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Cannabis consumers in Canada are willing to pay more for quality, but are still focused on high THC

A recent study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs examined cannabis consumer preferences as they relate to choosing where and what to purchase.

The study shows that cannabis consumers in Canada are willing to pay more for a higher quality, legal flower with an emphasis on high THC. 

However, their motivations have less to do with price and more to do with THC potency and package and label information.

Those with more loyalty to the legal market tended to prefer pre-rolls and were more likely to be less frequent consumers. In contrast, more high-volume consumers preferred larger-volume packaging and were more likely to care about THC potency and price. 

Researchers highlight that the results show a balancing act for regulators with public health regulatory goals, while also allowing for product types and packaging that will appeal to consumers more likely to turn to the unregulated to meet their needs. 

Three types of consumers

The study divided respondents into three mostly distinct groups and had them rate purchase preference for cannabis flower based on characteristics like THC potency, moisture level, price, packaging, legal status, and recommendations.

The first group, about 30 percent of the 891 total participants, based purchases on a preference for high THC (+25 percent) and price. These tended to be more long-time consumers who use cannabis regularly and were more likely to have an ideological preference for unlicensed sources. 

The second group, about 40 percent of all respondents, were more likely to make purchasing decisions based on product type and the amount of information on the label. This group preferred larger packaging and whole flower over pre-rolls and tended to put more importance on proper moisture level than the other two groups. 

The third group, 30 percent of the respondents, were also most motivated by packaging type but instead had a preference for pre-rolls over other dried flower SKUs. While most consumers didn’t rate legal cannabis as a high priority in purchasing decisions, this group gave it more importance than the first two groups. This group also tended to consume less often than the other two and were more likely to report starting or restarting cannabis use after legalization. 

“When all other attributes were held constant, participants were willing to pay about $15 more for 3.5 grams of dried flower packaged in a bag compared to pre-rolled packages, $8 more for dried flower that had a medium moisture content compared to low, $34 more for 3.5g of dried flower that was 25%+ THC compared to 10-14.9% THC, $19 more for detailed package information compared to no detail, and $9 more for a product that was regulated by Health Canada compared to no regulation.”

All three groups didn’t give much weight to recommendations, including online reviews, family and friends, or retailers. The first group gave more importance to online reviews, the second group had a slight preference for family and friend recommendations, and the third group tended to be more motivated by retailer recommendations. 

Although there was some crossover in reporting groups, most tended to fit into just one category. Overall, consumers placed a low priority on recommendations. They were willing to pay more for dried flower than pre-rolls, more for flower that wasn’t overly dried, more for high THC flower, and more for detailed product information on the label. 

New cannabis study shows no significant change in rates of use-disorder post-legalization 

Despite fears that legalizing cannabis would lead to troubling increases in problematic cannabis use, a new study is once again showing these concerns were over-hyped. 

Anyone who was around post-2015, from the #toasterbud affair to the hysteria following Canadian Senator Nicole Eaton’s revelation that five grams of cannabis is equivalent to four tokes, is well aware that a certain subset of Canadian politics has been staunchly afraid that the only possible outcome of recreational legalization could be widespread reefer madness and the full-blown undermining of any semblance of cultural and/or economic normalcy that had been retained from the post-war boom, when everything was perfect for 15 or so years, and only degenerate criminals partook in the Devil’s Lettuce. <gasp>

Despite this hyperbole, as with any movement of great effect, there were an array of reasonable concerns surrounding legalization from rational parties. And now that recreational legalization has been demonstrating its effect for some time in many jurisdictions, researchers have some solid data to work with in analyzing the validity of these concerns. 

Earlier this month, a new study from researchers at the universities of Waterloo and Toronto examined one of these reasonable concerns: that of increased cannabis use disorder. 

For the purposes of this study, the presence of use-disorder was determined using the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria for cannabis dependence and abuse [8], the Cannabis Use Disorder Identification Test-Revised [9] and the World Health Organization Alcohol, Smoking and Substance Involvement Screening Test (ASSIST) [10],” with researchers noting that “these scales typically assess a combination of frequent use as well as negative consequences on employment, social relationships and health.” 

The study also notes that in terms of non-problematic use, the number of people who had used cannabis once in the last month, last three months, or last twelve months, did increase. But was this also indicative of an increase in problematic use?

The short answer is no. 

The long answer is also no. 

Researchers screened groups of people of varying ages for problematic cannabis use in 2018, 2019, and 2020. In 2018, 89.1 percent of subjects were rated as low risk for problematic risk, versus 88 percent in 2020. 

Researchers concluded that “overall, in the initial period following legalization in Canada, levels of problematic use have changed very little at the population level.” 

Adding to this conclusion, researchers noted that “modest differences in problematic use risk scores were observed based on various socioeconomic indicators as well as race/ethnicity,”  indicating that “future research should continue to monitor the prevalence of problematic cannabis use indicators keeping these factors in mind to ensure that any potential drawbacks of legalization are not disproportionately impacting marginalized populations.” 

In the past, other studies have arrived at similar conclusions. This study from October of last year concluded that while “cannabis legalization in Canada was associated with a greater perception of cannabis harm among young people,” it was “also easier access.” This indicates that harm reduction messaging is having the desired effect, while ease of access to a regulated supply is ensuring that those who choose to partake aren’t putting themselves at mortal risk by doing so. 

Also, in 2021, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a survey of about 830,000 Americans that showed cannabis use did not increase in any significant way following legalization in any of the states that had chosen to do so at that point. 

So while the widespread recreational legalization of cannabis has certainly increased access, availability, and safety, at present it does not seem that this has precipitated the kinds of doomsday scenarios that Conservative Senators Gladu and Eaton raised alarm bells over back in the early days, or even anything resembling them.

Inflated THC levels undermine cannabis industry

A new study in the US argues that inflated THC levels on cannabis products undermine industry credibility.

Researchers tested 23 samples of cannabis from 10 Colorado stores, comparing those results against the label. They found that, on average, the products were 23 percent lower in THC than advertised. 

Although consumer choices continue to be driven by a desire for higher-THC products, the average observed THC levels were just under 15 percent from all samples tested. 

Inflation of THC levels isn’t new. Research in Canada and the US has highlighted the issue for years. In Canada, the industry has been calling for more oversight of labs and testing standards. 

Nearly two-thirds of the samples tested 15 percent lower than advertised, while three samples were half as low as claimed on the label.

Colorado’s testing standards require a producer to report THC levels as a range based on the highest and lowest percentages from the test batch. However, not all products were labelled in a range.

The samples used were one to two grams in size, looking at 12 different dried cannabis varieties. Researchers also included a handful of results from other studies.

Eighteen of those 23 samples showed THC levels below the labelled testing results. Only one of the products tested showed a higher THC level than the lowest from the range on the product label. 

Although THC can degrade over time, the paper contends that this was not a factor given the lack of excessive levels of CBN, a byproduct of THC degradation. 

To help address these issues, researchers in this study argue that regulators in Colorado need to do more to ensure that growers are using a representative sample rather than selecting the most potent flowers, as well as enforcing more strict product reporting rules.

Hubert Marceau, the director of development at Laboratoire PhytoChemia—an analytical testing lab in Quebec that tests cannabis products in the Canadian market—says the results once again highlight that most cannabis on the market does not have nearly as much THC as consumers might think.

“What is striking is that even with the samples that reported a range, most of the time the measured value is outside by a large margin,” says Marceau. “This should be the exception. Another interesting thing is that none of the samples cross the famed 20 percent threshold.”

“The fact the standard deviation of the observed values are about half as the reported ones, this means that all samples, regardless of the strain, would have a very similar THC content, even though it seems that there is more diversity on the market.”

Marceau says consumers should look at these results as a good example of why they should not be basing purchasing decisions solely on advertised THC levels.

Cannabis use decreasing in Quebec since legalization, but vaping on the rise

Quebec’s annual survey that follows the evolution of cannabis consumption in the province shows no increase in cannabis use in the province from the previous year.

