State health officials are failing to protect more than 200,000 medical marijuana users in Arizona from contamination and disease that can be spread when edible products are produced at state-licensed kitchens, the Auditor General’s Office reports.
In a new study released last week, the auditors say the Department of Health Services does inspect kitchens when a new operation to prepare edibles is set up. But that’s the end of it.
State Health Director Cara Christ, in a formal response, does not dispute the findings.
She contends, however, that the 2010 voter approved law allowing patients with certain medical conditions to obtain 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks does not allow her staff to conduct the kind of unannounced inspections that would turn up hazardous practices and procedures.
The department cites requirements in the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act requiring “reasonable notice’’ before dispensaries can be inspected unless there is an allegation that a facility is not in compliance.
“Marijuana kitchens are linked to the dispensary in which they are located and the same restrictions apply,’’ said agency spokesman Chris Minnick.
But Marc Owen, a manager of the audit staff, said that argument does not hold up.
Owen told Capitol Media Services that the health department already had the power to conduct inspections of food preparation facilities long before there was a medical marijuana law. And he said the fact that there are now kitchens preparing edible forms of marijuana does not change that.
Christ said her department does not intend to comply with the audit recommendation and start inspecting the 36 kitchens it licenses.
Minnick acknowledged that the food kitchens hold a separate license. But that, he said, does not give inspectors drop-in rights.
“Surveyors must enter through the dispensary,’’ Minnick said. “And the product being used is regulated by the AMMA.’’
He also said that efforts to get the Legislature to alter the law to allow unannounced inspections of dispensaries “have not been successful.’’
Anyway, he said the health department is unaware of any cases or outbreaks of food-borne illness associated with products containing medical marijuana extracts.
Minnick said that health inspectors would inspect the kitchens during the pre-announced inspections.
But that, he said, would require the kitchens to actually be operating at the time to review the equipment, health and sanitation practices.
“To date, our surveyors have not been able to observe an operational food kitchen during an inspection of a dispensary,’’ Minnick said. That is backed up by the report which says facilities typically close their infusion kitchens days inspectors show up.
But Owen said that does not leave the health department powerless.
He said even if Christ is correct about unannounced inspections — a point that the auditors are not conceding — there are other things that the health officials could do to help protect the wellness of medical marijuana patients during the pre-arranged visits.
Owen said that could include inspectors at least reviewing the practices of staffers and check out the coolers, food preparation sinks and the temperature of any food or ingredients in the kitchen.
This isn’t just about cookies, brownies and candies. The report says that one dispensary in the state — it is not identified — actually has a kitchen to prepare and sell hot, ready-to-eat marijuana-infused edible products like burgers and tacos.
“There is a risk that qualifying patients, which include vulnerable populations, are purchasing and consuming food products without adequate oversight to prevent food-borne illnesses,’’ the auditors said.