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Leafly Investigation: California Has a Dirty Cannabis Problem

February 15, 2017

Last year Tim Blake, a co-founder of the Emerald Cup, California’s oldest and most prestigious cannabis harvest competition, realized he’d run into a problem with contaminated cannabis.

Once a hush-hush gathering open only to growers, the Emerald Cup is bigger and more commercial these days. But the marijuana movement’s hippie roots and “organic ethos” are still tangible at the cup. All of the cannabis is supposed to be grown under the sun, not grow lights. One of the Emerald Cup’s judges is an original Haight-Ashbury hippie who dresses in white robes and goes by “Swami.” (This is not an affect; he truly is an initiated swami.) Conversations about veganic and permaculture growing methods abound.

A survey of industry insiders suggests fewer than half of California dispensaries lab test the cannabis they sell.

So when the testing lab hired to screen the 2015 cup entries turned up contamination in almost 17 percent of entries—including banned pesticides, bacteria, and mold—Blake was horrified. Pesticides at the Emerald Cup simply aren’t supposed to exist.

Never again, Blake vowed. For the 2016 Cup, organizers instituted stricter-than-ever controls on contaminants. Entrants who submitted dirty samples wouldn’t only be disqualified; they’d be publicly shamed, with their names published as peddlers of dangerous product. “We’re going to be very strict,” Blake told The East Bay Express last spring. “People are not going to get away with anything.”

The December 2016 Emerald Cup drew more than 1,000 entries, including 735 strains of flower and 263 different concentrates. It also attracted more dirty marijuana than ever. Forty flower entries tested positive for pesticides. An unprecedented 25 percent of concentrate entries were disqualified for containing traces of banned chemicals. Blake was “dumbfounded we’d see this at that level,” he told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.


In Photos: Inside the Emerald Cup, California’s Largest Harvest Festival

The Emerald Cup is an elite, organic-minded competition for growers who harvest by lunar and solar cycles and plant their gardens in Hindu patterns instead of rows. The cannabis seen here is typically cleaner than the cannabis sold in the state’s dispensaries.

Which means California has a big dirty marijuana problem.

Forty out of 735 entries in the flower competition at the 2016 Emerald Cup—and 25 percent of concentrates—tested positive for pesticides or other chemicals.

There’s no hard data available, but a survey of industry insiders contacted for this article suggests that fewer than half of California dispensaries and delivery services lab test the marijuana they sell. The actual figure could be even lower. After all, testing isn’t currently required under state law. In 2015, lawmakers passed a measure to require testing of medical cannabis, but that won’t be enforced until January 2018.

“Everything makes its way into the supply chain somehow.”
San Francisco dispensary operator

More troubling is what happens to cannabis that turns out to be contaminated. According to dispensary operators and other industry insiders interviewed for this article, cannabis rejected for mold, fungi, pesticide residue, or other contaminants often stays in the supply chain. It may end up on the black market, shipped out of state. It could be processed into concentrates or edibles. Or marijuana rejected by one dispensary may simply end up being sold across town by someone else. If your dispensary isn’t testing its products, you could be smoking some right now. It’s virtually impossible to know.

In a study published in October, Berkeley-based Steep Hill Labs claimed it found residual pesticides in 84 percent of cannabis tested over a 30-day period beginning in mid-September, the peak time in the state’s marijuana harvest.

All that cannabis would have failed safety standards in Oregon. In California, all of it can be sold.


CBD vs. THC: What’s the difference?

Why does testing matter?

The potential consequences of contaminated cannabis recently hit home with the release of an article in the journal Clinical Microbiology and Infection.

One of the article’s authors, Dr. Joseph Tuscano, an oncologist and researcher at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, Calif., had been treating a young man in his 20s with leukemia. After a stem-cell transplant, the prognosis was very good. The leukemia was gone, and the man seemed likely to recover. Then, very suddenly, he developed a severe lung infection.

A UC Davis oncologist’s article in this medical journal has opened questions about the safety of at-risk patients using untested cannabis.

One consequence of cancer treatment is that patients’ immune systems become so compromised that even flowers and houseplants can pose a mortal risk. It’s common for bacteria and fungi that healthy people would never notice to cause sudden, severe, and sometimes fatal pneumonia in cancer patients. That’s what happened to Tuscano’s patient, who survived leukemia only to die of what turned out to be a rare fungal infection.

