The path to cannabis’ legalization and its acceptance as a legitimate medicine in this country has been long and arduous, but now the industry faces a conventional threat that has hobbled many agricultural crop producers in the past: the use of pesticides.
The threats that pesticides pose are twofold: First, pesticide-tainted cannabis, especially in its concentrated form, can potentially harm consumer health in the short- and long-term. The second threat is the public perception that the cannabis on sale now is laden with unregulated pesticides. The long lasting effects of which could lead to decreased demand, which would financially impact every cannabis industry supply chain.
A common problem in a new industry
Washington’s apple industry once faced its own pesticide problem. Farmers suffered crippling losses in the early 1990s when the use of the pesticide Alar, a known carcinogen, became widely known.
Washington regulatory agencies, including the state Department of Health, the state Department of Agriculture, and the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, are developing standards for pesticide use on cannabis crops, but that’s only half the solution. It’s equally important that the state develops, and enforces, strict standards on the use of unsanctioned pesticides and ensures that testing and labeling of all cannabis products sold in the state is thorough and transparent.
Testing is expensive, and the state is developing the procedures to ensure that products can be tested and that violators can be penalized.
“The increased scrutiny by the AG department and the state-certified testing laboratories will also increase the shelf price of cannabis as those expenses are passed along. This is just another downstream effect that consumers must bear in a regulated market,” said Gordon Fagras, the CEO of Trace Analytics, a Spokane cannabis testing company. “What’s critical is that producers know exactly what pesticides are banned and what sanctions will follow if they’re found using a banned substance.”
This is not a theoretical problem: At least two producers in Western Washington were recently cited by the Liquor and Cannabis Board for using pesticides that are on the list of banned substances. One of the producer’s samples showed trace amounts of myclobutanil, a pesticide designed to control infestation. Evidence shows that when the substance is heated it can release cyanide, and we all know what cyanide can do.
Those producers were discovered because someone reported them, which is a scattershot way of identifying bad actors. After several visits by LCB agents, and expensive tests, the pesticide was identified. The producers were ordered to destroy the mother plants that the strains were derived from, but, interestingly, the product that had already gone out the door was not recalled.
Washington State’s Department of Health has to define “trace” amounts. Fagras added, “It is critical to understand the lab process and how we look at these compounds. In taking a rational approach to this discussion, we have to apply action levels or minimum residue levels in the final product. This will allow us as a lab to account for what may be incidental exposure from such things as nearby farms, overspray by a nearby indoor grow, nutrient lines, or extraction machine contamination from running pesticide-laden material through a closed-loop system, just to name a few.”
Research continues on tribal land
The Puyallup Tribe of Indians has acquired the proper instrumentation and staff and will continue to expand its own testing laboratory in order to meet the challenges the cannabis industry faces. The tribe understands the importance of medicating with cannabis that is free of harmful chemicals, particularly pesticides.
Cannabis is unique because it can be administered through inhalation, ingestion, or through the skin. The Puyallup Tribe of Indians believes that clinical-grade cannabis can be grown without the use of pesticides. They understand the need for a quality lab to be able to detect these compounds at very low concentrations.
“It’s a pioneering venture,” said Puyallup Tribal Chairman Bill Sterud. “No one in the U.S. has a cannabis institute, so this could be a place for cannabis science and research, and foremost for treating people with good medicine. The lab ties into the project as a quality assurance mechanism to provide standardization.”
Because marijuana is illegal on the federal level, research in the United States is largely banned. As a result, tribal sovereignty has become quite valuable in advancing cannabis science and testing. As much of the cannabis consumed in this country is combusted and inhaled, we need groundbreaking research into what chemicals can be safely used in producing products in this market.
“It is imperative that we approach this situation carefully. Our intent is to clean up the market, discard the bad players, be transparent, and inspire confidence to the consumers and safety for the patients,” said Tracy Sirrine, a member of the board of the Clean Cannabis Association, a Washington nonprofit. “In a rush to get this done correctly we have to be careful not to burn down the entire industry.”
In order for cannabis to be a predictable business model, it has to operate like other business models and produce products with traceable inputs. Penalties need to be levied for non-compliance in pesticide use and any tainted products on the market must be recalled. The need for regulation is especially critical for people who rely on medical grade cannabis to control the symptoms of their disease. Medical grade cannabis needs to be clean to be effective.
As our cannabis industry evolves, it is important that Washingtonians leave no room for those who seek to cut corners for profit. There cannot be a business-as-usual approach to the growth, production, and sale of cannabis. Inputs manufacturers, growers, processors and distributors have an unwritten commitment to uphold public trust and safety. Hopefully private sector interests, the public, and regulators will work together to find a viable solution that ensures public health.