The Westleaf Staff
Last spring, Illinois dispensary workers and consumers noticed there was mold in a popular brand of pre-rolled marijuana joints.
“Numerous batches” possibly had been contaminated, state regulators said.
But the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which regulates state-licensed marijuana dispensaries, never told the public. It didn’t warn consumers they might have bought tainted weed.
Instead, it emailed dispensary operators on May 22, quietly directing them to quarantine all Mag Landrace cannabis flower products made by Verano Holdings.
State officials told retailers that they could initiate a “voluntary recall” of those products — but left that up to the stores while an investigation was conducted.
One chain of dispensaries is known to have informed affected customers: Green Thumb Industries’ Rise locations in Niles, Joliet and downstate Canton. The Niles and Canton stores sell to recreational users and also to medical cannabis patients, which means people with serious health conditions could have gotten the moldy marijuana.
In a notice to customers, an assistant manager at the Canton store identified seven batches of potentially moldy weed sold under the name Mag Landrace and urged customers to “discontinue use of this product and destroy it,” offering a $64 store credit toward a future purchase.
The assistant manager also suggested that customers contact a healthcare provider “if you have any questions or concerns about mold allergies.”
The notice about the Verano weed wound up on the popular “Illinois Trees” Reddit group, which spread the word among the nearly 18,000 members of the online community. Many responded by describing similar problems with the Chicago-based marijuana cultivator’s supply.
One user, who identified himself as an employee at a Rise location in Mundelein, wrote that he was sickened for almost a week after smoking pre-rolls containing Mag Landrace a few months earlier. He said he threw the rest away, along with other Verano products.
“Smelled and tasted like old pond water,” the user wrote of the weed. “I went to work the next day and smelled every Verano pre-roll we had, and we ended up destroying 1000s of tins.”
He declined an interview request.
What happened with the moldy weed last spring raises questions about regulation of Illinois’ booming cannabis industry and the high-priced, high-taxed products on dispensary shelves.
Illinois has some of the strictest rules in the nation for cannabis safety and quality, with cannabis required to pass tests for mold, yeast, bacteria and other contaminants that are much tougher than those in many states. Some states don’t require testing at all for certain contaminants.
But Illinois officials do little to police those tests to ensure they’re done properly.
Though state regulators can discipline growers — and they have done so in a relative handful of cases, mostly for infractions relating to storage or transport of cannabis, which often results in fines of $5,000 or less — the rules also allow problems to be handled secretly through administrative consent orders that are “considered confidential … not [to] be released.”
The investigation of the potentially moldy Mag Landrace weed went nowhere. The state Department of Agriculture, which regulates growers, says weed from the cultivator was tested and that no problems were found.
A spokesman for IDFPR, which sent the May 22 notice, confirmed the quarantine but says the findings of the investigation are secret. The agency is “prohibited … from disclosing the details of specific investigations” by the Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act and its rules, according to the agency spokesman.
“The department takes allegations regarding products seriously and investigates complaints relating to cannabis products made to the department,” spokesman Paul Isaacs says. “The cannabis industry is still in its infancy, and IDFPR is proud of its efforts in supporting and regulating its growth. IDFPR is committed to continuing to work with the General Assembly, stakeholders and fellow agencies to support the continued growth of a safe, legal marketplace.”
Chris Rohde of Waukegan, who runs a weed-centric YouTube channel called “Cannabev,” posted the Rise dispensary’s Mag Landrace notice on Reddit after obtaining a copy.
Rohde says recreational consumers and medical patients like himself often take a back seat to the “profit-centered” Illinois’ cannabis industry and that it’s especially worrisome that the “voluntary recall” involving Mag Landrace weed wasn’t announced to the public, only to dispensaries.
“Folks should be notified if a product they purchased could be tainted,” Rohde says. “Medicinal patients could have had a negative reaction to ingesting moldy cannabis.”
James MacRae, who owns Straight Line Analytics, a cannabis consulting firm near Seattle, says Illinois’ standards — which are tougher than those in many states not only for microbiological contaminants but also for pesticides — are “consumer-friendly. Two thumbs up to whoever created that.”
