STORIES

What You Need to Know about Pesticides

By Wesley H. on April 11, 2017

A new debate is raging about pesticides (as well as herbicides and fungicides) in cannabis. Since pesticides are designed to be toxic to living things, by their very nature they are a potential health risk. In fact, “cide” is Latin for “the act of killing." The question isn’t really about their use (they are used), nor is the question whether or not they are potentially dangerous (they are), what needs to be understood is at what levels do these pesticides pose a danger to human health and how, as an industry, do we manage their use?

To understand the issue we need to explore:

  1. Why is everyone suddenly talking about pesticides in cannabis?

  2. Pesticide residue in marijuana is not a new problem.

  3. What does the EPA say?

  4. Pesticide regulation in cannabis legal states.

  5. Pesticide regulation coming to California (but not there yet).

  6. The imperfect world of cannabis testing.

  7. Who decides what is safe?

Why is everyone talking about pesticides in cannabis?

People hearing that their favorite cannabis product contains pesticide residue is naturally disconcerting. But detecting a contaminant is very different than it posing a material danger to one’s well-being. For example, cooking chicken on a backyard BBQ produces detectable amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are easily absorbed into the lungs and have been conclusively proven to be carcinogenic. Living in an urban area similarly involves breathing in dangerous pollutants on a daily basis.

More to the point, it’s likely that almost every fruit, vegetable and serving of grains on your dinner table was grown with the aid of pesticides with some level of residual pesticide in them. Bloomberg reported on a recent study where 98 percent of strawberries and spinach samples tested positive for pesticide residue. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says about 1.1 billion pounds of pesticide-active ingredients are used each year in the United States from more than 20,000 different pesticide products on the market. Note to Whole Foods shoppers: Even organic farms can use pesticides classified as dangerous (though residual levels will be undeniably lower than produce from non-organic farms).

California accounts for over 50% of Myclobutanil use in the U.S.

Unlike cannabis, the pesticides on apples, pears, walnuts, etc. are highly regulated and benefit from years of research. As a result, most consumers feel safe about eating the fruits, vegetables and other food stuffs they purchase at their local grocery store. However, because of the relative newness of the commercial cannabis industry, not to mention the limits that federal prohibition has placed on cannabis research, the implementation of well-thought-out regulations on pesticide use in cannabis cultivation lags decades behind other crops.

The combination of surging demand, new regulations, new testing methods (which have their own issues described below) and cultivators unfamiliar (or perhaps uncomfortable) with the new regulatory oversight has led to a rash of recalls and media scares. In the past few months alone the following took place:

  1. Canada’s legal medical marijuana market has been shaken by two major contamination scandals involving the banned pesticide myclobutanil. Authorities destroyed more than C$1M of marijuana (owned by Canadian stock market darling Canopy Growth Corp.), while Organigram implemented a voluntary recall. Both are now defendants in class action suits and a third was just filed.

  2. In the first month of regulating pesticide residue levels in marijuana in Oregon, state health authorities issued two health alerts for excessive pesticide levels.

  3. In California, testing lab Steep Hill reported that, once they started using their recently launched “quantified pesticide analysis,” 84.3 percent of cannabis samples submitted to their Oakland facility tested positive for pesticide residues. (See graphic below.)

All of this leads to the following questions: What facts do we know about pesticides in cannabis, and how should consumers, industry participants and investors react to announcements such as the ones above?

Pesticide residue in cannabis is not a recent problem

Other than small home grows, residual pesticides have likely always been present in cannabis. The awareness we are now seeing is largely the result of legalization. Before legalization, cannabis was rarely, if ever, tested. If a crop was somehow found to be contaminated, there was no source or company to point to, no mechanism for a recall, and, with few exceptions such as the paraquat scandal, not much of a media story.