Young people are also less likely to use cannabis than prior to legalization, and those who do use it are waiting longer to start.

However, the number of young people vaping cannabis is on the rise, despite the products being banned in the province.

The 2022 Quebec Cannabis Survey shows that 19 percent of Quebecers used cannabis in 2022, about the same as the previous year. However, previous surveys do show a small increase from 14 percent to 19 percent following legalization. 

Men in Quebec are more likely to use cannabis compared to women, with 23 percent of men and 16 percent of women reporting their use.

In 2022, younger Quebecers aged 21-24 were the most likely to use cannabis, with 40 percent of those surveyed reporting their use of cannabis. This was followed by 25-34 year-olds at 37 percent. 

Although use has been increasing slightly among adults in Quebec, there has also been a decrease in the proportion of consumers aged 15-17 reporting their use of cannabis since 2018 when cannabis was legalized. 

Cannabis vaping on the rise

Despite not being a legal product in Quebec, the report shows an increase in residents vaping cannabis, from about 19 percent in 2021 to 24 percent in 2022. For young people aged 15-17 who reported using cannabis, the number who vaped was about three times higher, from more than 24 percent in 2019 and almost 44 percent in 2021 to 70 percent in 2022.

As in other provinces, smoking cannabis remains the most popular mode of consumption, but has declined slightly from 85 percent of use in 2021 to 82 percent in 2022. 

Almost half of respondents (42 percent) who used cannabis did so less than once a day, and around 19 percent did so only about one to three days a month. About one-quarter (24 percent) used cannabis one to six days a week, and 14 percent said they used cannabis on a daily basis. 

Around 30 percent of consumers reported using edibles or ingestible oils or capsules. 

Black market is shrinking

Around two-thirds of cannabis users (67 percent) in Quebec said they bought cannabis at least once from the Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC), about the same as the previous year. 

Only about 8 percent reported getting cannabis from an illicit source, down from 11 percent in 2021 and 32 percent in 2018. Another 40 percent reported getting cannabis from a family member, friend, or acquaintance.

Quebec’s efforts to educate people about health concerns related to cannabis use are also proving successful. Around 79% of Quebecers aged 15 and over say they have seen or heard of such campaigns in 2022.

Ninety-one percent of young people aged 15-17 reported seeing such messaging, followed by 88 percent of 18-20 year-olds and 86 percent of 21-24 year-olds.

The full report can be read here.

Most cannabis is around 18-24% THC, according to one lab’s results

One cannabis testing lab in Canada, with several years of experience in the industry, says most of the cannabis they have analyzed is around 18-24 percent THC, with only a fraction cracking the 30 percent threshold. 

In data recently shared with StratCann, High North Laboratories says less than one percent of samples they’ve tested showed results of over 30 percent total THC: just 154 in more than 20,000 cannabis samples. The data was anonymized to remove client names and other identifying information.

Rick Moriarity, COO of High North Laboratories, says they are sharing the information now to add to the conversation around consumer expectations for high THC products. While the market increasingly demands higher and higher THC products—sometimes pushing into the high twenties and even thirties—Moriarity says the cannabis flower they have analyzed tends to be around 21 percent THC.

In fact, after controlling for lower-THC products they test (like hemp or more CBD-rich flower), just over half of nearly 20,000 samples were in the range of 18 to 24 percent THC.

These findings mirror research published in 2021 in the US that showed a similar breakdown of THC levels peaking around 18 to 20 percent.

The expectation of high THC being the only indicator of quality, says Moriarity, isn’t realistic. It can be a factor, but not the only one. 

“I hope this information can help guide consumers not to be looking at total THC for a purchase decision. There’s nothing wrong with looking at the total THC to see what it is and if it is a CBD or balanced product; however, it should not influence you enough that you walk into a store and say, “what’s your highest THC flower?” 

One of the problems, he acknowledges, is that consumers are focussing on THC, at least in part, because they can’t decide based on aroma, as many consumers could do in the pre-legal market. 

“With the regulations around packaging, it is not easy to look and smell before making a purchase decision. I know some stores have jars with little air holes that you can look at and attempt to smell the flower. It’s better than not having that option, but the flower gets old quickly that way and is not truly representative. So I understand why, but THC alone isn’t a good replacement for that. 

“Terpenes are one other factor to consider, as is our endocannabinoid system and several other important cannabinoids that we’re only just starting to learn more about. The point is, this all amounts to so much more than just that one number for THC. And that’s even if those numbers are accurate, which obviously, they often aren’t.”

He adds that he doesn’t mean all lab testing is inaccurate, but emphasizes that “the numbers are not accurate when being inflated by a select few non-reputable labs.”

Similar to another cannabis lab that recently shared results of off-the-shelf products they tested, High North shared with StratCann what they say are the results of 35 cannabis flower products they purchased from cannabis stores. As with their other internal testing results, High North removed producers names in the info provided to StratCann.

Of these, nine were within an acceptable deviation range of no more than 12 percent, while most were within between 20 to nearly 100 percent deviation from the labelled amounts. One product tested at 19 percent THC but was listed on the label as having 38 percent. Interestingly, one flower sample that High North’s second test showed at a whopping 31 percent THC was labelled as 38 percent.

Moriarity highlights this specific result as an example of how absurd it is that a producer who is already hitting such a high number like 30 percent, would need to boost those numbers even more.

These results indicate that much of the cannabis on the market is actually in a range of around 20 percent THC, and also how inaccurate at least some of the available product labels are, says Moriarity. The results also highlight the folly of consumers and even provincial buyers in making purchase decisions based on THC alone.

Content sponsored by: High North Laboratories

THC Testing—What it says vs What it is

THC content has been the talk of stoners since the molecule’s discovery. We’ve spent decades trying to maximize it—we figured out that stressing out unpollinated female flowers gives us the best buzz and, presumably, the most THC content.

Regardless of your opinion on how much—or even if—THC content affects overall quality, the percentage on the bag is often a large factor in consumers’ purchasing choices.

In the nineties, tokers were looking for legendary Cali bud that supposedly hit the elusive 20% mark. In the short time since, plant morphology has not changed all that much, but the internet has led to growers sharing the secrets they use to maximize trichome coverage. 

On a recent product call, the Ontario Cannabis Store is said to have requested more strains that tested above 30% THC. Suddenly, almost every new product in Ontario was hitting marks of 31%, 32%, even a couple 34% batches! Even old SKUs that had never sniffed 26% before were suddenly 30.5%. 

Such a steep jump in such a short amount of time, and seemingly relegated to Canada and California labs: Australian labs don’t seem to agree with our numbers up here—a batch of Orange Crescendo sent to Aussie medical outlet Alfie was purported to be 28%, but once tested down under, the new label for the batch was 22%. How did we get here?

In the Canadian legal market, online wholesalers, retailers, and most retail stores are set up in a way that makes THC and price the only things you can judge before the product is in your hands. This blind buying is causing more consumers to ask for the bud with the highest THC, and LP’s are incentivized to make sure they can always be on the top of that list.

The Cannabis Act prescribes a lot about the testing of cannabis, but never explicitly says how cannabis should be tested. Different labs use slightly different methods of finding the levels of cannabinoids, terpenes, bacteria, heavy metals, and all the other things Health Canada requires to be tested in cannabis. Now, certain labs have gained reputations as known “THC inflators,” and some suggest that tests from these labs should raise eyebrows.

One batch of a product recently launched in Ontario purportedly hit 39.58% total THC, and another claims 40.41%. These figures are usually found on cannabis concentrate products like hash and infused pre-rolls. THC and its precursor THCa are predominantly found in the trichome heads of cannabis plants. If these numbers are correct, we can expect approximately 45% or more of the cannabis by weight to be trichome heads. This dense covering of trichome heads would be immediately apparent to even the novice user.

“They should just put a range on the label. Or, even a disclaimer: ‘Flower in bag may be lower than advertised THC.’”

