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Angela Marks

Legal vs. Illicit Weed: BC Trimmers Founder Angela Marks Weighs In On The Good, Bad, and Ugly

Angela Marks is the founder of mobile trimming service company BC Trimmers, and has over a decade of hands-on cannabis experience—first in the illicit market and now in the legal space.

In the legal world, licensed producers (LPs) follow strict protocols in pre- and post-cultivation, leading to a safer final product. But we are three years in, and still, almost 40 percent of Canadians continue to buy at least some of their pot from illicit sources. With the illicit market boasting better prices and, according to some consumers, better products, many Canadians understandably dabble with these options. Should we be concerned about shopping for weed from unlicensed cultivators? 

Marks has seen the best and worst of what Canadians are smoking these days. She has a few points to make about quality on both sides of the market.

Angela Marks
Angela Marks and the team at BC Trimmers.

Pesticides, Fungicides and Other Contaminants in the Illicit Market

The illicit market has always had a pesticide issue. Many pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides approved for use in food crops are of much greater concern for cannabis consumers.

Why? Because most cannabis is smoked or vaped rather than eaten. Many of these chemicals cause substantially more harm when inhaled, and some transform into dangerous chemicals when exposed to heat. 

In Marks’ experience, “the huge con in the black market is that the pesticides and sprays are brutal. People don’t realize they are still being used.” It’s an ongoing problem, especially considering the number of Canadians still buying from unlicensed growers.

Earlier this year, BC Centre for Disease Control and the National Collaborating Centre on Environmental Health collaborated to test 20 samples of black market bud. The tests discovered 24 pesticides plus heavy metals, bacteria, and fungi. Almost 50 percent of the samples would have failed based on current regulations in the legal market.

Before legalization, Marks trimmed on the black market. She watched as cultivators sprayed their plants with dangerous chemicals like Nova, also known as myclobutanil. This fungicide targets mildew, a common issue during cultivation. 

Nova is a carcinogenic chemical, banned for use on cannabis and all products destined for inhalation. Once burned, it transforms into hydrogen cyanide, which is technically considered a chemical warfare agent. Nova is an especially troubling case, especially because many consumers smoke cannabis as a medicine. In this instance, it could be causing more harm than good.

Mold and Mildew Serious Health Concerns

As Marks remembers, “I look back at when I was 16, 17, [buying] weed off a local weed dealer… and thinking, ‘oh my god, this looks so good. It’s so crystally’,” she remembers. “Only to find out later on when I started learning about cannabis, that wasn’t crystal. That was powdery mildew. I was basically smoking mold.” Her experience is one some cannabis consumers might relate to.

Although even licensed producers can have issues with mould and mildew in their grow rooms, this product doesn’t end up in the hands of Canadians. When legal products are found to contain mold, Health Canada recalls them. Thanks to strict testing and regulation, this product is immediately removed from the supply chain.

On the illicit market, there is no such guarantee.

According to Marks, some growers need to sell unsafe products to turn a profit. She said when prices go south, “growers need to salvage every single bud because they can’t afford to lose any products.” Back in the old days, she had growers ask her to cut out bud rot instead of disposing of the crop. 

Marks believes that the illicit market continues to “get away with so much, because everyone is trying to make a living. They try to cut corners.”

Angela Marks
Angela Marks is the founder of BC Trimmers.

The Legal Market is Safe, But Canadians Still Have Quality Concerns

Marks and her team at BC Trimmers now work exclusively with LPs. When she initially brought her years of expertise to the new industry, she found many of the massive new cultivators were pumping out products without paying attention to quality.

These flowers were safe, and free of harmful pesticides and bud rot, but the physical appearance left much to be desired, according to Marks’ experienced eye. Some LPs still suffer from a lack of knowledgeable and experienced workers, which means the quality and the trim work suffers, according to Marks.

Canadians have also noticed a quality difference between the legal and illicit markets. It’s likely why so many continue to buy from their old connections rather than through a licensed retailer. 

On Reddit, one user lamented, “Taxes are insane and prices are crazy high for low quality bud,” while another complained, “The first oz I bought legally was drier than the sahara [sic] desert and smelled like it was just sprayed with chemicals.” 

Marks has heard the same sentiment being expressed. “Some people have given up on the legal market because they have gotten screwed so many times when buying. They go home and open a jar, and ask ‘what the heck is this?’”

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While these quality complaints haven’t entirely disappeared, Marks has watched bud quality improve, especially when craft growers are involved. These days, most of her clients are licensed craft cultivators who are producing some of the best cannabis she has ever touched. 

In Marks’ experience, it’s the craft and micro-producers who are pushing quality over quantity. Although Canadians may feel jaded about legal cannabis because of previous experiences, she suggests it may be time to try again. Instead of buying from the Walmarts of the cannabis world, Marks suggests shopping with the small-scale producers. 

A Guide to Buying Cannabis, from Cannabis Insider Angela Marks

Marks has a few pointers for Canadians when it comes to making their next pot purchase. 

Whether you shop for cannabis online or off, in the illicit market or at a legal retailer, use the following tips to find high-quality, safe product: 

  1. Do Your Research: Do you know anything about the cultivator behind your product? LPs should have information available about their growing practices. It should be easy to find out if they grow organic, if they publish lab tests results, or if they’ve won awards. Generally, information about black market cultivators is hard to come by.
  2. Use your nose: High-quality cannabis is rich in terpenes. Craft cultivators are incredibly passionate about producing flower with impressive aromatic profiles. Follow your nose. Does your Mac-1 flower smell like hay or is it rich, creamy, and lemony? 
  3. Check for visual cues: Several visual characteristics indicate superior cultivation techniques and quality. High-quality buds are well-trimmed, with the trichomes (crystals) intact. Marks recommends looking for large buds with minimal ruffage. After all, “you don’t want to be paying for the stock and stems” or “smoking a bunch of leaves.”
  4. How does it burn? Did you know that the colour of ash can indicate the quality of the cultivation? Before harvest, one the final steps is a process known as flushing. Growers switch from nutrient solutions to pure water to flush out excessive nutrients from the plant itself. If they neglected this process, that joint you light up will crumble into black or grey ash. If you see white ash, this indicates the cultivators properly flushed out the nutrient solution well before harvest, says Marks.
  5. Pay attention to moisture content: A perfectly cured cannabis flower preserves the terpene and cannabinoid content without risking mould and mildew growth. Boveda, a company that makes humidity control packs for cannabis, recommends a relative humidity of 62 percent. Use your fingers to squeeze the flower gently. It should be sticky and bounce back. It should never crumble into dust and should never ever feel wet. 

Illicit Market Cannabis Remains a Safety Concern for Canadians

Canadians’ initial experience with sub-par legal cannabis has meant many are still seeking their supply elsewhere. But, the black market remains flooded with products that are likely contaminated with pesticides, fungicides, and mould. 

There’s no question it’s safer for Canadians to get their supply through legal channels, where products have been tested. Thankfully, with more craft producers entering the market, it’s now possible to find superior products from the government—if you know what to look for.