The Dark Side of Illegal Cannabis: 5 Health Hazards to Know
The first time you walked into a licensed dispensary, you were probably impressed. They are clean, organized, and well-staffed. There are air-tight storage containers for cannabis plant materials, and budtenders take extra care to keep everything hygienic.
Dispensaries are subject to a lot of legal requirements at every step of production to the sale of cannabis products. The legalization of medical and recreational cannabis has come a long way in the past few decades, making dispensary products safer than ever.
We don’t know the long-term health effects of marijuana. But we do know that the quality control measures that dispensaries use produce a better and safer product. Multistate dispensaries (MSOs) invest a great deal of time and money to produce safe products.
When people smoke marijuana, they shouldn’t be worried about heavy metals, pesticides, or E. coli. But for young adults (who are more likely to experience cannabis dependence and purchase marijuana from the Black Market) buy from an illegal source, there can be unexpected and harmful consequences.
Health Hazards That Can Be Caused By Illegal Weed
In some states, the cost of selling medical cannabis is very high. Suppose you are a patient and use cannabis on a daily basis to help with debilitating symptoms. In that case, those costs can quickly add up, particularly since healthcare insurance (including Medicare or Medicaid) doesn’t cover even a portion of those costs.
Medical use marijuana purchased at a dispensary is tested and safe. It is stored correctly, and the products are accurately labeled so that you can purchase with confidence. And know exactly what you are going to get.
With street cannabis, all bets are off. It may seem like a great deal until you learn what hidden health risks there can be when you purchase marijuana extracts or flower from an illegal source. Here are five health hazards you need to know about:
1. Pesticide and Chemical Exposure
In some states, dispensaries must be vertically integrated. That is, the same company is responsible for cultivating the cannabis, processing it into products, and selling it at a retail location. Wouldn’t it be less expensive for large dispensaries to purchase bulk cannabis from other cultivators? Yes. But there is a reason why it is not allowed.
Cannabis manufacturers and dispensaries must meet stringent quality control measures. Each batch of cannabis has a number, and it is tracked from seed to sale. This helps make sure that the cannabis does not make its way to the Black Market as well. But safety and quality control are the top priorities.
When licensed dispensaries grow and process their own cannabis products, it makes them responsible for the quality that is produced. That means following all the required laws about using pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals on their crops, which must pass laboratory testing.
Third-party (unbiased) testing must be performed regularly (batch tests) to ensure that no harmful chemicals are present in quantities that would pose a risk to human health. Products can be issued a certificate of analysis (COA) that proves this important quality assurance safety check was completed.
When you purchase cannabis from a non-licensed dispensary, you really have no idea what you are consuming or where it was produced. Illegal growers are not concerned as much about your health as they are about the yield from every crop.
How Big is the Problem of Pesticides and Heavy Metals In Illegal Weed?
In December 2022, The New York Times published an article, “What’s in New York’s Illicit Cannabis: Germs, Toxins and Metals.” Harmful bacteria, including salmonella and E. coli, were found in products sampled from twenty (20) unlicensed vape shops. In January 2023, MJ Biz Daily estimated there were more than 1,400 illegal head shops in New York City.
Illegal cannabis dispensaries are not picky about where the marijuana is sourced. While criminal organizations in Mexico have long supplied cannabis to the United States, recently, China has too. In Oklahoma, California, and Oregon, investigations into illegal grow operations and retailers have traced back to Chinese owners and investors.
What is the Problem With Imported Cannabis?
When cannabis is coming from another country, outside of the system in place to protect consumers, all bets are off about quality. While the price may be less expensive, the cost to human health from criminally sourced marijuana use can be great. Lead, nickel, and other heavy metals are known carcinogens that can cause cancer.
Some illegal cannabis providers may treat flower with a synthetic cannabinoid solution that can be harmful to your health. It increases the potency of the illicit drug but also presents an increased risk of lung infections and negative psychoactive effects.
2. Inconsistent Potency Levels
When you visit a licensed dispensary, you have all the information you need to know about each available strain, from the percentage of major and minor cannabinoids like cannabigerol (CBG), cannabidiol (CBD), and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). You can also learn more about the terpene content of each strain.
What is very important is the potency rating for cannabis strains. Dispensaries will stock a variety of potencies, generally starting from 10% THC and up. That helps accommodate the needs of every patient or adult-use buyer who walks in the door.
Illegal cannabis growers are focused on three things: cultivation volume (grow more to earn more), sourcing popular strains, and THC potency. While some people may use illicit cannabis for medical use, the majority of people purchasing from a dealer instead of a dispensary are using recreational marijuana.
Potency matters regardless of whether you are using the cannabis plant for recreational or medical use. However, illicit drug suppliers know that higher-potency cannabis appeals to many people. Particularly those who smoke marijuana regularly and may have developed a tolerance to it. Potency needs can escalate after regular marijuana use.
The Risks of Using High-Potency Marijuana
The effects of marijuana at higher than average potency can cause adverse health effects. Cannabis users may think they are getting an average potency flower, for example, when instead they have purchased a high-potency marijuana product.
Adverse effects from cannabis can include psychosis, hallucinations, paranoia, nausea, and vomiting. The higher the potency of cannabis, the more likely it is to cause drug interactions if you are taking prescription medications as well, and it can make mental health problems worse, according to the American Mental Health Services Administration.
3. Unsanitary Processing and Packaging
When you are operating an illegal cannabis business, chances are you aren’t wearing gloves and a hairnet when you are weighing and packaging products. But the risks go much further than getting some dirty Devil’s lettuce from your local dealer.