In the 1970s and 1980s, millions of cannabis smokers were exposed to the herbicide paraquat—a pulmonary toxin—from plants grown in Mexico. In 1978, 21 percent of marijuana samples from the southwestern United States were found to be contaminated with paraquat in concentrations as high as 2,264 parts per million. It was a relatively large media story, but one focused almost exclusively on the U.S. government’s role on the paraquat spraying and not on what other dangerous chemicals were being used by cultivators.

Later, as illegal cultivation moved from Mexico and other countries into the United States, clandestine grows popped up in national forests and on tribal lands. These illegal growers had no financial incentive to restrict their use of dangerous chemicals since, by definition, the black market lacked the control mechanisms to hold them accountable for the safety of their products. Without testing during that time, we don’t have a reliable gauge about what was used or the pesticide levels of black market cannabis, but they were certainly higher than the levels creating today’s recalls and headlines.

What Does the EPA Say?

Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) in the U.S., the Environmental ProtectionAgency (EPA) is charged with regulating pesticides. By law, every pesticide used must be registered with the EPA, and the agency requires a battery of scientific tests for everyuse of every pesticide. When it does approve a pesticide, the EPA sets a tolerance level for pesticide residue that may remain on crops sold to customers and requires that all pesticide products be labeled to indicate approved usage. Agricultural growers are required by law to follow the label (“the label is the law.”).

Unfortunately, due to continued federal prohibition of cannabis, the EPA (along with the FDA and USDA) opted to steer clear of regulating pesticides for cannabis crops despite the potential impact this has on patient, consumer and environmental safety. (Note: In 2016, the EPA acknowledged that they did in fact have the right to regulate pesticide use in cannabis, but to date they haven’t done so.) Regardless of their prohibitionist reasoning, the EPA is not providing the oversight that they do with other crops.

The only federal guidance for states is the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which states that it is unlawful to use a pesticide in a manner that is inconsistent with its label—whether for cannabis or any other crop. Therefore, since no pesticides are labeled for usage on cannabis, any application of a registered pesticide is in violation of FIFRA. If this seems like a circular problem, it is.

Pesticide regulation in cannabis legal states

State regulators have taken widely different paths for how they treat pesticides. Some states, including Washington and Colorado, dictate which pesticides can be used, while other states identify which active ingredients are banned. Some states address residual concentrations and others do not. There are many other variances. For example, Illinois allows for pesticides but notes that they cannot be used after the vegetative state. Vermont and Delaware prohibit pesticides for cannabis crops, while Connecticut allows it only to avoid a “catastrophic loss.” Nevada has no limitation on pesticide use, but if testing reveals residual presence, they can’t sell that product. Finally, Michigan, Hawaii, Arizona and Alaska don’t currently have specific regulations on pesticide use.

Since very few growers cultivate across state lines, one wouldn’t think that interstate inconsistencies would matter to producers or consumers if the rules were clear in that particular state. But intrastate rules themselves are often far from clear, and this is particularly true in the largest cannabis market in the world, California.

Pesticide regulations coming to California (but not there yet)

In California, the coming state regulations for medical cannabis (i.e., “MCRSA”) will start in 2018, but the rules have not yet been announced (or possibly even set). MCRSA states that, in regard to pesticides, the Department of Pesticide Control and the Department of Food and Agriculture are to work together to establish standards and regulations for pesticide use in cannabis cultivation. The department is expected to hire toxicologists to review and analyze pesticide data to determine what pesticide residue levels in cannabis products are safe.

That will be true in 2018. For now, California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation warns, “there are no pesticides registered specifically for use... on marijuana,” and “the use of pesticides on marijuana plants has not been reviewed for safety or human health effects.” But since California is already generating billions of dollars in cannabis sales, the Department of Pesticide Regulation will have to try and regulate an already substantial industry.

In the short run, whatever pesticide rules are implemented by the state after years of non-regulation could cause immediate and significant disruption to yields and supply chains. This is exactly what happened last year in Oregon when the state’s strict rules (some would say unrealistic rules) for pesticide testing adversely impacted its fledgling recreational industry. Things got so bad due to a dearth of approved testing facilities that 16 commercial cannabis companies announced that they would have to close because they couldn’t operate within these new rules.