Jennawae Cavion of Calyx and Trichomes in Kingston

How to Test for THC

On a dreary Friday in March, I paid Thomas Fraleigh a visit at his lab in Mississauga. He took me on a tour of his surprisingly small testing space, walking me through the basics of microbial testing, terpene analysis, and cannabinoid content analysis. For the latter, Fraleigh’s lab, Vivariant, uses what’s known as high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), which most other accredited labs in Canada also use. There are different types of HPLC used, but the broad strokes are the same.

How it works for Vivariant, in layman’s terms, is that each sample is weighed, homogenized cryogenically, and a specific amount of that homogenized, powdery cannabis sample is combined with a sterile liquid. This combined solution is then put through an HPLC machine, where a filter separates the contents of the sample and each ingredient is registered by a detector.

The ingredients are separated one at a time, and once registered by the detector, they are plotted on a graph in relation to the time they took to separate. This leads to ‘spikes’ on a graph, one for each of the compounds tested for. These spikes are then measured against standard cannabinoid concentrations to find the levels of cannabinoids present in the sample.

Once that is known, a math formula is used that takes into account all of the factors going into the sample—sample weight, amount of cannabis sample powder added to sterile liquid—which then translates the amount of cannabinoids in the solution to the milligrams per gram we see on cannabis labels today.

One part of the process where Fraleigh thinks it may be possible to skew the result is the math formula at the end. One could, theoretically, add more of the cannabis powder sample to the sterile liquid than they account for in the end formula, leading to a higher concentration of cannabinoids in the end test, and therefore a higher overall percentage on the end result.

Vivariant’s methodology is tested regularly by Proficiency Testing Canada, an organization that sends labs homogenized cannabis samples for testing. The issue with this is that the samples are clearly marked. If a lab were purposely skewing results, it would be very simple for them to not skew the results provided to PT Canada.


Health Canada allows a 15% variance in the stated label claim of cannabinoid content on some regulated cannabis products. Theoretically this means that, legally, your bag that’s marked as 27% THC could contain some bud that tests anywhere from 23% to 31%.

What happens when the weed in the bag falls outside of that allowance? So far, not much. Tom Ulanowski, the chair of C-45 Quality Association, has been raising similar concerns with Health Canada as far back as October 2021. C-45 has a vested interest in accurate testing, as they represent a number of labs and quality assurance professionals across Canada’s cannabis industry. As of yet, Health Canada has not taken any action…. Well, not since 2015 at least. That was the last time Health Canada issued a recall of a product based on inaccurate THC labeling. And yes, eagle-eyed reader, 2015 was before recreational cannabis was legal.

So what would it take to trigger a recall? Let’s find out.

I submitted a sealed sample of the 39.58% bag, a product called Pearadise by Wink, to Vivariant for independent analysis. The result? Vivariant tested the flower in the bag at 22.19% Total THC—a whopping 44% below the nearly 40% stated on the label. I’ve submitted a complaint to Health Canada about the difference in the stated amount vs the tested amount. Wink responded saying they trust their lab, Pathogenia, to give accurate results, and offered the original batch Certificate of Analysis (COA).

Editor’s note: A representative for Weed Me, which brought the Wink product to market, provided this comment to StratCann in response noting they will begin vetting the results from their tests with multiple labs. In part:

“As more and more incredible people apply their remarkable skills perfecting their respective art of cultivating cannabis, we at Weed Me are continually impressed with what they are producing. Through improvements in techniques, fertilization, light and environmental controls and most importantly development of genetics, some of the results we see are hard to believe. 

“We equally listen to you as the consumer, and we hear that ultra high potency flower, approaching or exceeding that of infused products, can be hard to believe. In response to these concerns we will implement a competing double-testing methodology of any strains that test over 34% THC. We will submit samples for testing to 2 different 3rd party analytic laboratories and provide the average of the 2 in an effort to most accurately represent the product specifications. While the labs are licensed and regulated by Health Canada we feel it important to go the extra step and double-check. This testing is in addition to the testing provided to us by our cultivating partners.”

Other high-THC products are being called into question as well. High North Labs recently tested a sample, Raptors Rntz by Celebrity, that claimed on the bag to be 40.4% THC. Their tests showed the product to be only 28.74% total THC. This is still an impressive amount by most standards! But alas, it’s also 29% below the claim on the label.

The problem isn’t relegated to extremely high THC numbers, though. Rob O’Brien from Supra Research and Development also tested 46 different whole flower cannabis products in BC, with a variety of products and brands at different price points, THC levels, and bag sizes. Similar to Vivariant’s results, some products were up to 45% below the stated Total THC on the label. 

However, O’Brien believes his findings to be a result of inaccurate batch representation in testing, as he found larger buds tested much closer to the stated THC levels than the smaller buds. He believes this to be an issue with LPs who use one crop to fill various sized bags. Larger 3 or 4 gram buds will not fit into 1 gram bags, but are what’s used to test the potency of the whole batch.

What do we do from here?

Everyone has different ideas on how to fix this. Many believe that switching to a “deli style” system, where products are able to be seen and smelled prior to purchase would remove the incentive of testing at ridiculously high THC levels. 

Others, like Jennawae Cavion of Calyx and Trichomes in Kingston, had a simpler idea: “They should just put a range on the label,” she says. “Or, even a disclaimer: ‘Flower in bag may be lower than advertised THC.’”

Some believe independent testing at the federal, or even provincial, wholesale level for incoming products should be the norm, with punishments for being outside of the allowance. The OCS has contracted Sigma Analytical for independent analysis of cannabis products, but the extent to which they have tested products remains unclear.

Health Canada said in a statement that of 919 samples they collected since October 2018, when recreational cannabis was legalized, only 68 were tested and “found to be in contravention of the requirements set out in the cannabis act or its regulations.” These 68 could be in contravention for any reason, including failing microbial or pesticide analysis, and do not refer specifically to THC level contravention.

What can be done?

What will happen next remains unclear. Hopefully, it involves more transparency in all aspects of the industry, lest the problem of inflated THC will continue until the balloon eventually pops.

In my perfect world, we would have a hybrid deli-style system alongside the present prepackaged system for those who want it. There’s something to be said for seeing and smelling a product before you purchase it. It would be a long road to get there with regard to regulation changes, but we can do it. 

Deli style shops and budtenders who actually tend to your bud is how brick-and-mortar stores started pre-legalization, and, hopefully what we’ll return to. I’d trust my eyes and nose over a number on a bag any day, especially if it doesn’t match what’s actually inside that bag.

~Cass Whichelo

Cass is a cannabis enthusiast and former budtender who resides in Toronto, Ontario. They fight for radical transparency in the cannabis industry and beyond. They can be found on Twitter @terp_kaczynski

Lab owner calls for more oversight of cannabis testing standards

The owner of one analytical testing lab is calling out what he says is a serious problem with the accuracy of THC levels on cannabis flower in Canada. 

Rob O’Brien, CEO and CSO of Supra Research and Development in Kelowna, BC, recently shared online his own independent testing results from 46 different cannabis products he purchased from BC Cannabis Stores.  

The results of his tests show what he says are significant variations in the cannabis flower he tested compared to what was stated on the label. In some cases there was more than a 40 percent difference. In one example results show a product labelled at 34 percent THC to be only 19 percent with his own testing.

Results can be found here, here, and here.

Rather than publicly calling out producers or labs, though, O’Brien says his biggest concern is holding federal and provincial regulators accountable. While he shared the results online, he didn’t share the labs, producers, or product names. But he says he did share the entire, unredacted info with the BC government and with Health Canada. 

“I’m not here to try to shame companies, I’m here to try to solve this problem,” says O’Brien. “The credibility of the entire sector is in question if we don’t get this right.”

Instead, he’s placing that burden on those two levels of government.

“They are the ones that should be responsible for naming names if that does come up.”

Although he doesn’t rule out labs or producers who may “put their thumbs on the scale,” O’Brien says he believes much of the discrepancies he found in his own testing were due to flaws in how producers are required to take samples for testing in the first place. 

There’s no other product on the market where you have this kind of false sense of security, this level of accuracy down to two decimal points.