But MacRae is critical of the secretive way in which Illinois addresses problems with legal weed.
“I do not understand it,” he says of the state’s secret letter to the dispensaries. “It’s putting the responsibility on the shoulders of the drug pushers, of the people who stand to profit. It’s grossly inappropriate.”
From 2015 to June 30, 2021, 3,115 batches of cannabis flower or processed weed products failed state-required tests for quality and safety in Illinois, according to data obtained by the Sun-Times through six public records requests under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
That includes 3,072 failures from 2019 through the first half of 2021 — amounting to just over 7% of cannabis tested in Illinois, going by the state’s figures of the total samples tested.
By far, the most common reason for failing was having mold and yeast above allowed levels, with about 90% of all failing cannabis flower samples since 2019 having mold and yeast counts over state limits.
Other states aren’t as strict. Much of the legal weed that failed Illinois’ testing would have passed muster in Michigan, which has much looser limits on fungal contamination than Illinois for recreational weed.
Microbiological contaminants such as mold, yeast and various bacteria are measured in colony-forming units per gram, or CFU/g, with labs culturing them on testing plates to measure their levels.
Illinois allows up to 1,000 CFU/g for “total yeast and mold.”
Michigan allows far more: total yeast and mold of up to 100,000 CFU/g for recreational weed and up to 10,000 CFU/g for medical marijuana.
In California, there’s no testing requirement for total yeast and mold. Tests are required only for a type of mold called Aspergillus, which can cause serious lung infections.
Connecticut recently increased its limit for mold and yeast to 1,000,000 CFU/g, provided there’s no Aspergillus.
Illinois requires any pesticide residue on cannabis to be below the lowest “action limit” for that compound as set by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency for food. Illinois also requires cannabis to pass tests for five heavy metals.
As with mold, the rules for pesticides vary by state. Washington doesn’t require any testing for pesticides — or heavy metals — unless the cannabis is to be certified for medical use.
“It really is all over the place,” says Lev Spivak-Bindorf, co-founder of PSI Labs in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who has pushed for more transparency for consumers.
Marijuana remains a federally prohibited substance under “Schedule 1” of the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule 1 is meant for drugs with no medical value and high potential for abuse and includes hard drugs like heroin.
For some time, Congress has been inching toward decriminalizing cannabis nationwide, but it’s unclear what President Joe Biden would do.
Without a green light at the federal level, states are left to work out their own regulations.
Even figuring out something as basic as the size of a standard dose has been difficult, says Rosalie Pacula, an economist at the University of Southern California and president of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy.
“This is not a standard FDA-regulated product,” says Pacula, who studies the regulation of intoxicating substances, including legal drugs like tobacco, alcohol and cannabis and illicit drugs like methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine.
As a result, state regulators often tiptoe around product quality issues, suggesting that potentially bad bud be removed from sale but not demanding a recall, according to Pacula.
“It’s shocking from a consumer standpoint … but we don’t have the FDA here. So there’s no teeth in enforcement,” she says.
And some of the most technically proficient labs in the country, who’ve been testing as contractors for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for years, aren’t involved at all with legal weed because they’d lose out on their federal contracts, she says.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says federal oversight would begin to address the patchwork system’s varying standards for testing.
“At a minimum, it could probably set some sort of a floor, where states might decide on their own that they want to have additional standards on top of those,” Armentano says. “But it would set a sort of a baseline that says, look, these are the minimum criteria of things that have to be screened for, these are the minimum levels that are allowable.”
Some worry that treating cannabis like any other food or drug product would stifle innovation.
“Part of the debate that’s happening right now around this question of federal legalization is whether or not federal governance of the industry right now is a good thing or whether the industry’s actually better served by continuing to operate in this patchwork model so that these local experiments can play out,” says John Kagia, chief knowledge officer for the cannabis research firm New Frontier Data. “So we can actually see, of these different types of rules, regulations and governing authorities, what seems to work best.”
Despite problems with regulation of legal weed, Kagia says the illicit market, by comparison, is “totally unregulated.”