WEST HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — The microscope at the University of New Haven, set at 10-times magnification, shows a marijuana leaf covered with dozens of tiny bumps. It's mold, and someone, somewhere could be smoking similarly contaminated pot and not have a clue.
Heather Miller Coyle, a forensic botanist and associate professor at the university, says all sorts of nasty things not visible to the naked eye have been found in marijuana — mold, mildew, insect parts, salmonella and E. coli, to name a few.
That's why Coyle and her students earlier this year began developing a new process to detect contaminants in marijuana through DNA profiling and analysis. The aim is to be able to identify potentially harmful substances through a testing method that could make the analysis easier and quicker for labs across the country in the developing industry of marijuana quality control testing.
Twenty states and Washington, D.C., now allow medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation, and Washington state and Colorado have legalized the recreational pot use. Connecticut and Washington state already require testing and other states are doing the same, spawning a testing industry.
"If there's no certification ... it's like saying we don't check our meat for mad cow disease," Coyle said. "That's our goal as a private university, to develop the tools to address or mediate this issue."
A number of labs around the country are testing marijuana for contaminants using different methods, many of which have been around for decades and used to test other plants, including food crops, for harmful substances.
The health effects of marijuana tainted with mold, pesticides and other contaminants aren't clear, said Mason Tvert, a Colorado-based spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. The project was founded in 1995 to lobby for the reduction or elimination of penalties for marijuana use.
"Although we have not seen significant problems with tainted marijuana in the past, we should certainly be taking steps to make sure it's not a problem in the future," Tvert said. "We have never seen a death solely associated with marijuana use. The same certainly can't be said of alcohol and other drugs."