Hubert Marceau, Laboratoire PhytoChemia Inc.

One of the problems, he explains, is that the current federal regulations only require testing per harvest, even though there can be significant variation in the THC levels in the flowers from that harvest. Flowers closer to the light tend to have higher THC than those further from it. And while some growers take steps to mitigate this, variation of a biological product like cannabis is nearly inevitable. 

This, combined with a tendency for producers to then send in only the largest, most impressive flowers that have the highest THC, means that what is actually in the consumers’ packaging won’t necessarily match what the THC numbers show on the label. 

“The largest buds are the ones that are closest to the label claim. That’s likely the type of buds that are being sent to the labs for testing. These buds are two to three grams, maybe four at the extreme. And you can’t put a two-gram bud in a one-gram bag. So the smaller package sizes have the smallest buds in them, typically two or three, and those buds are 30-40 percent below the bigger ones. That’s part of the problem.”

Another factor is the tested buds aren’t going through a sometimes disruptive packaging process that can lower the THC level. 

“And when you send the first pristine buds to the lab for testing, then the others go through the process of being sorted and packaged, there’s a lot of tumbling and bouncing around, and that knocks off trichomes that affect the THC level. So if you’re testing the packaged product, you’ll be much closer to what’s there.”

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If provincial buyers were held more accountable for the products they are generally the gatekeepers of in their provinces, he contends this would immediately force producers to begin better testing procedures on their own, regardless of the minimal requirement from Health Canada for batch lots covering an entire harvest.

This is especially true since, as he points out, most provincial buyers tend to have a bias against cannabis flower that is under 20 percent THC.

“The provincial buyers need to throw away this thing that if you don’t have 20 percent THC on the COA that they’re not going to buy their product. That is ridiculous and is contributing to the problem.”

“THC content has significantly increased over the last two years. We need to have a better regulatory system, and we need to have better transparency.”

The provincial buyers need to throw away this thing that if you don’t have 20 percent THC on the COA that they’re not going to buy their product. That is ridiculous and is contributing to the problem.

Rob O’Brien, Supra Research and Development

Hubert Marceau, a chemist and the director of development at Laboratoire PhytoChemia Inc., an analytical testing lab in Quebec, says consumers should take this kind of knowledge into account when buying cannabis. 

Even relatively fair and accurate testing results will always have some kind of variance, he says. Instead, he thinks consumers should think of the THC level on the label as a range, give or take a few points in either direction, not a specific number. 

This would account for at least some of the variance in flower size and batch size. 

“You can never test the whole batch. So by testing a sample of that batch, you’re only estimating the average. Consumers need to be aware they are askew. There’s no other product on the market where you have this kind of false sense of security, this level of accuracy down to two decimal points.”

Like O’Brien, he says he is also aware of stories that some labs will simply provide the testing results that a processor demands in order to keep their business.

“Eventually, it just becomes a numbers game where people just want to have the higher number and will do everything in their power to have a higher number. And that’s what’s happening here.”

This also brings the credibility of the industry into question for Marceau. THC levels, from his perspective, seem to often hover just under 20 percent THC, so very high THC levels, sometimes well over 30 percent raise his eyebrows. 

He references a study from 2021 that showed clustering of testing results from cannabis flower in two US states that, once corrected for outliers from labs found to be inaccurate, showed most cannabis flower, when accurately tested, was around the 20% threshold, some a little under, some a little over. 

“Eventually, the plant gets to a point where it can’t produce more THC. There’s no way in hell that THC—that only resides in the trichomes that are on the surface of the flower—is going to be 35 percent of the cannabis.”

Eventually, it just becomes a numbers game where people just want to have the higher number and will do everything in their power to have a higher number. And that’s what’s happening here.

Hubert Marceau, Laboratoire PhytoChemia Inc.

Like O’Brien, he says he thinks a lot of it comes down to the 20 percent (or, in the same cases, even higher) THC threshold some provinces prefer. This creates a situation where cultivars, processors, and labs are all encouraged to push up their levels to meet these demands. And this creates a situation where consumers are largely only able to buy these higher THC products, further cementing the idea of higher THC equalling higher quality. 

“You have the consumer who has been told higher THC is better, which is the equivalent of saying only drink everclear alcohol, so the distributor is saying it will only buy lots over 20 percent. This forces the producer to put out more than 20 percent flower.”

Health Canada commissioning research to compare the effects of novel cannabinoids

Health Canada confirms it is looking into the effects of different cannabinoids to create equivalency amounts to delta-9-THC.

The federal regulator plans on collaborating with provinces and territories on the issue and “will continue research and surveillance, data gathering and analysis to support possible future regulatory changes,” according to a statement shared with StratCann. The results of the project are expected during the 2023 calendar year.

The statement comes after two of Canada’s biggest cannabis markets, Ontario and BC, announced they will be pausing approval of any new delta 8 THC products pending guidance from Health Canada. The research will include different cannabinoids, including delta 8. 

In order to reduce risks associated with accidental consumption and overconsumption, the federal Cannabis Act and Regulations set limits of 10mg per package for delta-9-THC in edibles, or 1,000 mg for extracts and topicals, but no such limits exist yet for non-delta 9 products. 

“While there are currently no similar legal requirements for other intoxicating cannabinoids like delta-8-THC, Health Canada strongly recommends that the total amount of intoxicating cannabinoids should not exceed the regulatory limits set for delta-9 THC, and that testing and accurate descriptions of intoxicating cannabinoid content be clearly indicated on product labels,” a Senior Media Relations Advisor with Health Canada shared via email. 

“While there are currently no similar legal requirements for other intoxicating cannabinoids like delta-8-THC, Health Canada strongly recommends that the total amount of intoxicating cannabinoids should not exceed the regulatory limits set for delta-9 THC, and that testing and accurate descriptions of intoxicating cannabinoid content be clearly indicated on product labels.”

a Senior Media Relations Advisor with Health Canada

“Delta-8-THC is an intoxicating cannabinoid,” continued the email, “and one of the many cannabinoids found in or produced naturally by the cannabis plant. However, delta-8 THC is not naturally found in significant amounts in the plant. As such, delta-8-THC is typically manufactured from cannabidiol (CBD) by a licensed cannabis processor.”

“Cannabis products containing delta-8-THC have potential health and safety risks that may be similar to delta-9-THC, some of which can be serious or life-threatening. Products containing high levels of delta-8 THC have little to no history of use, so the scientific and medical understanding of their biological effects and health risks is still developing. Health Canada is closely monitoring the emergence of products containing high levels of delta-8 THC, as well as products that may contain high levels of other novel intoxicating cannabinoids, in the Canadian marketplace.”

“Health Canada is currently commissioning preliminary research projects in rodents to begin to compare the psychoactive effects of various cannabinoids other than delta-9-THC. This will help further inform the intoxication equivalency of these non-delta-9 THC cannabinoids to delta-9-THC. The data generated by this and additional potential projects on this topic could help inform public education and awareness efforts, potential risk assessments as well any policies or regulations concerning these substances. The results of this initial pilot project are expected during the 2023 calendar year.”

Delta-8 THC products made a small splash in the Canadian market in 2022, with a handful of companies offering products like gummies, beverages, and vape pens. Speaking with several retailers in Canada, sales for these products appear relatively low, although there seems to be interest in both the novelty of the cannabinoid, as well as the fact they provide a way to provide consumers with more THC per edible than a typical delta-9 THC edible. 

“The issue I think that we’re facing here in Canada, is that the delta 8 category here is being examined unfairly under the lens of what’s happening in unregulated markets, very specifically the US. We understand regulators and provincial distributors are looking for more understanding and we think it is important to have a greater understanding of what’s happening.”

Micahel Kestrall, Dynaleo

Steve Schnarr, the manager at This is Cannabis, with two locations in BC, says his stores saw some initial demand, but given there are only a few products, he suspects they get lost in the high-volume shuffle of products on their shelves. 