Then it happened again. Another young leukemia patient, another good prognosis, another sudden and severe lung infection caused by the same rare strain of fungus. This patient, however, recovered. When Tuscano asked him about his lifestyle, trying to identify a cause or any links between the two cases, he discovered the two men both used marijuana. The dead patient had vaporized a cannabis “mist” medicinally as part of his treatment; the survivor smoked recreationally prior to his leukemia diagnosis—which was when he developed the infection “instantly,” Tuscano told me.


Cannabis and cancer

“When you have these rare infections, you wonder, ‘OK, how did this patient get exposed to this?’” he said. “We never suspected cannabis use … but after I interviewed the patient, one of the common links was the use of medicinal marijuana.”

It’s impossible to know for certain if the deadly fungus came from cannabis. Tuscano couldn’t test the cannabis the two men had used. It was gone. The next-best thing was to find out if the fungus was in marijuana generally.

Voluntary testing, poor results.

Unlike Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, there is currently no requirement in California for cannabis to be lab-tested before it is sold. Testing isn’t slated to begin until Jan. 1, 2018—and that’s assuming everything goes according to schedule. Some already worry the state’s adult-use rollout is destined for delay.

In the meantime, dispensaries, delivery services, and growers can voluntarily submit crops to testing labs to find contaminants and to determine their products’ THC content—a sought-after marketing metric, since the higher the number, the easier the cannabis is to sell.

A lab technician in Denver loads a tray of cannabis samples into a testing machine that analyzes the samples and reports their chemical content and strength. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

One of Tuscano’s colleagues at UC Davis, Dr. George Thompson, had a connection to Steep Hill Labs. The lab selected, at random, 20 marijuana samples they’d received from about 10 different Northern California dispensaries. Each was tested for rare and common fungi and bacteria. The result? Every single one of the 20 samples was contaminated with a variety of both. They contained E. coli, Aspergillus, various strains associated with pneumonia, pathogens known to cause common infections—as well as the rare fungus that killed Tuscano’s patient.

“All these organisms were in there, and so many other ones as well,” said Tuscano. “Before this, I never really suspected there was a link.”


How California Lab Testing Could Change the Way We Talk About Cannabis

A false perception of safety

Since the marijuana his patients consumed wasn’t tested, Tuscano can’t know for certain that his patients’ fungal infections came from cannabis. Instead, he can draw only a very strong and suggestive connection.

We don't know for sure if dirty cannabis led to infection. But researchers suspect a strong connection.

There’s also a few clear warnings. For starters, immunocompromised people should not smoke or vaporize marijuana, Tuscano and his co-authors of the letter say. Neither smoking nor vaping nor filtration through a water pipe destroys fungus. Cannabis ingested orally, for example through edibles or tinctures, is a safer option.

There’s a cultural phenomenon at work, too. Legalization and the widespread acceptance of physician-recommended medical marijuana—a proven political winner, even in red states—have created a “perception of safety,” the researchers wrote. Consumers and even regulators have “unknowingly ignored a product that can be contaminated with infectious agents and thus harbor potentially lethal risks

“People need to quit assuming what they get from the dispensary is safe,” Tuscano told me. “It needs to be tested.”


CBD (cannabidiol): What does it do and how does it affect the brain & body?

Caveat emptor at the dispensary counter

The problem is, under state law, it isn’t. Outside some local jurisdictions with their own testing requirements, California cannabis consumers take a leap of faith with every hit.

This leaves it up to patients and consumers to determine when a product is safe. Often, that relies on assumptions: assuming a dispensary is sincere when it says it tests its medicine, and assuming that test results in fact determine whether a product is or isn’t sold.

“I think you can tell when the culture of the shop embraces testing,” says Nicholas Smilgys, a co-founder and former chief buyer at Flow Kana, a San Francisco-based outdoor farm-to-consumer delivery service. A customer can demand to see a product’s lab results before purchase, but in high-volume dispensaries where a customer’s time at the counter is measured in minutes, such discretion isn’t always encouraged.

