Most cannabis samples from illegal retailers in B.C. study were not fit for sale

A new analysis of contamination in cannabis seized from illegal retailers in Metro Vancouver has authorities encouraging consumers to switch to the legal cannabis market.

B.C. Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth shared some of the study's findings at a news conference Wednesday.

In 20 samples of dried cannabis flower sent for analysis, 24 distinct pesticides were found, with nearly every sample having evidence of at least one potentially harmful product, Farnworth said.

The study also found unacceptable levels of bacteria, fungi and heavy metals in many of the samples, he added.

The public safety minister said the findings lead to a simple conclusion: Legal cannabis, which is regulated and tested by Health Canada, is safer.

"Don't buy illicit cannabis, because you don't know what's in it and it may be contaminated," Farnworth said. "If you choose to use cannabis, buy it legal."

The study's full findings can be found on the website of the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health, which conducted the analysis on samples provided by the B.C. Cannabis Secretariat. 

According to the centre, only three of the 20 samples would have met health standards for sale on the legal market without further analysis. Nine of the samples failed to meet legal standards outright, while the remaining eight would have required further investigation to determine their suitability for sale through the legal system.

The centre describes the analysis as a "pilot study," and notes several limitations on the findings.

"This small sub-sample is not representative of all illicit cannabis in Metro Vancouver," the centre's summary notes. "Because the samples were from cannabis seized from illicit store fronts, we do not know the provenance of the material. The 20 samples may have been produced by 20 different growers, or one. They may have been grown within Metro Vancouver or may have been sourced from elsewhere."

For Farnworth, that's part of the point.

"When you buy from an illicit storefront or an online seller, you don't know where it's coming from or whether it's clean and fit for human consumption," he said. "In contrast, when you buy from a licensed seller, you can trust the label on the product."

Farnworth said a total of 160 illegal cannabis retailers have either been shut down or closed voluntarily in B.C. since legalization, and added that the province is working on further enforcement against the illicit market.

With a total of 370 legal cannabis retailers now operating around British Columbia, the idea that the legal market is inconvenient should no longer be an excuse for purchasing cannabis illegally, Farnworth said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that the transition to a legal cannabis industry has been happening slowly, something he attributed, in part, to consumers' entrenched buying habits.

"It's been legal now in this province for just over two and a half years," Farnworth said. "In the state of Colorado, very similar to British Columbia in many ways, it took four years for them to get from a 100 per cent illegal market to a 70 per cent legal market, and we are on that same path."

B.C. retailers sold about $20 million worth of legal cannabis in March 2020, and sold more than double that amount - $43 million - in March of this year, according to Farnworth.