a labeled total THC of 23.92%, but the tests found total THC of 15.718%.
Both cultivators say they stand by their initial tests, which were done after harvest.
MacRae says cannabis flower can have some spots with higher concentrations of cannabinoids and others with lower levels. So, when it’s ground up for rolling, it’s possible one joint gets the weaker portion of the weed and the next gets a stronger part, he says.
“That’s just the nature of the product,” he says. “The potency on the label is probably an approximation.”
Promised safety, quality mean higher prices
Before legalization, marijuana users typically knew nothing about the quality and safety of what they bought beyond the high it provided. Now, the state guarantees that cannabis meets certain quality benchmarks.
There’s a price for that. With taxes, legal weed typically costs about three times what it would cost to buy it on the street. So a package of two pre-rolled, relatively mellow marijuana joints weighing one gram typically costs about $24. In Chicago, once you add cannabis and sales taxes, those two joints would cost a recreational buyer about $30, including 26.25% tax.
For more potent weed, with a total THC level above 35%, the tax would be even higher — 41.25% in Chicago.
Taxes on recreational cannabis sales have brought in $562.7 million for state and local governments since legal sales began in January 2020.
Illinoisans who obtain a medical cannabis card, though, can avoid most taxes.
Cannabis supporters say that keeping weed clean is important to protecting the nascent industry and inspiring confidence in customers.
That might be particularly of concern for medical users, who count on it to help with health problems such as chronic pain or nausea during cancer treatments.
Douglas Kelly, executive director of the Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition, calls the Sun-Times’ test findings “disheartening.”
“The reason that I go to a dispensary is because I thought I was getting a safe product,” says Kelly, a medical marijuana patient for two years. “If this is not true, then, yeah, I have a lot of problems with it. And I know a lot of other patients will as well because we choose to pay that extra money not to get it off the street.”
There is, of course, a way to avoid the mold problems with pre-rolls, MacRae says, which he calls “kind of the sausages of the flower community. You can put pretty much anything you want to into those.”
His advice? Instead of pre-rolls, buy whole chunks of premium flower, and “learn to roll. Do it yourself.”
Contributing: Jesse Howe, Andy Boyle