The spread of legal marijuana across the US is bringing with it a unique challenge: Absent federal guidelines, states are cobbling together hodgepodge rules that leave users without a uniform safety net.
Take New Jersey, which on April 21 became the latest state with legalized pot. Regulators there are re-examining their own rules on issues as varied as mold limits and batch size for contaminants testing. As with all the 19 states that allow recreational marijuana use for adults, it’s up to local officials to decide what’s best.
This isn’t how the US treats aspirin, lipstick, food, tobacco, carpet, tires — just about everything that’s for sale is subject to uniform health and safety regulations. But marijuana is in odd territory: Federally illegal, yet tried by half the adult population, it’s a fledgling multibillion-dollar market steered by fast-evolving rules.
Attempts at regulation mark a departure from a black market that flourished bureaucracy-free for decades. But with a US retail market projected to hit $43 billion by 2025, according to researcher New Frontier Data, many in the industry are asking for some government intervention.
“Standardization across product forms, product naming, labeling and testing would simplify our business,” said Dennis Curran, chief operating officer of Acreage Holdings, with 27 dispensaries in eight states. “But it would be of greatest benefit to consumers, who face a confusing array of products and standards in different states.”
Pot-friendly states mandate screening for contaminants including yeast and pesticides, whose effects can run from mild allergic reactions to lung damage to death. But not all states require tests for the same dangers, or even via the same technology. While some labs rely on 19th-century petri dish methods, others use genetic-based polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, the approach that proved so crucial for Covid-19 detection.
It isn’t just the screening that can vary widely. This year alone, Connecticut standardized allowable levels of mold in medical cannabis, Colorado announced it will enforce expiration dates on pot vapor devices and Oklahoma pitched standards on lab testing equipment.
“Every other industry has gone through this same phase, historically, like automobiles, computers, airlines,” said Sherman Hom, a veteran research scientist who has overseen New Jersey’s marijuana testing setup. “It’s growing pains.”
The federal government classifies marijuana as a substance with high potential for abuse and no medical standard of application, just like heroin, LSD and ecstasy. The Food and Drug Administration has approved a cannabis-derived prescription medicine for epilepsy but doesn’t have broad marijuana rules.
“The FDA is committed to protecting the public health while also taking steps to improve the efficiency of regulatory pathways for the lawful marketing of appropriate cannabis and cannabis-derived products,” the administration said in an emailed statement.
Marijuana is the most commonly used drug that is outlawed by the federal government, and states didn’t allow it until 1996, when California permitted medical use. As of last year, marijuana had been tried by 49% of US adults, up 4 percentage points from 2019, and more than double from 1977, according to a Gallup poll.
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