“It was interesting when they came in because it was one of the first products to go past the ten milligrams,” says Schnarr. “We just had, I think, one beverage and one set of gummies. They haven’t moved that well, I would say. I don’t think they’ve been too popular.”

Omi Sahota, a manager at Giggles Cannabis, with two locations in Ontario, says he thinks the lack of popularity is at least partially due to the fact many consumers still don’t know about it. Although he says he was hesitant to bring in the product because of some of the stories and uncertainty from the US market, their initial small shipment (less than 20) in December sold out quickly 

“I don’t think the education is there yet in the market,” says Sahota. “I think (producers) need to do a lot more education, not only for customers but for sellers. They never even told us it was available. I would say our customers who tried it, liked it. We also warn everyone that takes it that this is way more potent than normal THC.” 

“I think (producers) need to do a lot more education, not only for customers but for sellers. They never even told us it was available. I would say our customers who tried it, liked it.” 

Omi Sahota, Giggles Cannabis

Michael Krestell is the executive chairman at Dynaleo, a cannabis producer located in Alberta that specializes in cannabis edibles and beverages and is one of the companies offering delta-8 THC products. 

“The issue I think that we’re facing here in Canada, is that the delta 8 category here is being examined unfairly under the lens of what’s happening in unregulated markets, very specifically the US,” says Krestell. “We understand regulators and provincial distributors are looking for more understanding, and we think it is important to have a greater understanding of what’s happening.”

Their delta 8 “soft chews” are available in packs of 10 with 10mg of delta 8 THC and 1mg of delta 9 THC per piece. The company has sold more than 50,000 units so far of the product, primarily in markets like Ontario. 

Despite these sales, the delta 8 products are only a small portion of their full product menu, so the policy shift isn’t a big concern for the company, says Krestell. However, he does think that some of the concern relating to the unregulated US market is potentially unwarranted. 

With that said, he also notes the company understands the government’s cautious approach. 

“We’re pleased that everyone is taking a measured approach as everyone gets up to speed from an education perspective and seeing what the actual experience is with the product in the market.”

A delta-8 vape cart on a cannabis retailer shelf in BC

The policy change does impact the company, though, since they can currently not sell into two of the largest cannabis markets in Canada. Especially when these are all products that have gone through the federal and provincial processes for new cannabis products. 

“The impact on us is twofold,” explains Krestell. “One, it constrains an avenue for future growth and we’ve also got commitments out there for purchase of products, and we have delta 8 inventory and purchased bags we have in inventory, so from that standpoint, it’s a little disappointing. We didn’t try to sneak anything by anybody. We went through the NNCP process…. We went through provincial listing processes, and everyone’s interpretation is that nothing here is in contravention of any regulations, and it’s a decision being made to sideline it.” 

Health Canada says it will “continue to monitor the effects and risks of all cannabis products, including products with high levels of delta-8 THC, and will take appropriate actions if needed.” Although BC and Ontario are not currently listing any new products of this kind, Health Canada has not currently said they will be implementing a similar policy change nationwide.

Ingestible oils most common cause of adverse reactions in two annual reports

Health Canada has released their first two reviews on Adverse Reaction Reports associated with cannabis products.

The most common reports of adverse reactions to cannabis involved ingestible cannabis oils or softgels, and reports were most often from adult women. Younger adults were more likely to report negative effects from inhalable forms of cannabis like dried flower or extracts, while older adults were more likely to report negative effects from cannabis oils or softgels.

Covering October 17, 2018 to December 31, 2019 and January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020 there were a total of 378 adverse reactions associated with cannabis products reported to Health Canada’s Canada Vigilance Database

While the first year of data collection for 2018-2019 showed 219 adverse reaction reports, the following year saw only 159. 

In both years, most reports involved legal cannabis products, while others were associated with the illicit market or from an undetermined source, or from mixing other substances with cannabis.  

Of these, 198 (77 in the first year and 121 in the second year) were considered “serious,” with hospitalization as the most frequently reported reason for seriousness. The majority of cases in both years originated from consumers and were reported to Health Canada by cannabis licence holders (federal producers). Only 24% of cases in the first year and 11% in the second year were reported by health care practitioners (HCPs).

Health Canada defines an adverse reaction as “a noxious and unintended response to a cannabis product” and defines a serious adverse reaction as “a noxious and unintended response to a cannabis product that requires inpatient hospitalization or a prolongation of existing hospitalization, causes congenital malformation, results in persistent or significant disability or incapacity, is life-threatening, or results in death.”

Images via Health Canada

As the reporting of adverse reactions by consumers, health care practitioners (HCPs), medical cannabis clinics, and retailers is voluntary, Health Canada notes that serious and non-serious cases from these sources are “likely underreported.” 

Cannabis licence holders are required by federal regulations to report any serious adverse reactions.

While the total number of serious cases reported to Health Canada increased by 57% between the reporting periods, from 77 cases in 2018–2019 to 121 cases in 2020, cases where hospitalization was required declined, from 43 in the first year to 33 in the second. In the first year, there were seven reports considered life-threatening, while only one was reported as life-threatening in the second year. 

In contrast, the total number of non-serious adverse reaction reports decreased by 49%, from 74 in 2018–2019 to 38 in 2020.

However, reports associated with other medically important conditions increased in the second year, from 27 to 86. “Other medically important condition” includes events that are not immediately life-threatening or do not result in death or hospitalization but may jeopardize the patient or may require intervention (for example, ambulatory services, emergency department visits, outpatient visits with an HCP or at-home medical interventions) to prevent a serious outcome. 

Images via Health Canada

In both years, cases involving legal cannabis products were more likely to involve female adults, and the majority of the time involved cannabis oils or softgels. Very few cases were associated with minors (two in the first year and three in the second).

While the first year’s report did not capture a significant amount of cannabis extracts or edibles (most weren’t yet on the market), in 2020, there was one suspected case of vaping-associated lung illness (VALI) that was reported as involving legal cannabis products, and two suspected cases that were reported as involving undefined cannabis. None of these cases were established to be a confirmed or probable case according to the case definition established by the Public Health Agency of Canada, though. 

The majority of reports of adverse reactions in both years involved a single legal cannabis product, although some included the mixing of multiple cannabis products. Orally-ingested extracts (ie edibles and/or oils) were the most common product associated with an adverse reaction, followed by inhaled cannabis products. 

Cannabis oil products or extracts were more frequently reported in serious cases, while dried cannabis products were more frequently reported in non-serious cases. 

Interestingly, most of the cannabis oil products in the adverse reaction cases were considered ‘CBD-dominant’ or ‘CBD-leaning’, while the dried cannabis products were typically reported as ‘THC-dominant’.

Cases involving adults 65 years and older exclusively reported use of cannabis extracts. Cases involving younger adults reported use of dried cannabis and cannabis extracts.

Only those between the ages of 18–64 were involved in adverse reaction cases with vaping liquids, while older adults (≥65 years) were more frequently involved in adverse reaction cases with ingestible oils in liquid form and softgel capsules.

The most common associated events leading to hospitalization were nervous system disorders and psychiatric disorders, followed by “general disorders” and gastrointestinal issues.

Images via Health Canada

The most commonly reported symptoms in the first year were headache, nausea, hallucination, dizziness, and anxiety. Reports of headache and dyspnoea (difficulty breathing) were more frequently associated with THC-dominant products, while reports of dizziness and diarrhea were more frequently reported with CBD-dominant or CBD-leaning products. 

In the second year, headaches were replaced by hallucinations as the most frequently reported medical events, followed by dizziness, nausea, euphoria, abnormal feelings, and insomnia.

Different medical events were also associated with different types of products, cannabinoids, and modes of consumption. 

In the second year, insomnia and pain were more frequently reported with THC-dominant or leaning products, whereas anxiety and diarrhea were more frequently reported with CBD-dominant or leaning products. Dizziness, loss of consciousness, syncope, and hallucination were also more frequently reported with CBD-dominant or leaning products.

