Opinion: Regulated market will ease cannabis purity concerns

Opinion: Regulated market will ease cannabis purity concerns

Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earl Sears claims there is an influx of fentanyl-laced marijuana coming into Virginia and that the state’s liberal cannabis policies are to blame. She’s wrong on both counts.

In a recent appearance on John Reed’s podcast at the Richmond Morning News, Sears said: “Now we have fentanyl coming across our borders, and now that we in Virginia have legalized marijuana, you’re getting marijuana that’s infused with fentanyl. “Oh my God, he’s killing us.”

In fact, there are few, if any, confirmed cases of fentanyl-tainted cannabis in Virginia — or, for that matter, anywhere in the country. In almost every case in which such cases have been alleged, the claims have been retracted after laboratory tests failed to determine the presence of synthetic opioids or determined that the initial result was the result of accidental contamination. Even representatives of the US Drug Enforcement Administration acknowledged that there was little support for this claim. In fact, one of the agency’s top chemists once admitted that the DEA had never seized cannabis containing fentanyl.

Furthermore, medical experts acknowledge that fentanyl’s active ingredients decompose rapidly when heated, rendering it inert once it reaches the point of combustion. Thus, it would be “illogical and scientifically implausible” to intentionally mix fentanyl with cannabis, says toxicologist Ryan Marino, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. “Thanks to the laws of chemistry, we know better.”

However, the Lieutenant Governor is right that cannabis products sold in the unregulated market can sometimes be of variable quality and purity. This is especially true for so-called “hemp-derived” cannabis products sold without a prescription in Virginia. One recent study that analyzed the contents of unregulated Delta-8 vape cartridges identified the presence of heavy metals, including magnesium, chromium, nickel and mercury, along with trace materials and other impurities.

However, the solution to these public health concerns is not to call for a return to criminalization of cannabis or raise sensationalist concerns. Instead, Virginia lawmakers should take steps to mitigate the risk of consumers being exposed to potentially contaminated products.

In the legally regulated market, cannabis products from licensed manufacturers are available in retail stores. The hemp is grown and the products are manufactured according to Good Manufacturing Practices. Products are laboratory tested and labeled accordingly – ensuring consumers receive products of verified purity and potency.

Creating such a regulated market was the intent of Virginia lawmakers and former Gov. Ralph Northam when in 2021 they legalized the possession and use of limited amounts of cannabis by adults. However, in the years since, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his administration have made clear that they have no interest in taking steps to rein in and regulate the state’s underground cannabis market, which is estimated to be worth $2.4 billion.

This head-in-the-sand position makes no sense. Nearly half of the states, including Maryland, have enacted legislation regulating the adult-use cannabis market. None of these countries have repealed or even rolled back their legislation, and public support for these policies has never been higher.

According to the latest national Gallup poll, marijuana legalization is one of the few policy positions on which a majority of Democratic, independent and Republican voters agree. This is because these policies work largely as politicians and voters intended, and are better than bans.

After a century of failed politics and intolerance, Virginians are ready to move in a different direction—one that legitimizes, organizes, and educates. It is time for lawmakers to finish what they started and create a regulatory framework that allows for the legal and licensed commercial production and sale of marijuana to adults.

Paul Armentano is Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and co-author of “Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?” (Chelsea Green Publishing).

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