Lab rejects can reach the market

Kevin Reed is founder and CEO of The Green Cross in San Francisco. The dispensary has operated for more than a decade in various iterations, first as a storefront, then a delivery service, and now a combination storefront and delivery service. The store, one of the first to apply for a city license, has a history of activism and engagement that has earned it a good reputation among consumers. Before anything is sold, Reed has it sent for testing to CW Analytical, an Oakland, Calif.-based competitor to Steep Hill.

“A whole lot of shenanigans happen at the buying point.”

To this day, a “multitude of small and large scale commercial growers … attempt to sell” products that Reed’s testing discovers to be contaminated by pathogens or pesticides, he told me. The Green Cross rejects that medicine and sends the supplier on his or her way, Reed said, but “unfortunately, with the current [California] model, we cannot ensure that once a product is removed from our supply chain that it does not get sold to other dispensaries,” he said.

A lot comes down to a dispensary’s buyer, explained one San Francisco-based dispensary operator who spoke on condition of anonymity. “A whole lot of shenanigans happen at the buying point.”


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How dirty product gets sold

The operator offered a hypothetical situation as an example: A new dispensary opens up. The owner is a marijuana neophyte, maybe a newcomer from law or tech or real estate. Unfamiliar with the goods on the market, the owner hands over purchasing power to someone with cannabis-industry experience. Now, suppose that buyer has a budget of $1,400 a pound and is approached by a grower with lower-end cannabis for sale. Neither party is interested in the time and expense of a lab test.

“The seller says, ‘It’s got some issues, but I’ll give it to you for $800.’ So he gives it to him for $800, and the buyer keeps the extra $600,” the operator said. “That happens a ton in the industry.”

A grower with lab-rejected cannabis is faced with a choice: Discard the harvest and eat the loss or shop it at a discount until it sells.

“Or let’s say I’m a grower and I have a hundred pounds of OG Kush,” the dispensary operator added. Only a few grams are required “for testing, [so] I’m only going to send in my best stuff. Does that represent my entire crop?”

If a lab finds pesticides in a batch of cannabis and a dispensary rejects it, the grower is faced with a choice: Discard the harvest—and with it months of work and investment—or shop the bud around until it sells. Unless there is something catastrophically wrong, such as rampant pest damage or mold so out of control it’s visible to the naked eye, “it makes its way to a buyer somewhere,” the operator said. “And if it doesn’t make its way as a flower product, it’ll make its way to someone who will extract it” into vape-pen cartridges, extracts for dabbing, or oil to be used in edibles.


Pesticides 101: questions and answers for cannabis patients and consumers

One might think that’s a safe and acceptable fate, assuming the extraction process somehow kills off pests and eliminates contaminants. It does not, say lab scientists, who explained that when cannabinoids and terpenes are concentrated in extracts, certain fungi and pesticides are concentrated as well—sometimes disproportionately compared to the sought-after cannabinoids and terpenes.

But the point, the operator told me, is this: Very little marijuana is voluntarily discarded. “Everything,” he said, “makes its way into the supply chain somehow.”

Some growers may “lab shop” to see where they can get the best results.

For obvious reasons, California’s testing labs all agree that marijuana sold to the public—and to sick, potentially immunocompromised people in particular—should be tested. When asked directly, in public, no dispensary operators will disagree.

But on other points, as each lab jockeys and jostles to position itself as the industry leader before testing becomes mandatory—with standards yet to be determined—there’s a noticeable lack of consensus. Some labs promise fungus test results in 48 hours. That’s not enough time to grow a culture from spores found on a sample, another lab counters. Santa Cruz, Calif.-based SC Labs, tested all the entries in the Emerald Cup competition. When announcing its troubling discovery of pesticides in 84 percent of its tested samples, Steep Hill called out both CW Analytical and SC Labs for detecting far less.

And as consumers fumble in the dark for clean medicine, testing labs are also receiving blowback from within the cannabis industry itself. It’s mostly a whisper campaign, but in the last few months before testing becomes mandatory, there is grumbling from growers and would-be commercial retailers that labs are overstating pesticide results in order to ensure they get plenty of business. Conversely, in some legal states, businesses have been rumored to engage in “lab shopping” to see which returns the best results.