In the first year, instances of headache and dyspnoea (difficulty breathing) were more frequently observed with THC-dominant products, whereas events of dizziness and diarrhea were more frequently reported with CBD-dominant or CBD-leaning products.

Health Canada also notes that more data over the coming years will be needed to draw more solid conclusions. The regulator also highlights that other factors may be contributing to these events including: the age and health status of patients (including pre-existing health conditions and use of concomitant medications); prior exposure to cannabis (for example, cannabis naïve consumers); dosage; route of administration; and knowledge or awareness of effects of cannabis and cannabinoids. 

Health Canada also covered one new data point that involved an increased bleeding risk associated with an interaction between orally ingested CBD-dominant cannabis oil products and the anticoagulant medication Warfarin. 

Images via Health Canada

Helping to gather data on the topic, the most recent Canadian Cannabis Survey, released in December, also included questions about any accidental exposures to cannabis in the household for humans or pets in the past year. 

Under federal cannabis regulations, licence holders are required to submit serious adverse reaction reports for instances involving a cannabis product and are encouraged to voluntarily submit non-serious adverse reaction reports involving a cannabis product. Licence holders can find more information in the Cannabis adverse reaction reporting guide.

Consumers and HCPs are also encouraged to report all adverse reactions to a cannabis product directly to the Controlled Substances and Cannabis Branch (CSCB). Consumers and HCPs may also send a report to the LH of the cannabis product.

That online Cannabis Reporting Form can be found here and includes reports for issues relating to marketing and promotion, products and packaging, as well as potential negative health events.

New testing standards could help challenge inflated THC levels in legal weed 

Last Friday, Health Canada announced several changes to the cannabis regulations. While a long-awaited change to beverage equivalency factors is getting most of the attention, the allowance of standard reference materials (SRMs) for product testing is arguably of equal importance. 

In particular, the announcement allows for “analytical testing licence holders and federal and provincial government laboratories to produce, distribute, and sell reference standards and test kits, to increase access to cannabis testing materials and thereby support access to a quality-controlled supply of cannabis.”

As unenthused as I am about the prospect of being able to push a wheelbarrow full of weed drinks home from the store now, I’m enthusiastic about this lesser-celebrated advancement. 

SRMs allow manufacturers to provide accurate information about the products they sell. For instance, when you read the nutrition information on the label of any food product, you can rest assured that the calorie count and fat content listed are accurate because the equipment used to measure them has been calibrated with an SRM that contains a known quantity of each substance being analyzed. 

Now imagine there were no SRMs. Imagine the ice cream you’re eating actually has significantly more fat and sugar in it than the nutrition label states, or only half of the vitamin C. 

Until now no such communal standard reference has been available to the cannabis industry, meaning that labs have been left to calibrate their equipment with self-adopted standards. It has been argued that, in the absence of SRMs, some labs might have calibrated their equipment in such a way as to maximize cannabinoid and terpene measurements, which would be desirable to cannabis producers in that there is an established retailer and consumer preference for higher levels of these constituents. It’s much easier to move flower at 20+ per cent than it is at say, 17.5 per cent.

These new standard reference materials have the potential to put an end to inflated cannabinoid and terpene values. Scrupulous labs can now use them to calibrate their equipment, ensuring consistently accurate measurements. They can advertise that they do this. As time progresses, this will become expected, if not mandated. 

And what’s more, these materials don’t come cheap. It takes a great deal of time and expensive equipment to produce them and all of the documentation they come with. This presents a potentially lucrative opportunity for licensed labs with the means to manufacture them. 

While I’m happy that beverage equivalencies are now more realistic—even though I’m personally not a fan of drinking weed—I’m much more optimistic that in the future this artificial notion that cannabis needs to test above 20 per cent THC in order to appeal to consumers will be a thing of the past. 

–Until it closed last spring, Ryan was the general manager of Aurora’s 200-acre outdoor facility in Westwold BC (which is now a heavily fortified garlic farm). He’s currently looking for new opportunities. Previously, he was one-half of Verp, a news editor for Lift (before the ampersand), managing editor at Canlio, and a longtime employee and ally of the Victoria Cannabis Buyers’ Club. 

The pros and cons of cannabis irradiation

One of the often misunderstood aspects of legal cannabis production is the quality assurance measures many licensed producers take post-harvest to ensure that their product passes a variety of tests. And in the four years since legalization, few have garnered as much attention as the process of irradiation. 

Take this Forbes article from April 2022, for example. “Would you smoke ‘nuclear weed’?” asks the headline before quickly (and ominously) answering: “You might already.” 

The nuclear weed in question is not, of course, the glowing, radioactive bud image the headline conjures, but cannabis that has undergone irradiation—a quality assurance process, common in both the Canadian and American cannabis industries, that exposes cannabis to radiation in order to bring its microbial levels below regulated thresholds.

“The intent of the irradiation process is not to make up for, or compensate for, really poor sanitation systems or really contaminated product.”

Gordon Dobrindt, Senior Manager Quality Systems, Steris

Irradiation is generally accepted within the cannabis industry as a useful quality assurance process at the end of the production cycle that brings microbial levels under safe thresholds. Many producers routinely irradiate all batches of cannabis as a kind of quality guarantee—not necessarily to bring an unsalable batch up to par, but to provide an assurance that the batch will pass quality tests. “The intent of the irradiation process is not to make up for, or compensate for, really poor sanitation systems or really contaminated product,” said Gordon Dobrindt, senior manager of quality systems at Steris, during an irradiation panel discussion earlier this year. “It’s a final level of insurance.”

But this is far from a unanimous opinion, and critics of how the industry uses irradiation say the process is being “abused” by some producers. Craft producers, meanwhile, are finding that marketing their cannabis as non-irradiated is attractive to quality-conscious consumers coming over from the illicit market. 

The public’s understanding of irradiation is spotty. Questions and myths persist about the safety, value, and necessity of irradiation in cannabis production, as well as the impact on the cannabis itself, with many laypersons blaming irradiation for all manner of deficiencies, from dryness, to colour, to poor taste. 

When it comes to this oft-misunderstood process, who’s right here? In a way, everyone is. 

What is irradiation? 

In the simplest sense, irradiation works by exposing harvested cannabis to radiation—commonly either gamma, electron-beam (e-beam), or x-ray—to render contaminants like mould spores and other microbes inert and harmless to the consumer. At the outset of legalization, gamma irradiation was the most common method of decontamination, but since then, some producers have moved to e-beam irradiation, a shorter and cheaper process than gamma that produces comparable results. 

There’s little disagreement, even among critics, that the process, which was first used on food in the 1950s, can effectively reduce microbial contamination to safe levels. Irradiation is broadly effective at bringing microbial levels below acceptable, safe-to-consume thresholds. The goal is rarely to sterilize the product completely but rather to bring the microbial levels down. “The limits themselves are pretty strict,” says Siva Kalyan Sompalli, quality assurance technical lead with Aleafia Health. Stripping cannabis of all microbes is unrealistic, he says. “It’s not free of microbes, it’s just that the microbes are within acceptable limits.” 

Does it damage the cannabis? 

Although a few studies over the years have examined the effect of irradiation on cannabinoids and terpenes, “there really is very limited science out there on this issue at the moment,” says Tess Eidem, a microbiologist and owner of Rogue Micro, a microbial control consultancy in Colorado. “Overall, data is pretty lacking in our industry.” 

A 2020 study led by researcher Olga Kovalchuk found that irradiation converted some of the THCa in their samples to THC, as well as noted “changes in several terpenes.” A further study, published in November 2022, found, however, that irradiation “has minimal effects on THCa, delta9-THC and terpene concentrations”—but noted that they achieved that “under well-controlled laboratory conditions” that “do not reflect how cannabis manufacturers may conduct their decontamination procedures.”

Terpenes are a slightly different story. A 2016 study by Bedrocan’s Arno Hazekamp found that “irradiation had a measurable effect on the content of multiple cannabis terpenes, mainly on the more volatile monoterpenes.” The damage was normally found to be in the 10-20% range. “The slight terpene reduction observed in the current study is comparable to the effect that short-term storage in a paper bag had on cannabis samples,” the study found. “A likely explanation, therefore, seems that gamma irradiation slightly accelerates the evaporation of some of the more volatile terpenes.”

