The cannabis market is becoming more regulated. There’s a growing awareness of possible impurities in cannabis products.
Cultivators are answering concerns with cannabis irradiation. The process involves zapping cannabis flowers with the radioactive element cobalt 60. It reduces microbial contaminants, so products pass inspection.
But some people are questioning whether irradiation is the way to go.
Cannabis Irradiation: Good or Bad?
The question of whether cannabis irradiation is good or bad is a concern for cultivators, regulators, and consumers. Regulators wonder which cannabis’s microbial contaminants they need to guard against.
Plants may be contaminated if sanitation measures are not followed during growth and processing. Cannabis irradiation will help the plants pass testing. But is nuking weed healthy?
Healthy or not, regulated cannabis is often exposed to gamma radiation for hours before it’s passed on to the customer. Electron beam radiation, or x-ray radiation, which is preferred by U.S. cultivators, is used to kill bad microbes.
The main target is a microbe called Aspergillus, which is present throughout the plant. It is known to cause respiratory conditions and even death. It can be harmful to consumers and cultivation workers.
What is Cannabis Irradiation?
Cannabis irradiation is gamma irradiation performed on the cannabis plant. Gamma irradiation has long been used in the American food industry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists nine foods that can be radiated including beef, pork, lettuce, spinach, and other fruits and vegetables.
At least 59 other countries also use gamma radiation in their foods. It is believed to protect food from spoilage although it somewhat reduces its nutritional content.
Although irradiation is widely accepted, most cultivators don’t want consumers to know their products have been zapped. They use terms like “electronically pasteurized” or “cold pasteurized” to soften the term.
Despite stigmas, irradiation has its benefits. It penetrates the plant without causing damage making it a preferred method over plant decontamination methods that use heat, chemicals, and even toxic substances like ethylene oxide gas.
When cannabis products don’t pass testing, cultivators use cannabis irradiation to cleanse them. They put them on the market and hope for the best.
There’s also evidence that cannabis irradiation can leave behind bits of disconnected DNA which the microbe can use to “revive itself”.
Issues with Eliminating Bad Microbes
Some people may be uneasy about consuming a product that’s been zapped. But there are also issues with eliminating bad microbes. Tess Eidem, a microbiologist with Denver cannabis consultancy Rogue Micro breaks it down.
“All of the infrastructure- the good manufacturing practices, the good agricultural practices, and the product safety that is required in manufacturing these other consumer food goods- is not required for cannabis manufacturing,” Eidem explains.
“Your dog food is regulated by the FDA, unlike cannabis.
“With cannabis, you don’t have to put in any preventative controls. You don’t have to have a sanitation program; you don’t have to have a quality team.
“All of the food safety that manufacturers in the food industry are expected to do and proactively address to identify their risks and their food-safety plans are not required in cannabis testing.
“All manufacturers have to do is pass compliance testing,” Eidem stated.
She further explained that plants may have to undergo cannabis irradiation for up to 24 hours to pass testing.
“In the short term, a cultivator can recover failed products (by remediation). But in the long term, it’s a crutch- and it’s not solving the underlying issue,” she revealed.
Suehiko Ono, founder of the family-owned Massachusetts-based CEO of EOS Farms offers a similar viewpoint stating “The microbe testing threshold comes from extreme fear and caution on the side of regulators.
“The basic approach and attitude from regulators are: Do something even if it does nothing because you can’t do nothing- even if what you’re doing doesn’t do anything by confusing the matter. But you have to protect the consumer”.
He went on to describe microbe testing as “both over-determinative and under-determinative”.
“They’re over-determinative in that they test for any of the millions of species of total viable aerobic bacteria and total yeast mold. They don’t differentiate.
“They test for the presence. And they don’t test for Aspergillus, which is not the only one that’s been shown to cause harm. They don’t even tell you if it’s there or not.
“So, if we’re going to force these nonsensical microbe-testing thresholds, then you’ve got to remediate. No way around it.”
Concerns About Cannabis Irradiation
Consumers are weary of cannabis irradiation, but Tjalling Erkelens, founder and board chair of medical cannabis company Bedrocan, explains that most of these concerns stem from a lack of information.
He explains that contrary to popular belief, cannabis irradiation does not destroy cannabinoids.
“It slightly affects terpenes. There’s no degradation of THC or CBD. If the product is properly packaged, there’s no loss of water. Nothing changes.”
Erkelens also addressed the myth that cannabis irradiation may be bad for medical marijuana users. He stated that there is no scientific basis to back up these beliefs.
“There’s no remainder of the irradiation process itself (in the cannabis). The only thing it does is it cuts the string of life in living creatures, of living spores and living bacteria.”
However, Erkelens does point out that there is an issue of mold getting into products during irradiation. He warns cultivators to avoid mold by keeping the facility clean.
“You should wash your walls and floors. It should be embedded in protocols and done on a very regular basis.
“And when you go into where the plants are growing, be sure that everything you bring in there is clean. Even be sure to bring in clean air,” he says.
Kyle Baker, co-founder and chief strategist of the Illinois biosecurity company EcoBuds backs Erkelens up saying, “If I tell the client that they need to clean every day, sometimes twice a day, and that was the answer to their problem of failing tests, they look at me cross-eyed.
“But if they do it, they don’t have to use radiation. They don’t have to use remediation methods. Because the consistency of not having disease issues that affect yield are significantly decreased,” he says.
Jini Glaros, chief scientific officer at Modern Canna Laboratories, feels it’s just a matter of getting a handle on regulations.
“It’s a little weird that we’re not letting consumers know when a product has been irradiated. I think regulations are being created before we have all the information. That’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, it’s just that this is such a new industry in a way.
“Hopefully regulators are listening to the people doing the research and seeing the data and making changes to those regulations based on the information.”