“When you suck on a joint, you're sucking in unburned spores.”
Reggie Gaudino, VP of Operations, Steep Hill Labs

Reggie Gaudino is Steep Hill’s vice president of operations and one of the co-authors of the study that discovered contamination in 84 percent of samples. He posted a link to the peer-reviewed research letter on LinkedIn, the one calling for caution and for testing. “It got like 3,000 likes,” he told me. Then he posted a link to a story done by a television station based on the letter, with an eye-catching headline suggesting the role of “medical marijuana” in the death of Tuscano’s leukemia patient.

“You should have seen how I got my asshole ripped open by people who think it’s sensationalism,” he told me.

One common response, he said: “There’s no proof this came from cannabis!”


Washington State Issues Emergency Rules for Cannabis Testing

“Well, you had this guy who was under therapy, on a positive track for survival, and then suddenly, out of the blue, he gets this fungal infection. There’s a rapid onset, and it kills him before they can do anything. Where would he have got such a high fungal load to kill him so fast?” Gaudino asked.

“He and another patient both were medical cannabis users. So does that prove it came from cannabis? No. But when you look at the question [we] posed, it’s, ‘Was this fungus present on cannabis?’ And guess what? It is.”

“That fungus and many other pathogens are found on cannabis,” he went on. “Many of them are things we don’t even test for!

“And the stuff we got is from dispensaries that actually test. A whole bunch of stuff that doesn’t get tested, you can go and buy.”

Gaudino paused for a moment. “I told you that I was getting my asshole ripped open on LinkedIn,” he continued. “One thing I heard was, ‘You know, you’re burning it, how can there possibly be any viable spores?’ Oh, really? When you suck on a joint, are you sucking on the burning end? No! You’re sucking in unburned spores.

“They don’t want to believe what we’re saying because it means they’ll have to spend more money,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”


Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the cannabis sampled by Steep Hill researchers. The lab tested 20 samples from approximately 10 dispensaries. Not all samples were from different dispensaries.

Chris Roberts's Bio Image

Chris Roberts

Based in New York City, Chris Roberts has been writing about cannabis since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009. His work has been published in SF Weekly, Cannabis Now, The Guardian, High Times, and San Francisco Magazine, among others.

View Chris Roberts's articles

  • quel-y

    This is a great article. People need to understand that cannabis itself is safe but the banned pesticides, molds and fungus found on it can damage your health or even be fatal for people with compromised immune systems. Many retailers, maybe most, will not pay to have their products testing without government legislation that requires it. In Canada all legal Licensed Producers must test their products and still some were found after-the-fact to be laden with banned pesticides (Mettrum, OrganiGram). Whereas in Canada the retail dispensaries almost never have their products tested so we don’t even know what percentage of them are contaminated.

  • Beau Peepski
  • Demitri Coffill Kroening

    That’s scary it made my heart sink.

    • Mikey TLO

      you’ve smoked tons of it.

  • Plouffalo

    There is no mold if its stérilisation proces kills the microscopique mush

    • Mikey TLO

      what are you even talking about? there’s no such thing as a “sterilization process” in the cannabis industry. stop trying to sound like you know the answer to this problem. seriously.

    • brucerhee

      Even if you sterilized the actual mold, it’s the mold’s spores that are actually the problem. Spores are extremely resilient and difficult to kill.

    • Danny Hickey

      Microscopic mushroom? Are you kidding?

  • Sarah

    My 17 year old nephew has leukemia and a lot of times a fungus shows up as leukemia (so the result tests positive for leukemia when the person doesn’t have leukemia, but fungus. It’s true, research it! So, who’s to say that this guy really had a damn fungus all along! Of course big pharma and every other asshole will use this as an example as to why cannabis is bad. People shouldn’t spout off about cannabis if the facts aren’t 100 percent… Whoever wrote this article did a great job, maybe their next article can be about fungus showing up as leukemia and how that was a possibility as to what happened to the “leukemia” patient.

  • Dawn Sixtiesdejavu Renee

    great shades of Paraquat!!

  • LNichol

    Not mentioned is the drying and curing process. Too much humidity, long drying time, too crowded in the dry room etc. Check your humidity level during drying, curing and throughout storage. Especially if it was a wet harvest season.

    • Endrest

      And, what about flushing?? Flower that hasn’t been properly flushed tastes and smells horrible!

