In HBO’s series The Last of Us, a fungus triggers the end of the world. In real life, it’s testing for fungus that has Oregon business owners fearing doomsday.
On March 1, the Oregon Health Authority implemented new testing rules for cannabis. One of those new tests looks for a mold called aspergillus—a ubiquitous fungus that people breathe in every day and that accumulates more heavily on aging vegetation, like compost piles.
And preliminary results from labs testing for aspergillus and other microbiological contaminants are sending cannabis farmers into a panic. Failure rates provided to WW by the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission this week show that infused pre-rolls had failed 22% of the time since March 1. Flower failed at a 6% rate.
More than 70 farmers joined a Zoom call April 14 to discuss the most recent test results. It was the third week in a row they’d done so. Hosted by the Cannabis Industry Association, farmers from around the state told tales of failed tests that could paralyze their business in a day.
They discussed last-resort options: pooling the half million dollars needed to buy a machine that kills aspergillus after a positive test; hiring legal counsel to fight the new rules; and pleading with the state to put a pause on testing until the industry can find a way forward.
“We are in a dire situation,” said Myron Chadowitz, co-owner of Cannassentials in Eugene. “If we can get a lifeline, it’s the only course forward I can see at this point.”
Eight years ago, the Oregon Health Authority wrote in a report that it would not test for aspergillus. “The mold is so common in the environment that a person could pick it up many different ways,” the agency wrote. “A positive test result would not mean the product is unsafe for most uses for most people.”
But last year, OHA reversed course and announced aspergillus would be tested for after all, starting March 1, 2023. While the testing rules are in their infancy, Oregon’s cannabis industry guild says anecdotal evidence is alarming.
“We have gotten enough anecdotal information and one-off tests to be severely concerned about the impact this testing has on the industry,” says Jesse Bontecou, executive director of the Cannabis Industry Alliance of Oregon.
At Milwaukie testing lab ChemHistory, about 15% of pre-rolls tested since March 1 have failed the aspergillus test. That’s compared to less than 1% pre-roll failure before that.
Even more alarming than the top-line numbers: Industry leaders say preliminary results point to higher failure rates for organic farmers. Oregon built its cannabis reputation on exactly that: sungrown, organic craft weed nurtured from seed to consumption.
Farmers say testing is killing the very basis of the state’s prestige.
“The state is at the point where it’s saying weed is legal but it’s too dangerous to grow. We’re being corralled to a point where it would only be safe to grow it in a lab. And that’s just not true,” says Brian Niestrath, owner of Green Bandit Farms in Eagle Point. “It’s just like tobacco. Not everyone can smoke cigarettes. The same is true with cannabis. If someone has lungs that can’t take it, that’s part of life.”
Niestrath, among other organic farmers, avoids stripping any natural fungi from the plant that aren’t dangerous. Niestrath even sprays his cannabis with what he calls “compost tea.”
One farmer on the April 15 Zoom call opined that the way the state is headed, soon only Amazon will be allowed to grow weed in Oregon.
Perhaps most frustrating to the industry is what it believes is the shaky scientific leg the state is standing on. While aspergillus has been found to cause serious lung infections through inhalation among people who are severely immuno-compromised, the Oregon Health Authority could cite no data linking aspergillosis to the use of cannabis.
“We don’t have any research or data to cite that show people have fallen ill from inhaling aspergillus through cannabis products,” says OHA spokesman Jonathan Modie. He later added that “a study from CDC indicates cannabis use was associated with a higher prevalence of certain fungal infection.”
Modie says the new rules, which include tests for heavy metals, were crafted over years of discussion and a review of what other states require.
The test performed by labs, however, detects the mere presence of the fungus’s DNA. (The test looks for four of 180 known species of aspergillus.) That means so long as the fungus is detected, no matter the quantity present, the product fails. If it fails, farmers have a chance to “remediate” products by putting them through various processes to kill the fungus. Those remediation options are pricey, few and far between.
No one who’s failed the test has come back to ChemHistory for a retest after remediation. “We haven’t had that happen yet,” says the lab’s financial administrator, Erica Tucker. “No one has come back.”
Chadowitz says aspergillus testing may be the nail in the coffin for Cannassentials. Strains from his farm have failed five aspergillus tests since the rules went into effect.
“We’re thinking about winding down operations and taking a massive loss,” Chadowitz says, “and feeling crushed and useless. We’ve spent eight years of our life working for free to build this brand.”
Update: This article has been updated to reflect a longer response from the OHA.