Risk of toxic high with black-market pot

Study shows high contamination levels in illicit cannabis flowers

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By Lauren Vanderdeen

British Columbians love their illegal pot. But illicitly obtained cannabis, especially in edibles and vape pens, can be dangerous to a person’s health.

Dangers of illegal cannabis

André Gagnon, media relations advisor for the Public Health Agency of Canada, said that obtaining cannabis from illegal sources can pose health risks such as unknown THC potency.

“You could end up using a stronger product than expected,” Gagnon wrote in an emailed statement to the Voice.

And he said there are no safeguards for product quality or purity, and that illegal cannabis could contain pesticides, heavy metals, mould or fungi.

Legal cannabis follows strict testing requirements.

Need for better public understanding

B.C.’s Minister of Public Safety, Mike Farnworth, told the Voice that more needs to be done on educating the public about the health risks of black-market cannabis.

“I think there’s an increasing – an active area – where government needs to work,” Farnworth said of whether the public understands the dangers of illegal cannabis.

Farnworth pointed to a 2021 inspection of illegal cannabis found in Metro Vancouver. Out of 20 samples, only three would have passed Health Canada’s requirements for legal sale. Nine were unfit for sale, with evidence of unsanitary production and containing pesticide residue. The inspection found carcinogenic arsenic in four samples.

A preference for black market pot in B.C.

Since cannabis was legalized in Canada in October 2018, B.C. residents have continued to purchase black market pot in higher numbers than the rest of the country.

In 2020, less than 40 per cent of British Columbian cannabis users reported obtaining cannabis from legal sources. The 2021 Canadian cannabis survey showed that nationally 53 per cent of Canadian cannabis users purchased from a legal storefront, up from 41 per cent in 2020.

The report showed that the three most prioritized factors in obtaining cannabis were price, safe supply and quality. People who bought from legal sources said they spent between $33 and $83, while those who purchased from illegal sources spent between $19 and $37.

Farnworth said British Columbian’s reliance on black market pot was initially due to the entrenched, decades-long consumers cannabis culture pre-legalization.

“I think initially after legalization, there was a lot of suspicion, and there was a real effort to sort of denigrate the quality of legally produced cannabis. And I also think a lack of legal stores. Since that time, we have seen a steady growth in the legal market,” Farnworth said.

Farnworth said B.C. could follow a similar path to Colorado.

“There’s still an illegal market [in B.C.] and it will still be there for a while. It took Colorado at least four years to get brought to get the legal market to grow … to about 70 per cent share.”

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