Hard News by Russell Brown

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Testing the fairies

A new paper by ESR scientists, published in the Australian Journal of Chemistry, has confirmed what close observers of the local cannabis community already knew, or at least suspected: the cannabinoid contents of local "green fairy" products vary widely, ratios in many products are not as claimed – and most products claiming to be high in CBD are not.

But, short of real regulation, a solution is in the wings – via the drug-checking law currently making its way through Parliament.

In 2019, the ESR scientists collected and tested a hundred green fairy products, most of them passed on via the Auckland patient advocate Pearl Schomburg. They included cannabis flower, FECO (fully extracted cannabis oil), carrier oil preparations, balms, tinctures and even vape liquids.

The results in this subsequent paper, Medicinal Cannabis – The Green Fairy Phenomenon, are not entirely news: ESR Forensic toxicology and pharmaceuticals manager Mary Jane McCarthy, who led the project, warned in February 2019 about a "product administered to an epileptic child, which "should have been high CBD and low THC – in fact it was the opposite. I would be very worried about a child taking a product like that." She presented the testing results last November at the inaugural MedCan Summit in Auckland – and said that the testing ended because its funding ran out.

I noted at the time that there was "a compelling harm reduction rationale for continuing to test these products and sharing the results." It now seems likely that will happen, via the Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Bill (No 2), which replaces the temporary legislation introduced to allow drug-checking at events last summer and is now at select committee. Like the temporary version, the bill aims to "try to minimise drug and substance harm by allowing drug and substance checking services to operate legally in New Zealand."

I have spoken to the Auckland businessman who has spent $50,000 on cannabis analysis equipment to do just that in the cannabis market. It would be fair to describe him as mild-mannered. He prefers to be known simply as "Tester Guy" (we'll call hm TG) until he secures a licence under the new law (currently, the only organisation licensed to carry out testing is Know Your Stuff) but he has already had discussions with Ministry of Health officials.

"We've been working with them so they know what the processes are to check a product," says TG. "They're writing the legislation, so they need to see what the processes are. But they did say, if you are currently testing illegal flower, stop instantly. That was detailed to me quite abruptly."

It's very likely that ministry officials won't be taking any new licence applications until the permanent law is enacted and accompanying regulations are written, but you can expect to see applications to test for safety outside the purview of Know Your Stuff, including for meth, opioids and potentially synthetic cannabinoid products, where dosage is literally a matter of life or death. Peer relationships are crucial to this form of harm reduction, so it makes sense for testing to be done within the respective user communities.

For TG, this new project is a matter of reaching out to help the community that helped a family member.

"My wife's mother has terrible migraine headaches. She's been on mainstream medicines for a long long time, with awful side-effects – and then taking another pill to offset the side-effects from the first one. It wasn't doing her any good at all.  She's been to every possible facility in the greater Auckland area to try and sort the migraines out, for years. Then she happened across cannabinoids and started to try some of the different [green fairy] products. She's off all mainstream medicines now, completely."

Talking to members of the cannabis community he discovered there was a problem with simply knowing what was in each batch. Patient advocates have been asking for safe access to product testing for at least five years, but for so long as the products have been illegal, that has not been possible.

"I thought, hey, what can we work out? What's in these amazing medicines and flowers? That led me to spend six months investigating the instruments worldwide. I put together a 50-page report on the different instruments available and narrowed it down to the one I purchased."

The equipment, from a North American company, can already provide detailed assays of cannabinoid contents, but TG plans to expand that capability.

"One of the major decision factors with the instrument I've brought in is that it's future-proof. We're working on methods and standards for detecting toxins, including the main pesticides. We're working on 11 terpenes at the moment. You need a gas chromatography instrument for the terpenes, while the best way of testing for cannabinoids is an HPLC instrument, which I have."

One area where TG's service could help curb a real health risk is in plant growth regulators, or PGRs. These are prohibited for use in food crops, but are readily available in grow shops, as "bud hardeners" and the like. They make plants appear more productive, but often at the expense of cannabinoid levels – and they're associated with organ damage and elevated cancer risk in humans.

"That's coming," says TG. "PGRs are so cheap and they're heavily promoted. Buy the 10 different bottles for $400 and that's all you need. All the amateur growers think it's brilliant."

These are all things organisations like ESR could do, but don't have the workflow for. The same is doubly true for Know Your Stuff, which has been turning away people who want to check plant matter almost since it began testing. TG sees his plans as complementary to what Know Your Stuff does.

"I want to help out the green fairies, so they're sure about what they're administering, and the growers to know what they're actually growing before they put it into their tinctures and oils. We want to go right back to the coalface of growing."

The government is unlikely to stand in the way. Health minister Andrew Little, who has been under fire for perceived inaction on medicinal cannabis, told the recent Parliamentary drug symposium that harm reduction via drug-checking would not be limited to festivals, but should be available through the community.

This kind of community testing falls short of the GMP standard decreed under our embattled medicinal cannabis scheme – which is so high that no New Zealand company has yet been able to get a product past the ministry's "minimum quality standard" and only four products, all from the Canadian company Tilray, have passed. But the gulf between no testing at all for quality and contents and our high official bar is very, very wide. There are perhaps 3000-4000 New Zealand patents being prescribed cannabis products (although many of them will be receiving CBD products allowed under the current transitional regime but not meeting the minimum quality standard). The number using illicit cannabis therapeutically is likely 10 or 15 times greater.

The ESR paper acknowledges "frustration at the restrictions to access prescribed cannabinoids in New Zealand" as a key reason for the growth of "a black market of home-made cannabis-based products for medicinal use", but it also seems that public attitudes towards these products have changed in the past couple of years and they are being used in some cases by people who would not have countenanced cannabis previously.

It also notes that product consistency is easier to achieve through a conventional pharmacological process of isolating individual cannabinoids, typically THC and CBD, than in whole-plant extracts, but that this may mean "the loss of potential benefits of the many other cannabinoids and terpenes in the cannabis plant (the entourage effect)."

There's also the simple fact that the transition from a high-THC recreational market established over decades to one where different attributes are sought from cannabis just isn't easy. It can be challenging to grow for CBD levels, let alone for potentially useful minor cannabinoids, especially when the growers are flying blind and can't test what they produce. This doesn't necessarily mean the products are inactive (although a small number seemed to be), but it makes consistent dosing difficult for people who need it.

The paper makes the point that even where CBD was present in the green fairy products, it was often at a level less than that thought to be a therapeutically useful dose (which is typically greater than that for THC). Reliably high levels of CBD are still largely the preserve of imported products, whether they meet the minimum quality standard or not.

It's also worth observing that nearly all the samples which closely matched their claimed contents came from one producer: the Northland green fairy Gandalf. Global investors are already sniffing around New Zealand genetics and our medicinal cannabis law allows New Zealand companies to bring in  illegally-developed strains. This would seem to be an area to watch.

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