Pesticides on your pot? Finally, some answers.
Pesticides on your pot? Finally, some answers. Cannabis Plants / Shutterstock

A little over a month ago, two of Washington’s largest cannabis producers were quietly barred from all sales, pending a Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) investigation into illegal use of prohibited pesticides. According to documents obtained by The Stranger, New Leaf Enterprises, makers of the popular Dama line of products, and BMF Washington LLC, whose cannabis is used by brands including Liberty Reach and JuJu Joints, received stop sale orders on December 29 and December 17 of last year, respectively.

According to those documents, which also included reports from investigators in both cases, the investigations were prompted by third-party complaints. The stop sales were not announced to the public, but murmurs abounded in the industry that something had gone awry with New Leaf. A public records request filed with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board regarding stop sale orders revealed that both New Leaf and BMF were the targets of WSLCB pesticide investigations.

The WSLCB, to its credit, has clearly stepped up its pesticide enforcement game. Previously, when WSLCB investigators encountered disallowed pesticides at a grow, they were forced to call Erik Johansen, the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s (WSDA) pesticide guru, for help. This time, they brought WSDA pesticide experts—including Johansen—along for the ride. And in the New Leaf case, the WSLCB also contracted the state's first lab equipped for pesticide residue testing, Trace Analytics, in a major shift for an agency that had previously dismissed residue testing as expensive and unnecessary.

An Old Issue for New Leaf

For Boris Gorodnitsky, one of New Leaf’s co-owners, these complaints come as no surprise. The owners got their start in the unregulated medical marijuana market, where they were quite open about using controversial pesticides on their crops. When I reached Gorodnitsky last week to discuss the stop sale, the origin of his misfortunes seemed to be old hat to him. Just another complaint from advocates still fired up about his medical growing practices, he said.

New Leaf was, in fact, slapped with a fine for a pesticide violation in April of last year due to similar complaints, though it was only for storing pesticides in an unlabeled container. When I spoke to Gorodnitsky about the fine last fall, he assured me that the container was actually premixed plant nutrients, and the violation was due to a misunderstanding with the company’s assigned investigator.

This more recent incident was a similar, albeit larger, misunderstanding, he said. Gorodnitsky stressed that he had never sprayed disallowed pesticides on his legal grow at any point, and claimed that he had been the victim of confusing WSLCB rules.

According to those WSLCB reports linked above, the saga began when an enforcement officer, accompanied by three WSDA pesticide experts, visited New Leaf’s South Park facility on October 21, 2015, in response to a complaint. They met with New Leaf’s compliance officer, Adrian Ramirez, who gave them a walkthrough, whereupon they discovered a number of eyebrow-raisers, including an empty bottle of an unapproved pesticide and several unlabeled bottles of fertilizer. They asked Ramirez directly if the legal grow had ever used Eagle 20, a disallowed pesticide that releases cyanide when heated, to which he replied that they had in the medical grow but not the legal one.

That distinction—between medical and legal—is at the heart of all this. (Medical marijuana has long been unregulated.) After that first visit, investigators say they returned on November 12, 2015, to collect plant samples for testing. Those plant samples, which were collected together in one container, tested positive for significant levels of myclobutanil; the active ingredient in Eagle 20; spiromesifen, the active ingredient in Forbid 4F; and dinotefuran, the active ingredient in another banned pesticide, called Safari 20.

When investigators returned once more to issue a stop sale based on the results, Gorodnitsky and Dax Colwell, New Leaf’s other owner, insisted that they hadn’t sprayed their legal grow, and the contamination must be due to what Gorodnitsky called a “loophole,” wherein the growers were allowed to bring in plants from their medical grows that were already tainted.

Under I-502, which legalized recreational marijuana use, new producer licensees were extended a 15-day grace period in which they could bring in any seeds, cuttings, or plants they so desired from the unregulated medical marijuana market into the I-502 market. The idea was to ensure there would be enough marijuana supply to meet early demand (there still wasn’t), by embracing the state’s preexisting pot plants no questions asked.

During New Leaf’s 15-day grace period, Gorodnitsky said, they brought in mother plants from the medical grow. Mother plants are larger, more genetically desirable plants from which “clones”—the cuttings used to propagate new cannabis plants for production—are taken. In this case, the mother plants had been sprayed with Eagle 20 and Safari 20 in New Leaf’s medical grow, where such tomfoolery was allowed. Both are systemic pesticides, which means the chemicals linger in the plant’s system for long periods of time and can be passed on to clones.