The way that cannabis is stored matters. If it is too dry, the THC, terpenes, and flavonoids start to be lost. Particularly if the cannabis flower is exposed to natural light, moisture can cause the cannabis bud to develop mold and fungi, which could be inhaled when you pack a bowl of illegal weed and cause a respiratory infection and illness.
There are other substances that have been found in illegal cannabis. Persistent cannabis users who purchase outside of a dispensary may be getting products that contain salmonella and E. coli. You can get pathogenic E. coli from cannabis if the bud has been exposed to human or animal waste, which is more common than you think. After all, illegal growers are intent on volume and may use unsafe fertilizers. Some strains of E. coli can be life-threatening.
Salmonella is a bacteria that can be found in raw meats and sometimes in unwashed fruits and vegetables. Since much of the illegal cannabis supply is imported to the United States, it can be packed in all sorts of creative ways. Food cargo can easily transfer bacteria and cross-infect packages of cannabis.
4. Mixed Cannabis Strains
You love the Northern Lights strain and a few others. Naturally, if you are buying from an illegal source, you are going to look for your favorite strains. It is interesting how they always seem to have the popular strains or what you are looking for.
Or at least, that’s what you may think. The truth is that you don’t really know what is in the package you are purchasing from an illegal cannabis seller. Marijuana users pride themselves on being able to identify the characteristics of their favorite strains. But could you really tell the difference?
It is not uncommon to see illegally purchased shake as a mix of many different strains. Is that a big deal? Kind of, because you have no reference to go on regarding the psychoactive effects of your marijuana “mystery bag.” It could be low potency, but more likely, it may be an excessively potent combination.
5. Inaccurate or No Information About the Cannabis Strain or Product
The guy who sells street weed is probably not big on customer service. Not only is illegal weed unlabeled, but the person selling it may not even be sure what strain it is. Or it is inaccurately labeled as a common and popular strain.
Since you have no idea what you are getting, it could be a strange psychoactive experience for you. It may also surprise you in terms of the level of sedative effects of marijuana. If you are used to smoking cannabis Sativa, you may get an unexpected Indica mix. And nothing feels worse than the “couch lock” you never wanted in the first place when smoking marijuana.
Terpenes or No Terpenes?
According to researchers, some terpenes may help with certain mental illness symptoms. It is not uncommon for patients to use medical cannabis for mental health. Different combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes may actually increase feelings of paranoia or anxiety. Basically, a mystery bag could lead to a bad cannabis psychoactive experience.
Carrier Oil Risks from Illicit Cannabis Vape
Do you remember the big scare about vapes and a condition called “popcorn lung?” It started to gain traction in 2019 as people were being admitted to the hospital with chest pains and shortness of breath. It was then that researchers realized the harmful effects of vitamin E acetate, which was used as a carrier oil for liquid cannabis vapes.
What you may not know is that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that black-market vapes were responsible and posed a greater risk. Legitimate licensed businesses that produced different forms of vapes complied. However, illegal vape manufacturers did not, and you can still find these products sold across America.
Fake products sold on the Black Market are also a problem. For example, the packaging and design of the vape cartridge can look exactly like a popular U.S. brand. People believe they are buying legitimate brands and products, and assume it was stolen from a dispensary when they can be completely doctored with a host of harmful chemicals and flavorings.
Illegal Sales Support Criminal Activity
You may know your local dealer, but do you know where he or she is getting his cannabis from? The truth is that mass suppliers are almost always connected to criminal organizations. The illicit cannabis market supports organizations engaged in drug trafficking, violence, money laundering, and human trafficking.
Marijuana arrests have continued to plunge annually, according to NORML. Since 2008, which was a peak year for marijuana-related charges, arrests for cannabis have dropped more than 50% in states that have legalized medical or adult use.
It is impossible to know how much less money organized crime is making from cannabis now that it is legalized in most states. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration data shows that cannabis arrests are down, and gun and violent crimes related to illegal cannabis transactions are also lower.
Buying Street Cannabis Can Be Dangerous
Many people have a “friend” who has a “friend” who can hook them up with Black Market marijuana. Some illegal sellers even offer home delivery. But no matter how comfortable you feel with a cannabis dealer, there is always the risk of associating with a criminal element.
Buying street weed from someone you don’t know presents even more risk. Trying to buy cheap cannabis can result in a drug bust or, worse, a violent crime. None of those issues are a problem when you purchase cannabis safely at a licensed dispensary.
The Federal Drug Policy on Cannabis
Remember that cannabis remains, at the time of writing, a federally illegal drug. That means purchasing, possessing, or consuming it in states where only medical cannabis is legalized presents a big legal risk. So is traveling across state lines with any amount of cannabis.
Being on the patient registry and having a medical card affords you access to quality, safe products and legal protections as a medical cannabis patient. Best of all, you have the benefit of a provider to help you navigate medical cannabis and help from your friendly (legal) local budtenders.
How Do You Buy Cannabis Legally?
If you live in a state that has legalized recreational marijuana, you can visit any licensed dispensary. If you are unsure whether the establishment is a licensed dispensary, you can contact the state medical cannabis program to verify. Or they may have a list of dispensaries on their website.
Living where only medical cannabis is legalized involves a few more qualifications and steps. You must have one or more accepted health diagnoses to apply for a medical cannabis card. Each state has a different list of qualifying health conditions.
DocMJ provides medical card health evaluations. Our physicians are cannabis experts and support your decision to explore alternative health options. Schedule a medical card appointment online to start the process and get your medical card and all the benefits that come with it.
I am a Chief Marketing Officer at DocMJ, a leading provider of medical cannabis health services to qualified patients. I have over 20 years of experience in healthcare marketing and communications, with a proven track record of delivering impactful and compliant campaigns that educate, inform, and empower patients to make better choices for their health and wellness.