Cannabis testing (far from perfect):

You would think that scientific analysis would be able to tell us what is safe and what is dangerous. Sadly, this is far from the case for several reasons, including the following:

  1. As noted above, federal prohibition has impeded meaningful testing. Furthermore, since marijuana is often smoked (not ingested), knowing a safe level for a particular pesticide on apples, for example, isn’t applicable since certain pesticides can be safe when ingested orally but dangerous when smoked (e.g., myclobutanil).

  2. Some individuals consume several times a day, while others consume a few times a month, which leads to wildly different measures for safety thresholds.

  3. Some adverse effects might not show up until after long-term exposure.

  4. The track record of cannabis laboratories is far from assuring. (Reports of material discrepancies of testing results between labs, and even within the same lab on the same cannabis batch, are common.)

  5. Just as there are no rules for pesticides in California, there aren’t yet any rules governing the testing labs themselves.

Cannabis testing labs are not licensed or certified in California nor are their standards for product testing. Currently anyone can market themselves as a lab, and the equipment can be relatively inexpensive to purchase. There is no verification of training, proper use of equipment or confirmation that the equipment is properly maintained and calibrated. As noted above, it is not uncommon to have materially different testing results coming from the same batch when tested at different labs.

For example, one of the most well-known labs in California, Steep Hill Labs, has been criticized for lacking ISO 17025 accreditation, which is often the legal requirement for state-licensed cannabis testing laboratories. A statement issued to NBC by G Pharma concerning the validity of Steep Hill’s results on G Pharma’s products read, “We also generally reject the efficacy of the methods and practices employed by the subject laboratory, Steep Hill Labs.”  Similarly, cannabis manufacturer Bloom farms stated, “Cannabis lab tests regularly return conflicting and varying results—even when the same batch or infused product is tested at the same facility.”

Who decides what is safe?

In the U.S., it’s the EPA’s job to set pesticide “tolerances” (i.e., maximum allowable residue levels) for crops and food. Under federal law, a pesticide can be legally used on a food crop only if the EPA has granted a tolerance for that use. Pesticides must be registered with the agency, and it requires a battery of tests on every pesticide and on every use of that pesticide. As noted above, however, the EPA has elected not to do this for cannabis.

For crops such as apples, pears, etc., the EPA’s tolerances typically range from 10 to 10,000 parts per billion and are generally considered conservative (though this is open for debate, especially with long-term “chronic” effects). But these levels are almost meaningless for cannabis and the different ways it is consumed (including smoking, vaping and eating). Until the EPA (or other regulatory bodies) tests these pesticides using the specific methods of cannabis consumption, the safety levels which are set will be subjective and inconsistent. This explains why the states have such markedly different approaches to regulating their use and defining what is safe.

End thoughts

The solution to pesticides is straightforward: a) Treat cannabis as any other crop or foodstuff and have federal and state authorities research pesticide safety; b) Eliminate all federal barriers to research in the private sector and educational institutions; c) Establish clear pesticide guidelines for cultivators (either by a white list or a black list); d) Establish clear, consistent and science-backed residual levels for those approved pesticides; e) Require detailed labeling so consumers can make informed decisions about what they are putting into their bodies; and f) Encourage pesticide-free cultivation methods.

Cannabis is a medicine and a recreational intoxicant that is safely enjoyed by millions of people. It would be unfortunate if the government (via haphazard regulation), the media (via sensationalist and ill-informed reporting) and industry leaders (by forgoing customer safety for profits) failed patients and consumers.

One of the biggest arguments for passing adult-use legislation in California and other states has been the resulting consumer protections, and this is already proving true. It’s hard to argue that the cannabis being sold today in licensed dispensaries isn’t healthier than the untested black market product of the past 50 years and that the mechanisms already exist to make it as safe as any other commercial food crop. We just have to use them.

Wesley H. is a contributor to California Cannabis Ventures. Photo credits: Flickr and Flickr. 

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