      • William

        I have a bit of concern about the concept of “flushing”. The molecules that become part of the plant if chemicals are used, become part of the plant. I’m sure plants must have some way of either rejecting, or throwing off chemicals they do not like, but once the chemical molecules are within the plant cell structure, well, they are in the cell structure, eh? Just thinking…

        • Juan Dope

          Plants grown organically work how you say. Plants pumped directly full of nutrients smell and taste like a knock-off Air Jordan. Literally every ‘direct-feed’ methodology puts nitrates into the plant that reduce blood circulation in the body. And I’d estimate 85% use too much, and it is unflushable at that point. The nutrient are not part of the plant before the plant can use them. They can be individually measured by weight in a lab sample.

          Flushing = not overfeeding, and not feeding at all the final weeks. Not excess water like some people believe. Just withholding of the stupid Miracle-Gro products people insist on using instead of dirt. But you won’t get weed flavor from the chemical methodology no matter what. Just plastic smells and poison tastes

          • William

            Well said/explained; thank you!

  • ShiningLightNet

    In the meantime what can we do?

    • Endrest

      Assuming you live in a state where it’s legal for personal cultivation, I’d say, “grow your own.”

      • max’s pad

        It may not be ‘super pot’ with generations of crossing and breeding, but any good quality of top variety of seeds will make most home users quite happy. My first crop grown in a cornfield with random seeds could get me high if I could have tolerated the headaches. The next crop grown indoors with seeds from Amsterdam earned me a midnight call from a bunch of nurses who were sharing with my girlfriend’s donation and raves about the best they had ever had brightened up this boy’s evening. One of them even shared her family’s season tickets for a bear/packer game as a thank you.

  • Andrew Nix

    Great article, but California is more worried about keeping illegal criminal immigrants hidden from the big bad law enforcement officers, then maintaining healthy patients, and law abiding citizens. Give California back to Mexico. Best for everybody.

    • JohnPaul

      It makes a person look foolish to generalize. Try rereading your posts before submitting.

    • GTG

      The Germans owned it long before Mexico. Read a few history books.


    I just spent a month in Chile and Uruguay, they seem to have a good solution to Cannabis. You can only grow at home or purchase at pharmacy, there is no market-which is why it is super difficult for tourists to get cannabis. This would eradicate pesticides, its the only quality control that would work. The emerald triangle is famous for organic cannabis but from what i have found out recently, it is crowded with corruption because there is no quality control. As with produce, only the wealthy will be able to afford good quality cannabis. If you look at how loose they system is by which one can receive a medical card, you can imagine how easy it would be to get organic certification.

    • Endrest

      Only the wealthy… pbfft… just grow your own.

      It’s like making your own food –You know what went into it… and didn’t… just like you know you washed your hands before preparing it.

  • oatsuzn

    Chris thank you for this article. It’s basically a dirty industry secret for decades.

    Can’t wait till January 2018 when CA testing laws come into effect. Some Oregon based labs like Signal Bay are rapidly setting up shop in CA and I see that as a good thing. I see stringent testing the wave of the future for all legalized states.

  • Dallas Devam

    Up here in Canada every lot produced must be tested but not every producer is providing proof to it’s customers. CROPsoft allows producers to trace and track lab tests back to every lot and generate a certificate of analysis they may give to customers or state regulators.
    With most states cracking down on your “wild west” industry it’s time for all producers to start using CROPSoft to ensure compliance and zero suspensions.

  • Endrest

    This article says nothing about another potential problem… flower hardeners.

    I heard a “Dude Grows” radio show/podcast that talked about this ‘supplement’ –apparently they aren’t toxic till the bud is smoked where they release formaldehyde and other toxic VOCs.

    I just tried searching his site for that info, but can’t find it. It was in a podcast, so it may not have been transcribed. I’ll keep looking. Here’s his site for general reference:

    • BenSamizdat

      I read a single study that showed Ozone machines turn Terps into Formaldehyde. VOCs in the garden induce Nanners.

