The cannabis oil that many patients in Maine rely on to lead normal lives may slowly be poisoning them due to the state's lack of testing laws for marijuana products.
Sharon Corbett - a 68-year-old retiree from Lincolnville, Maine - has been using cannabis oil for years to treat symptoms caused by esophageal cancer. Everything seemed fine with her treatment regimen until she became mysteriously ill over this past summer. After a friend recommended having her cannabis oil tested for contamination at a private facility, Corbett received some startling news.
"One day, I've got my oncologist telling me, 'I don't know what you're doing, but whatever it is, keep doing it,' and I think everything's great" Corbett told Portland Press Herald. "Then I open an email from the lab telling me I've been taking a daily dose of paint thinner for years. Even my doctor doesn't know what that’s done to me, but it can't be good."
It turns out that a cannabis manufacturer had been using a chemical solvent called naphtha—which is regularly found in paint thinners and lighter fluid—to extract the oils from the plant that Corbett had been using. Naphtha can cause cancer and is banned from use in marijuana extraction in states like Colorado and Massachusetts.
Since Maine doesn't have testing mandates in place for cannabis products, this kind of contamination is rife in the state, according to Nick Des Lauriers, the business manager of the Portland-based cannabis testing lab ProVerde Laboratories.
"There are some bad people out there doing some pretty shady things to make a quick buck that could make people really sick," Des Lauriers said.
Christine Chicoine says her teenaged daughter experienced similar poisoning from contaminated cannabis oil used to treat her Henoch-Schönlein purpura -a disease that causes swelling of the small blood vessels. After about a month of using the oil, Chicoine's daughter had an outbreak of chronic itching, headaches and stomachaches. When she sent the oil to be tested, she found out that isopropyl alcohol - a disinfectant and detergent that is toxic if swallowed or inhaled - had been used to extract the oils, even though her supplier said they did not use the hazardous chemical.
"I can't tell you how many times she preached to me about the evils of isopropyl alcohol," Chicoine said of her daughter's marijuana oil provider. 'It's junk and it will make you sick, she said. Well, guess what was used to make my daughter's oil?"
These cases had led Dustin Sulak - a medical doctor from Falmouth, Maine - to encourage all of his patients to grow their own cannabis so they know exactly what's put into it.
"There is still not a single product in the marketplace that I can say with absolute certainty is quality-assured, for labeling of active ingredients or for freedom from contamination," said Dr. Sulak.
However, with the opening of Maine's recreational cannabis marketplace in 2019, things may begin to change, as quality testing will be mandatory for at least that segment of the market. That said, some patients are concerned that regulated testing will drive up the cost of their medication, forcing patients to choose between their health or their wallet.