But it’s important to note that the degradation of terpenes is not due specifically to the irradiation. “Irradiation itself generates a very small amount of heat,” says Sompalli. “It’s not the irradiation itself that affects the terpenes, it’s the temperature change.”

“You’re growing something that is plant material, in grow mediums where you apply nutrients. You need to have microbes to support plant growth, and that’s the primary source of any microbial contamination itself. It’s a natural balance, a symbiotic relationship.”

Siva Kalyan Sompalli, quality assurance technical lead, Aleafia Health

How are LPs using it? 

It’s been estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of Canadian LPs are routinely irradiating their cannabis as a standard practice in order to avoid costly recalls and failed tests. “We are irradiating because we want to guarantee the quality,” said Nina Ackah of Viridis Cannabis during the previously mentioned panel discussion. Microbial regulations are strict. “I believe almost every LP would not be able to meet those limits,” she said. “Irradiation comes in to meet the product specification that we require.” 

Producers often claim that their microbial levels can vary a lot, regardless of sanitary practices. Cannabis is a living plant, after all, and microbes are crucial to the process. “You’re growing something that is plant material, in grow mediums where you apply nutrients,” Sompalli says. “You need to have microbes to support plant growth, and that’s the primary source of any microbial contamination itself. It’s a natural balance, a symbiotic relationship.”

Growers with large operations have found that sanitary practices are not always sufficient — some strains encourage more microbial growth than others, while sometimes it is just up to chance. Sompalli, referring to his past experience at a federally-licensed cannabis producer, says it can be a challenging process.

“We have seen that no matter how clean your process is, it’s almost like guesswork.” One batch will pass; the other won’t. “It’s also strain-specific,” he says. “Some strains like a Kush—those dense strains—they’re hard to reduce moisture [which enables microbial growth].” 

But not all producers see irradiation as inevitable. Craft growers say that consumers (especially those with a foot still in the legacy market) prefer non-irradiated cannabis. Jonathan Wilson of New Brunswick-based craft grower Crystal Cure says, “in my eyes, if a product has to be irradiated or remediated before it passes a microbial test, then I don’t consider that clean cannabis.” This echoes what any LP, even those who are irradiating, will tell you: irradiation does not exist to replace good microbial control practices, which are the most consequential factor on final microbial levels. “We prefer to be clean all the time and prevent things that would require remediation.” Being able to list one’s product as non-irradiated allows them to communicate this to consumers fairly quickly.

It also represents cost savings. “If we can avoid using it as a company, why wouldn’t we? Irradiation is a very costly process.” 

Although federal organic regulations don’t apply to cannabis, some third-party organic certification agencies (such as the Fraser Valley Organic Producers’ Association, for example) require cannabis to be non-irradiated to receive the designation. 

Critics of the process say that producers are over-irradiating. “Irradiation is abused in cannabis, in my opinion,” says Eidem. “For sure, in some contexts, these methods may be useful, specifically if a product is strictly medical and the intended use is for immunocompromised patients.” Eidem says that it’s common for producers to build irradiation into their production cycle because irradiation suppliers market it successfully. “Look at some of the irradiation company marketing,” she says. “It says stuff like ‘guaranteed passing,’ and ‘100% passing.’ They don’t talk about quality or integrating this step into their good manufacturing practices.

“People irradiate because it’s a guarantee that no matter what happens in their garden or during post-harvest, they can pass testing,” she argues. “Canada is miles ahead of the U.S. as far as good practices go, but they’re nowhere near where they should be.”

Is irradiation here to stay?

Given the industry’s comfort with the practice, irradiated cannabis is likely going to remain a valuable part of the production process. Done properly, it poses no risk to the end user on its own—though done improperly, Eidem says, it may have the ability to leech toxic chemicals from plastic packaging into the weed. 

But others would still like the industry to shift away from irradiation, if only towards improved remediation techniques. Florina Truica, chief technical officer of the Cold Plasma Group in Kingston, Ont., believes her company’s cold plasma technique (which uses cold plasma gases to kill contaminants) offers an improvement. “Our plasma remediation cycles are optimized specifically for use with cannabis flower, balancing the kill efficiency with the need to protect the flower quality. For example, their appearance, the moisture, smell, as well as the precious phytochemicals contained in the cannabis flower,” she explains. “In addition, the treatment penetrates in all the pores of the flower from all directions, ensuring a complete and uniform treatment.” She also says that their cold plasma treatment machines are “several orders of magnitude cheaper, can be operated by the processors’ regular employees, and require only a small footprint of space for installation.” 

Supporters of irradiation practices see the issue as a minor one, ultimately, that consumers will eventually forget about. “I think over time, all this will go to the back burner, and consumers will care about more specific things,” says Sompalli. “You consume spices every day—nobody is looking at the labels to see if it is irradiated or not. You are using, on a day-to-day basis, a product that is irradiated; cannabis is no different.”

More testing needed to address heavy metals in vapes, say researchers

A new research paper showing evidence of high levels of heavy metals in vape pens suggests the government should require more testing and labelling to help better protect consumers.

The study, a partnership between Health Canada’s Office of Cannabis Science and Surveillance and the National Research Council’s Metrology Research Centre, found evidence of high concentrations of some metals in cannabis vape liquids from both the legal and illegal markets in Canada.

Several of the samples—20 legal and 21 illegal—”significantly exceeded” the established tolerance limits for elemental impurities in inhaled products that are established by the European Pharmacopoeia.

The samples of cannabis vape liquids (from the OCS on the legal side and from the Ontario Provincial Police on the illegal side) were analyzed for metals that are commonly tested for in cannabis, such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead. These elements can be present from fertilizers, pesticides or other environmental reasons. 

The samples were also then tested for metals that could be present due to leaching from the metallic parts of the vaping devices themselves, such as cobalt, chromium, copper, iron, and several others. Research suggests that the potentially high acidity of cannabis vape liquids can cause these metals to leach into the cannabis oil itself. 

The concentrations of arsenic, mercury, and cadmium in all of the tested samples were within the generally accepted tolerance limits, but the concentration of lead exceeded the tolerance limit in one legal vape pen and six illegal ones. Levels of nickel were, in some cases, 900 times above the established limits in several illegal samples.

Only a few of the tested samples exceeded the limits for cobalt and vanadium, and several samples from both markets were above the limits for chromium, copper, nickel, and lead. Several of the samples from the illicit market showed lead concentrations up to 100 times higher than the allowable limit.

Researchers also noted variations in the concentrations of heavy metals in samples from the same products bought at the same time from the same production lot.

What are you inhaling? Understanding analytical testing for cannabis vape pens

All vape pens tested were no more than eight months old, based on available packaging dates. The report noted that other research has shown increasing levels of leaching from nicotine vape products that have sat on shelves for more than two years, suggesting this same process could apply to cannabis vape pens as well.

Several other publications have identified metal particles in the aerosol generated from nicotine vape devices. The vape devices in these studies were heated and cooled multiple times to mimic normal consumer use better, leading to speculation that this process could add to the degradation of the metal into the vape liquid. 

However, the products used in this study did not undergo such treatment. Researchers suggest this could point to other sources of contamination, such as the stainless steel aerosol tube and the core of the electrical connector, as a likely source of detected particles.

The health concerns due to the inhalation of these heavy metals, especially in often very fine aerosolized particles, are significant. 

Inhaled metals are quickly absorbed through the respiratory tract and can be further transported to other organs. Researchers highlight that lungs are particularly susceptible to nickel toxicity, with adverse effects ranging from lung inflammatory changes to induced rhinitis and sinusitis or allergic dermatitis. 

Even low exposure to inhaled lead can result in an increased risk of cardiovascular and kidney diseases, and inhalation of chromium and copper can lead to reduced lung function, an increased risk of asthma, respiratory irritation, or chest pain. 

