‘Blasting’ mold into green gold

 

Vaping is in the crosshairs of health officials, raising questions about how closely cannabis products sold in Oregon are regulated, particularly the lack of testing for mold that has decimated crops in the fall.

Brent Kenyon, a local cannabis expert who runs Oregon Original and Kenyon and Associates, said the recreational cannabis industry already has enough oversight, and mold can be safely resolved through the use of extraction equipment. He said the problem is the lack of oversight of products derived from nicotine or hemp, which has become Jackson County’s biggest crop.

Kenyon, who sat on the Oregon’s Marijuana Rules Advisory Committee, said state officials are on “dangerous ground” by not requiring more regulations to ensure the safety of hemp products.

“It’s reckless on the part of the state of Oregon,” he said.

Brent Kenyon of Oregon Original in Medford used to burn his moldy cannabis. Now, he’s found another way to salvage a crop.
An audit released by the Oregon Secretary of State in January criticized the lack of testing for mold, heavy metals, E. coli and other harmful substances in marijuana. The Oregon Health Authority generally agreed with most of the findings of the report.

Recreational cannabis flower currently gets tested for pesticides, water content and for the percentage of the active ingredient THC, tetrahydrocannabinol.

According to the Secretary of State report, medical cannabis that is sold directly from the grower to the patient doesn’t have the same level of testing required for cannabis sold through recreational stores.

Colorado, which does require testing for mold, allows use of gases to extract THC or other cannabis compounds as an approved method to deal with mold.

Questions about mold and heavy metals in cannabis have come to the fore after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control linked an eighth death to vaping products — including two in Oregon — as well as hundreds of people who have gotten sick.

Health authorities haven’t determined the cause of the health problems, though some early investigations point to additives in the vape liquid such as vitamin E oil. The problems have been associated with both nicotine and cannabis vaping devices, prompting health officials to encourage people to stop vaping until more is known.

In 2016, Kenyon burned piles of moldy marijuana at his farm near White City because he didn’t have the processing facilities to neutralize the mold at the time. Now he encourages other growers to separate moldy marijuana, make sure it’s dry, and then send it through a CO2 (carbon dioxide) extractor, a process known in the industry as blasting.

Brent Kenyon burns a pile of marijuana affected by mold at his grow site near White City in 2016.
Photo by Jamie Lusch

 

Local growers like Kenyon haven’t seen any widespread damage caused by mold this fall, despite the early rains. Mold typically develops when the temperature rises after a few days of rain.

Kenyon said “blasting” produces a honey-like oil that doesn’t require any of the fillers or additives that have posed problems in vape cartridges. He said he’s invested more than $1 million at his Medford extraction plant, which produces edibles and vaping products. Oregon Original, which can be reached at 541-245-2793, produces its own products, including an upcoming line of gummies called “Cotton Mouth,” but also produces edibles and vaping products for small growers.

CO2 extraction, also used to decaffeinate coffee and produce essential oils from herbs such as lavender, removes microbiolgicals and can even remove unwanted seeds. Kenyon’s Rube Goldberg-looking machine converts a pile of green material into a liquid that resembles honey, with THC levels of 60 percent or more.

“My CO2 equipment strips out the mold,” Kenyon said.

While he thinks there is sufficient testing of THC cannabis products to provide a safe product for consumers, Kenyon hasn’t heard any reports of anyone getting sick because of moldy pot.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission requires marijuana flower be tested before it’s sold in a store. However, the flower that is run through an extraction machine isn’t tested until after it has been processed.

The Oregon Health Authority has been working to update its rules to deal with the shortcomings cited in the Secretary of State audit.

“We are concerned about it,” said Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority. “We’re concerned about microbiologicals and metals.”

While the state doesn’t check for mold specifically, Modie said the test for moisture is an indicator for the potential for mold.

“There is no testing for heavy metals,” he said. “Obviously there are gaps in the cannabis testing requirements.”

Modie said there has been a lack of study of the effects of mold, heavy metals or other microorganisms in cannabis products, suggesting more research dollars need to be found at both the state and federal level.

David Hower, who has 40 acres of hemp growing in the valley, said he has had relatively few problems with his plants this year. He hasn’t had any issues with insects and hasn’t found any mold yet.

He’s started harvesting on a limited scale, but expects it will get in full swing over the next three weeks.

Like many growers, Hower has been busy finding a space to dry his plants, and drying is a crucial step in preventing mold from taking off.

“It could mold in your warehouse,” he said.

Hemp can be sold as flower for smoking or can be put through an extraction machine to separate the CBD, cannabidiol, which many claim helps with pain, spasms, insomnia and anxiety. CBD doesn’t have the intoxicating effects of its molecular cousin, THC.

Hower said he thinks the future of hemp in Jackson County will focus on producing high-grade flower for smoking because of the valley’s typically long, dry summers.

While there is less state-required testing for hemp than for cannabis, Hower said hemp buyers typically test samples of flowers before they’re purchased from the grower.

Scott Diesel, with CBD National, a hemp consulting company with a farm in the Applegate, said growers he knows pull out anything with mold or that has been touched by mold.

“Oregon used to test for mold,” he said. “They eliminated it from the testing when they legalized recreational cannabis.”

The black mold that is the most concerning is aspergillus, a fungal spore, and there has been some weak evidence in some studies to indicate it could be a problem for cannabis users.

“You can suck that into your lungs,” Diesel said. “The lighter won’t kill it.”

Diesel said he has fought to have testing done for mold, particularly for medical marijuana patients who already may have compromised immune systems.

He said reputable medical marijuana growers typically throw any moldy marijuana away.

Diesel said he hasn’t heard any reports of mold problems after days of wet weather.

“The rainy season is not your friend,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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