It’s Not Easy Being Green: Navigating Pesticides in Cannabis
The recent health movement and the mindset fueling it have changed the way we eat and think about our food and our food chain. Organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, and pesticide-free are trends that affect our eating habits as well as our health and well-being.
Similarly within the cannabis sector, many producers are working to create healthier products. Some are acting upon their desire to produce healthier products in line with their brand promise. Others see a consumer demand for healthier products and are responding to it, while some simply opt to use approved pesticides according to state rules and regulations.
Examples of recent health trends in the cannabis sector include moving away from food grade polyethylene glycol (used for cutting cannabis oil) to natural hemp or coconut oil instead. There is also a trend of moving away from artificial flavors such as cherry and watermelon, and reintroducing natural terpenes like myrcene, limonene, and pinene for flavor instead.
“Today, the honor system is being used in the pseudo-regulated market. Randomized pesticide testing should be added to the current testing portfolio; and cannabis companies should be fully transparent about what ingredients and additives they use in their products. The more transparent, the better.”
—Coughlin-Bogue, Tobias, The Stranger
The concept of growing for production while reducing and eliminating pesticide use is on the rise. Growers are now using beneficial microbes, mycelium and other integrated pest management techniques. Legally, cannabis cannot be called “organic,” no matter how environmentally friendly the cultivation practices used to grow it. The term is federally regulated and the USDA does not recognize cannabis as a legitimate agricultural crop. Further, the EPA won’t test pesticides used on cannabis as long as it is considered a Schedule I drug.
“A lot of research goes into pesticide allowance and pesticide labeling for agricultural crops, but because cannabis is federally illegal, and is smoked, not ingested, there is little comparable research relating to human health effects.”
—Jessica Corcorran, Sound Horticulture
As cannabis supply chains continue to lengthen, it is increasingly more difficult for consumers to “know their grower”. With no connection to the producer, how does a consumer know for certain which products are grown without using chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides?
Clean Green and Certified Kind—both organic cannabis certifications—are influenced by global organic standards. They draw upon the principles of organic production articulated by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and are similar to the organic regulations of the United States, Canada, the European Union, and Mexico. Much like the USDA National Organic Program for traditional agricultural products, the whole life cycle of the plant is considered, from seed selection to harvesting and processing. They also analyze the soil, nutrients, pesticide use, mold treatment, and dust control.
Inhalation of Pesticide Residues
Some think that complications related to pesticides are normal for a young industry. Very little peer-reviewed research has been published on the health and safety risks associated with pesticides on dried cannabis. However, tests that have been performed show cause for significant consumer concern, particularly with medical patients or those with elevated risk factors.
“High pesticide exposure through cannabis smoking is a significant possibility, which may lead to further health complications in cannabis users,” noted researchers in Determination of Pesticide Residues in Cannabis Smoke, a study in Journal of Toxicology. Other concerns surround the concentrated levels of pesticides in extracted oils. Still, a concern that pesticides could upset the balance between the industry and the federal government lingers.
“We have an incubated environment we’re allowed to operate in right now. If we open up opportunities for people to use dangerous things on plants, it becomes an embarrassment and we invite more scrutiny. It would be a huge step backward.”
—Derek Peterson, CEO, Terra Tech
“There has been no actual testing to verify that the final cannabis consumable does not contain any pesticide residue. In fact, until recently there were no labs able to perform cannabis pesticide testing, which of course kept the public unaware that our cannabis contains pesticides.”
—Muraco Kyashna-tocha, Cannabis Safety Activist
Due to the Washington State Department of Health’s proposed rules for “compliant” products, including requirements for pesticide residue testing, Washington’s labs have been gearing up to offer such services in order to meet the state’s July deadline for retailers to begin offering compliant products to medical patients.
Some pesticide products are systemic, meaning a certain degree of the chemicals will remain with the plant throughout its life and will exist in clone cuttings of these plants too. Even though this is the case, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board does not make any allowances for this, considering any pesticide presence a contamination.
The EPA has reported that almost one billion pounds of pesticide are used annually for agricultural use. Unlike our food products, cannabis is usually inhaled, not consumed and broken down by our digestive system.
Because of that, Washington lawmakers want to ensure that there is no serious impact on the lungs and respiratory system. However, as long as cannabis is considered and classified as a Schedule I drug, there will be limited data on pesticides and their effects on cannabis consumers.
A Breakdown of Pesticide Product Categories
Federally Registered Pesticides
Unless determined to be minimum risk and exempt from registration, herbicides, insecticides, rodenticides, antimicrobial products, and bio-pesticides must undergo the EPA’s formal registration process, which includes a scientific assessment of the active ingredient that is included in pesticide products.
Pesticides allowed for use in organic production must be evaluated by the National Organic Standards Board for their essentiality, impacts to human and environment health, and compatibility with other organic practices. In general, natural pesticides are allowed unless specifically prohibited, and synthetic pesticides are prohibited unless specifically recommended, by the NOSB.
Federally Exempt Minimum Risk Pesticides
Minimum risk pesticides under section 25(b) of FIFRA are not required to undergo the federal registration process if they have undergone safety testing.
Pesticides Exempt from a Tolerance:
The EPA determines certain pesticides are exempt from a tolerance on a food crop based on toxicity and exposure data specific to the pesticides’ use pattern. Not all 25(b) pesticides are exempt from a tolerance.