The state’s first medical marijuana dispensary, Alternative Therapies Group in Salem, is expected to open shortly, after receiving a temporary waiver Friday that will allow it to sell cannabis that has not been fully tested for pesticides and other contaminants.
The one-time waiver was granted because laboratories in Massachusetts are not yet able to complete the quality testing required by state health department rules, according to Governor Charlie Baker’s office.
“Patients have waited to access marijuana for medical purposes for far too long,” Baker said in a statement. “This waiver will allow industry laboratories a little more time to reach full operation while providing safe amounts of medical marijuana for qualifying patients who need it.”
But chemists at two labs poised to test dispensary products said the problem isn’t operations at the labs. The problem, they said, resides with the state’s guidelines, issued just six weeks ago, that set standards that are too stringent for lead.
And just as crucially, the labs said, while the rules require the cannabis to be screened for 18 pesticides that dispensaries are prohibited from using, they do not mandate testing to see whether residue from permissible pesticides remain.
“As a consumer, I would want to know those products are free from pesticides, but how do I know they are free from pesticides if they are not being tested?” said Christopher Hudalla, with ProVerde Laboratories in Milford, which is used by Alternative Therapies.
The Salem dispensary submitted its first batch of marijuana for testing, the Baker administration said, but the lab was unable to test for seven of the 18 prohibited pesticides.
Hudalla disputed that, saying his lab is able to detect 17 of the 18, and will be ready next week to test for all 18.
The Baker administration also said the lab had problems testing for metals.
Hudalla and Michael Kahn, president of MCR Labs in Framingham, said the lead levels allowed by the state are so strict that no dispensaries would be able to meet them.
By comparison, lead levels allowed for medical marijuana in Connecticut and Colorado are at least 40 times higher, and are safe, Hudalla said.
One organic potato tested by the lab had higher levels of lead than allowed under the state’s marijuana rules, he said.
“I am concerned about patients not having access due to too-stringent levels,” Kahn said.
Both chemists said the state Department of Public Health has declined to communicate with them about these problems. The state did not directly respond to a question from the Globe about whether it had communicated with the labs.
Under the state’s medical marijuana rules, the health department regulates the dispensaries, not the labs. Asked about the concerns raised by the labs, department spokesman Scott Zoback said in a statement, “This administration has made it a priority to communicate with [dispensaries] in a timely fashion about our testing standards, as well as all regulations, to ensure safe patient access.”
When Massachusetts issued its marijuana testing rules two years ago, those standards were among the most stringent in the country, requiring dispensaries to have their products screened by an outside lab for heavy metals, pesticides, and mold. They must also identify and measure active chemical compounds in the cannabis.
Under the waiver granted to Alternative Therapies, its marijuana can be distributed with a label that discloses the chemicals not tested.
“We are not lowering our standards for the testing of marijuana for medical purposes. Safety is job one,” Marylou Sudders, the state health and human services secretary, said in a statement. “The waiver allows for small amounts of marijuana to be dispensed for medical use while testing facilities ramp up.”
Under the three-month waiver, Alternative Therapies is allowed to dispense a maximum of 4.23 ounces of marijuana to qualifying patients for use over two months, while instructing patients to consume no more than 2 grams a day. Normally, patients would be allowed to buy up to 10 ounces of marijuana every two months.
During the next three months, the state health department will review its standards for testing metal levels in marijuana to ensure those levels are attainable for dispensaries in the future, the department said.
“We carefully considered the initial testing results, and we will review the standards going forward,” Dr. Monica Bharel, the state’s public health commissioner, said in a statement. “We believe these levels provide for patient health protections while allowing the first dispensary to distribute marijuana for medical use as voted on in 2012.”
Health officials said Alternative Therapies must complete one final state inspection before opening, and while they expected it to happen quickly, they were unable to offer a timetable. The Alternative Therapies Group’s executive director, Christopher Edwards, did not return a phone call.