There's a new threat to Oregon's cannabis industry, which isn't exactly hurting for more of those. It's already creating a reduction in the number of flower options available, and some farms are considering stopping production completely.
Great, what's the crisis du jour for the Pacific Wonderland Weed industry?
That vegetable that makes my pee smell?
The health supplement?
Aspergillus is a very common mold. There are some 180 species of it, and in March of this year, the Oregon Health Authority began testing for four types: pathogenic aspergillus flavus, fumigatus, niger and terreus.
Zombie fungus! On my weed! Oh my God, we're all going to die! Aaaahhh!
Eventually, yes, but not from zombies, nor likely from Aspergillosis, the fungal infection you can get from Asperegillus.
Per the Cleveland Clinic: Aspergillus is usually found outdoors, in dead leaves, plants, soil or compost. It's occasionally found in moist environments indoors. Most people breathe in Aspergillus spores every day without getting sick. But in certain people, Aspergillus can cause allergic reactions, chronic lung conditions and invasive disease that spreads to your brain, kidneys, lungs or other organs. They usually affect people with weakened immune systems or lung conditions. Treatments include surgery and antifungal medications.
I don't want that! Am I going to get it?
Statistically speaking, no.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention writes that, "Invasive aspergillosis is uncommon and occurs primarily in immunocompromised people." The number of healthy people contracting Aspergillus from smoking cannabis is unknown, which the CDC explains, "Because aspergillosis is not a reportable infection in the United States, the exact number of cases is difficult to determine. Milder, allergic forms of aspergillosis are more common than the invasive form of the infection."
How is testing for Aspergillus performed? What happens if you fail?
Samples submitted are tested "Pass/Fail" for any amount of Aspergillus, and not parts per million. Fail, and per the OHA, "the batch may either be remediated using a sterilization process or be used to make a cannabinoid concentrate or extract if the processing method effectively sterilizes the batch, such as a method using a hydrocarbon solvent or CO 2 extraction system."
If a single sterilization attempt doesn't eliminate all traces of the Aspergillus, that crop must be destroyed.
How is sterilization of cannabis even done?
Through the use of ozone, radiation, radio frequency and vaporized hydrogen peroxide.
Are these methods expensive?
Yes. An outside service can cost thousands per batch of cannabis, and machines to do the job yourself can hit a half million dollars.
And the remediation methods have potential drawbacks. One company which offers the machines notes they consume a great deal of electricity, are loud to the point of requiring ear protection, and "Depending on what type of technology, it can affect the flavor, potency and terpenes of the buds."
Is Oregon the only state testing for Aspergillus?
Currently there are 23 states doing testing, albeit with varying allowable amounts.
How are Oregon growers doing with these tests?
Not great. OLCC provided Willamette Week with results showing that 6% of the flower tested had failed, along with a stunning 22% of infused pre rolls.
How does the Oregon cannabis industry feel about this?
Also not great. In an industry already overtaxed, over regulated and underperforming financially with an ongoing oversupply issue, the cost of testing is another burden. It's moved one brand I favor to inform my local dispensary that rather than deal with the prospect of having to destroy an entire crop based on a failed test, they are suspending all flower sales, and making concentrates from their entire flower inventory.
The Cannabis Industries Association of Oregon is working with growers to establish a strategy. It provided a bullet point list of concerns: A lack of scientific links of aspergillosis to cannabis consumption in those who are not immunocompromised, questioning the legitimacy of the testing, the ubiquitous nature of Aspergillus, and inconsistency in testing and remediation, citing "many cultivators who have reported significant inconsistencies in the testing results."
Despite its good intentions, testing may well be the death knell for some smaller brands which can't absorb both the costs of testing, and the financial disaster from a failed test.