Baffling Bacteria

710 Degree Cup test results show a bacteria problem in Arizona, but how big of a problem is it?

Mold has been a contentious topic in the Arizona cannabis industry for some time, but the one thing people can't seem to figure out is how big of a problem it really is. Patients don't want to smoke mold and dispensaries don't want to grow mold, but that hasn't kept it from creeping up on the shelves of dispensaries.

This year, the 710 Degree Cup gave us some insight on the prevalence of bacteria in Arizona cannabis. Jim Morrison, who runs the Errl Cup and 710 Degree Cup competitions to determine the best bud (and edibles and concentrates) in Arizona, decided to test this year's entries for microbials.

However, the presence of bacteria doesn't necessarily indicate a health risk, said Ryan Traecy, CEO of C4 Laboratories, who conducted the tests.

"What a total mold and yeast count, or aerobic plate count, gives us is an idea of total microbial activity," Traecy said, "but that doesn't key out the species."

He said not all the microbes are potentially dangerous. Some dispensaries use beneficial bacteria in the soil and throughout the growing process. Without differentiating which bacteria are present in the samples, there's no way to know for sure if a sample is harmful.

But that doesn't mean some of the strains with high counts aren't contaminated.

"I can guarantee that some of them did have those bad actors present," Traecy said. "So it is an issue, but without speciation of that count, we can't be sure if it's pathogenic or not."

Of the 124 strains of flower submitted by patients and dispensaries to the 2018 710 Degree Cup, nearly 43 percent returned microbe counts of more than 100,000 colony-forming units per gram. For reference, Colorado and Washington have set the "safety limit" for their flower at 10,000 cfu/g.

Nearly 59 percent of entries tested above 10,000 cfu/g per micro.

Looking at the 10 dispensaries that submitted more than four samples, six had more than 20 percent of their product return test results of more than 100,000 cfu/g.

On the other hand, some dispensaries' samples returned hardly any mold at all.

Greengem, Phoenix Cannabis Co. and the Medicine Room each only had one sample test above 100,000 cfu/g.

But, as reflected in three first-place wins in the flower category at the 710 Degree Cup, not one of Tru Med's 13 entries tested above 100,000 cfu/g.

Same with Dos Bros AZ, Farm Fresh Organics and Green Halo dispensaries, who each submitted three to four samples.

Some dispensary owners are skeptical of C4 Labs's results, but Traecy chalks it up to a lack of understanding of the science behind the testing.

"That's one of the challenges here," he said. "We have people that run with the data and think if it doesn't make sense then they automatically assume that it's wrong."

He said each sample is accompanied by a "negative control," a blank plate used to make sure there's no cross contamination of the samples they test—the same precautions taken in pharmaceutical and cosmetology labs.

Still, Morrison said he's open to the idea of having multiple labs test Errl Cup and 710 Degree Cup entries but paying for the tests remains an issue.

Morrison has kept samples from the competition in case more tests are needed.

Even if the results don't necessarily indicate a safety concern, Traecy said they at the very least show that Arizona is a difficult climate in which to control the presence of micro-organisms, and that can dangerous.

"It's hard for us to know how far out of whack things are getting," Traecy said. "And that's concerning for the patient."

Much of the cannabis conversation during the last legislative sessions revolved around a bill that would have mandated testing regulations for dispensaries in Arizona. Though most dispensaries already test voluntarily, no legal guidelines dictate consistency.

"That's the problem with the industry," Morrison said. "There's no standardization when it comes to this thing."

As for the limits imposed by states like Colorado and Washington, a report from the Cannabis Safety Institute, a national organization of scientists, doctors and regulators, recommended not testing "total yeast and mold" counts for flower, because the measurement doesn't indicate how safe or dangerous a product is.

"If it were up to me, aerobic plate count would not have any bearing on safety," Traecy said.

He thinks arbitrary measures like those in Colorado and Washington could have detrimental effects on outdoor growers by "stifling" their opportunities. Without the ability to control the growing environment, outdoor growers are prone to bacteria on their flower, even if none of it is harmful.