  • hugh bell

    I was recently told by SCLabs that Myclobutanil will be passed from clone to clone to clone, etc. I tested 2.2 ppb and we don’t use any sort of pesticide. Eagle 20, which nobody uses, lasts in the soil for years. Blow over from vinyards is wrecking cannabis crops in Mendocino. Green house with filtration seems to be the answer. ouch

    • BenSamizdat

      You just rocked my world

  • BenSamizdat

    GET SPECIFIC. Bacteria LIVE in the plant in a symbiotic relationship. Bacteria in the canopy are how the plant harnesses ions. The plant sends precious sugars to the root-zone where the hunter-seeker bacteria are waiting to exchange their gathered nutes and trace mins for those sugars. No exchange – NO GROWTH. There are numerous products that use bacteria as a bioinsecticide aka a Bacteriacide. I just want Leafly to do their due-diligance and ask Swami, or whoever is making these statements “Precisely what kinds of bacteria, molds and pesticides are you finding? Give us a detailed list.”

    • Juan Dope

      Bacteria will be demonized, raw weed will be illegalized along with organic methodology. Its all a scam to transfer from grass roots to corporate production. Thats why the concentrates have been popularized, a total disconnect from the traditional longstanding importance of crop quality. I guarantee this is happening. Bacteria is a dirty word but, I don’t even grow weed, I culture bacteria… Best weed there is. The sterile iv-bag shit is not even smokable.

  • BenSamizdat

    “Dutch Method”. What is it? The Netherlands made pesticides and fungicides illegal in 2001 I think it was. The next year all farmers of all crops lost 40% of their harvest. They turned to the Cannabists to solve the dilemma and the Dutch Method, already signifying so many things, then expanded to include a natural approach. They gained back the lost 40% and another 20% on top of that. Youtube some of Harley Smith’s (RAW nutrients) videos, since he regularly visits Amsterdam to catch up on the science.

  • hugh bell

    OrganaCanna has flowers that test completely clean since we do not use any pesticides–not even Neem oil. Soil engineering, baby! Web site to open in mid April.

  • horsemannv

    There is a big difference not only in the taxonomy of microorganisms that are pathogenic when inhaled but also in the identification of inorganic pesticides. I would be nice to know which was which in this article. Aside from that, if with legalization the criteria for public consumption of “pure unadulterated” cannabis, a grower should be aware of what the growing medium’s history is. If at any time the LAND or POTTING SOIL has been sprayed with pesticides, there will be a residual component in the soil of any pesticide. This residual chemical profile may be polluting the results of a cannabis grow test. The same thing happens with Round Up ready plants, even after a grower has gone organic. It takes a time for the chemicals to break down, if they can break down. Cannabis is not the only ingested plant that has mold but it is a plant that has extraordinary levels of purity that need to be proven. The results of the two leukemia patients is unfortunate but far from “proof” that they got the mold from cannabis, either with numerical accuracy or scientific testing accuracy of a large population of test subjects. Cannabis has been smoked for several decades since the 80’s by people with compromised immune systems. How many times has this “mold” been identified as the culprit of death.

    • William

      Bat guano from top layers, since about around WWII, will have pesticides in it, as we began to spray, and insects weakened by poison are easier for bats to catch. Suppliers I have spoken to say they only collect “fossilized” bat guano, a doubtful claim, eh? Trust in nature, insect on insect, and plant oil pesticides. And cow manure soil is good stuff. Cow manure is actually antibiotic. Slap fresh cow manure on an infection; counterintuitive but well known by those who live in many places; Asia, S.America, Europe. And the mushroom of the sky likes cow manure. Two of my cents here. Fun discourse; trust nature. Look, and see…

  • Charles Jensen

    Chipotle has spent tens of millions testing their food to ensure it is free of a single pathogen, yet they fail. The idea that testing a couple grams of product will prove that a “100 pound sack” is clean, is totally laughable. That’s not to say the industry couldn’t do better but to get just to a safe level via effective testing and supply chain control would bankrupt the industry. All these organic and wholistic grow systems are just to make people feel good. They are indicative of nothing.

  • Michael Timmerman

    What is the fungus? What is the treatment? I am immunocompromised and been smoking marijuana for 20+ years, but I started using store bought and medical marijuana and my health is now in decline, I have a never ending lung infection and developing smokers cough…

  • blueyebob

    This article is SOOO out dated. It’s 2019! I live in Santa Rosa, CA, the home of the Emerald Cup. Today, it’s a good idea to purchase from a legal dispensary, as they ARE tested. There are MANY organic growers.