Adding to this, the presence of nanosized metal particles in vape aerosol is also a significant health concern. These very small particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, where they can be more easily absorbed and react even more strongly with the body. 

The uneven heating potential of many cannabis vape pens is also a concern, as high levels of heat can potentially create additional new, dangerous compounds.

Because of this high presence of heavy metals in even legal vape pens, researchers in this paper suggest Health Canada and other cannabis regulators should consider requiring additional testing for heavy metals. Testing should also be required after cannabis has been processed into a vape liquid, not only the raw cannabis inputs, as Health Canada currently requires, adds the paper. 

It also suggests Health Canada could require more information about the metal components of vape devices, along with the filling date of the vape device, to help consumers make more informed choices and standards for vaping device construction and the materials used.

In the past, the OPP along with the National Research Council have provided testing information on illicit vape products high levels of unapproved pesticides and inaccurate THC listings

British Columbia and New Brunswick have released similar results from illicit products seized in those provinces.

Health Canada is expected to announce restrictions on some flavourings for cannabis vape pens soon. The proposed amendments were expected to be registered in 2022.

These proposed amendments would restrict the production, sale, promotion, packaging, or labelling of inhaled cannabis extracts from having a flavour “other than the flavour of cannabis” and would apply equally to inhaled cannabis extracts sold for both medical and non-medical purposes.

Study: No significant increase in youth cannabis use following legalization in Canada

A recent study by researchers in Newfoundland and Labrador shows some changes in youth use rates and perceptions of cannabis one year after legalization. 

The study, published in October in The Journal of Adolescent Health (JAH), concludes that cannabis legalization in Canada was associated with a greater perception of cannabis harm among young people, but also easier access to cannabis.

Although researchers say there is evidence that legalization was associated with an increase in cannabis initiation rates among young Canadians, there was also no significant increase in the overall prevalence of cannabis use among youths.

It concluded that additional policy measures are needed to curb youth cannabis initiation and their access to cannabis, but also notes a possible increase in cessation among existing users.

The study notes several significant results. Although they didn’t find a significant increase in cannabis use among minors after legalization, there was a higher initiation of cannabis use among those who had not previously admitted to using cannabis. 

More than 20% of young people in Canada and more than 13% in the United States reported using cannabis in 2019, with the average age of cannabis use initiation being 14 to 16 years of age. 

Researchers also found evidence that youths aged 17 and 18 years actually postponed cannabis initiation after it was legalized. The increase in the perceived harms of cannabis among young people in Canada contradicts research conducted in the US, which the study speculates is likely due to more strict public health messaging around cannabis in Canada compared to the US. 

However, the researchers also argue that the increase in “cannabis initiation” following legalization counteracts this factor.

As with the other research it cites, the study notes it is limited by the available data on cannabis use prior to and following legalization. With the cannabis market evolving so quickly in Canada over the four years since legalization, many significant changes will have taken place that could alter the results of future research. 

Previously, two Canadian studies on the subject looked at changes in cannabis use among youths and found no changes in cannabis use prevalence after cannabis was legalized. Similar research on cannabis legalization in Uruguay showed it had no impact on youth cannabis use.

Research looking at Washington and Colorado is not as clear, with both an increase and no change found, while another study showed a decline in youth cannabis use in Washington state. 

Consumer perception of legal market improving, still has a way to go

In the first three years of legalization, Canadian cannabis consumers have had increasingly positive views of legal cannabis products when compared to illegal cannabis products regarding quality, convenience, safety, and price.

Despite this increasingly positive outlook, nearly half of respondents captured in the study still reported that legal cannabis was more expensive than illegal cannabis, while one-fifth reported there was no difference, and only about one in ten reported legal cannabis was less expensive than its illicit counterpart. 

Those who were more likely to consume daily or almost daily were more likely to have negative perceptions of the legal market compared to the illegal market when it came to factors like price, quality and convenience.

This view also reflects the declining prices documented in the legal market, especially with the introduction of larger-volume formats like 14, 28, and 30-gram flower offerings, as well as decreasing prices on products like extracts, vape pens, and edibles. 

Data for the study were analyzed from more than 15,000 Canadian respondents to the International Cannabis Policy Study who had consumed cannabis in the past year and were of the legal age of access. The survey was conducted in 2019–2021 and completed online. 

Over time, data show that respondents tended to show an increase in the consumer perception that legal cannabis is safer and easier to buy and of higher quality, although often more expensive than the black market. 

Breaking down responses by demographics such as age, gender, and location, the survey also shows how these shifts affect each group. For example, respondents in Québec were more likely to report that they felt legal cannabis was of higher quality or no different (vs. lower quality) compared to all other provinces except Prince Edward Island. 

Those in Nova Scotia and British Columbia were the least likely to say legal cannabis was of higher quality, as well as the least likely to say it was less expensive. Those in Ontario and Nova Scotia were the least likely to say purchasing legal cannabis was more convenient.  

Respondents in Québec were also more likely to report that legal cannabis was less expensive than illegal cannabis when compared to those in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia (vs. more expensive; OR reversed). This matches market data showing Quebec with some of the lowest legal cannabis prices in Canada.

Although consumers said that legal cannabis was increasingly more convenient to buy than illegal cannabis, this tended to fluctuate by province, given the significant difference each jurisdiction has in regard to stores per capita, as well as the size of the licit market. 

Respondents in British Columbia and Ontario were the least likely to report that legal cannabis was more convenient to buy, likely due to both a robust black market in those provinces and—especially so in Ontario—an initially slow rollout of retail stores (Ontario went from 24 stores in 2019 to 1,042 stores in 2021).

138 cannabis samples tested by Health Canada in 2020, but no labs inspected

Health Canada says they collected 138 cannabis samples in 2020 to verify chemical (including cannabinoid), microbial, and pesticide results.

Of the 138 samples collected, 109 samples have been tested and confirmed to be acceptable, with the remaining 29 samples still pending analysis, the regulator has confirmed in an email to StratCann.

Such sampling of retention samples for further analysis are part of inspectors’ toolkits in instances where critical non-compliances are found during an inspection. Such inspections can typically look to verify records summarizing testing protocols, method validations, third-party testing facility attestations, established specifications and tolerance limits, as well as Certificates of Analysis (CoAs) to ensure the results provided in the CoAs are within the limits established by the licence holder. 

Health Canada says they have not mandated any product recalls based on any of the sampling activities undertaken in 2020. There were at least seven public product recalls of cannabis in 2020, six for errors with labeling and one for a concern with the instability of THC levels in a beverage. 

A representative for Health Canada also confirms that they did not conduct any inspections of analytical testing laboratories in 2020. Citing a risk-based approach in regard to protecting public health in regard to how they use their resources, labs were identified as not being a priority. 

There has been growing complaints from consumers and industry over the validity and accuracy of results from analytical testing labs and licence producers, largely around the validity of cannabinoid levels. 

In 2020 a group of patients took several licensed producers to court over what they say were inaccurate amounts of THC or CBD in various medical cannabis products compared to what was on the label, and more recently one licensed producer has called out another for questionable THC levels on some of their dried flower. 

However, in terms of public health, such variances in cannabinoid levels is likely seen by the regulator as a relatively low risk compared to other issues such as the risk presented by biological impurities like various moulds or other bacterias. The fact none of the public recalls of product in 2020 were due to biological impurities potentially speaks to a greater level of enforcement on this end, as opposed to inaccurate or misleading cannabinoid levels, such as inflated THC levels. And none were in relation to edible cannabis products with inaccurate cannabinoids. 

There were at least four public recalls of cannabis oils in 2019 for inaccurate cannabinoid levels. There have been two recent recalls this year of cannabis edibles (gummies) due to the presence of mould. 

Such recalls would be based on either customer or supply chain complaint, or the licence holder or inspector discovering the problem. Inspections of labs would be a secondary step beyond testing of the end product. However, a more consistent testing standard could allow consumers to have greater trust in the advertised THC and CBD and even terpene levels in their dried flower.

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