So Coyle is now working to improve methods of detecting and identifying those kinds of contaminants. Labs around the U.S. have been using the same methods and equipment for cannabis that have been used for years to test food and alcohol products.
Experts aren't exactly sure just how dangerous some of these bacteria, molds and other pollutants found on marijuana may be to consumers. There are some studies indicating smoking grass containing pesticides could be a serious hazard, but Coyle says "what happens to pesticides when you smoke them isn't exactly clear."
Statistical gurus at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration looked at records for the 1997-2005 period and came up with no cases where marijuana was listed as the primary cause of death. There were 279 fatalities during those years where pot was considered a "secondary suspected cause" of death, according to an Associated Press report.
Coyle's research is aimed in part at developing DNA profiles of key potential contaminants, like the mold alternaria. That information could then be linked to the marijuana DNA database, showing which strains are at risk for having what sort of pollutants.
This type of information system could also show whether the pot in question is really marijuana or something else (like herbs) that's been treated with THC, the component in pot that produces the marijuana high.
Coyle says allergic molds like alternaria can exist and thrive both outside and at indoor grow facilities, like the ones being designed here in Connecticut to produce medical marijuana.
Part of the difficulty in creating such a database for molds and bacteria is that "there are tons of them out there," says Coyle.
The alternaria fungus is actually composed of 40 to 50 different species, according to experts at Mold & Bacteria Consulting Laboratories in Canada. This type of mold can be particularly risky or even fatal for people with bronchial asthma and "immunocompromised patients such as bone marrow transplant patients."
Coyle says UNH isn't planning to try and patent its new procedures or set up its own marijuana testing facility. "It's very tempting, but as a private university we don't have the facilities to run a large-scale testing program," she explains.
The idea is to make any new databases or testing procedures available for free through the National Institutes of Health, according to Coyle. That way any testing lab could take advantage of the research.
That's good news for all those Connecticut medical marijuana patients who are waiting to find out exactly when they can finally buy some clean, safe and certified pot.