Though investigators were skeptical about Gorodnitsky’s mother plant hypothesis, wondering if detectable levels of pesticides could linger on plants for as long as a year, they agreed it was worth looking into further. According to Gorodnitsky, his own testing showed a noticeable difference in pesticide residue between mother plants and the rest of his crops. Indeed, once investigators separated mother plant samples from others, they obtained similar results.

According to Brian Smith, the WSLCB’s communications director, the agency decided to lift the stop sale based on these results. It did, however, issue the standard $2,500 fine and 10-day suspension for first-time pesticide violations. The agency also required New Leaf to destroy all mother plants and all concentrate products created from plants propagated prior to November 12, 2015. Concentrates were targeted for destruction because studies have found that the process of extraction can drastically increase the concentration of pesticides in finished products. New Leaf will still be allowed to sell whole buds from plants propagated prior to November 12, 2015, Smith said, but must label packages with a warning that the product “may contain trace amounts of disallowed pesticides.”

“It was an education for everyone,” said Gorodnitsky. “When they came in to do testing, we weren’t worried. It was a shock. When we did our own testing, things became clarified as to how those pesticides came in. It’s been quite a ride. We laid off pretty much 90 percent of our work force in January because we couldn’t afford to pay them without revenue.”

Despite Green Light, Issues Remain

Though it is easy to sympathize with any cannabusiness complaining that the WSLCB’s rules and regulations are needlessly arcane, New Leaf is not exactly squeaky clean. When the WSLCB received results back from its first batch of samples, they tested positive for Forbid, which is a non-systemic pesticide. A swab of an empty pesticide applicator bottle taken in the WSLCB’s second round of sampling also tested positive for Forbid, which would seem to indicate recent application. Gorodnitsky told me that this was also leftover from the transferred mother plants.

When asked why the Forbid hadn’t dissipated over the course of a year, he offered this explanation: “We had strains that we didn't run in 502 but we kept the mothers alive. They were just sitting under low light not growing all year.” He said that Forbid was definitely not present in the mothers used for production. In his defense, the LCB’s second round of tests do not indicate the presence of Forbid, just Eagle 20, Safari 20, and others.

However, WSLCB investigators also discovered “Hormex Vit B-1 & Growth Hormones” on their first sweep, whose label specifically warns against human consumption. “Do not use or store near food or feed. Do not use on plants that are to be used for food or feed,” it reads.

Also troubling was co-owner Colwell’s reported conduct on the WSLCB’s third visit. The WSLCB’s investigator notes in his report that, after investigators left a conference room discussion to retrieve samples, “Hildebrand, [New Leaf’s head grower], and Colwell stayed behind and had a private conversation in the conference room with the doors closed. I could overhear Colwell yelling expletives at Hildebrand and instructing him not to talk to us. When Hildebrand returned to the grow rooms he would not make any statements or answer any questions about pesticide use.”

WSLCB inspectors also observed that, “Gorodnitsky said there had been two to four generations of mother plants since New Leaf received a license.” In our most recent interview, Gorodnitsky, by way of complaining about the WSLCB’s strict pesticide enforcement, said, “If they go in to a producer and they find that they were spraying, that’s one thing. That’s something they need to address and do whatever they need to do. But if they find a level of systemic pesticides that are low and can be eliminated over a couple generations, that can be done over less than a year.” Except, it would seem, in the case of his peskily retentive mother plants.

It should also be noted that, by Gorodnitsky’s own estimates, earlier generations of plants at New Leaf likely contained higher concentrations of the disallowed pesticides, and consumers have been exposed since January 8, 2015, when New Leaf obtained its license and transferred its mother plants over.

Whether or not New Leaf was knowingly using illegal pesticides, it’s likely that other growers are. Gorodnitsky, when mounting his defense against the charges, went to a recreational marijuana store and purchased several samples from competing producers. He declined to share the identities of his samples with the WSLCB or me, but said that “the vast majority of product we tested” tested positive for the same pesticides he’d been busted for. When asked if the results indicated that his competitors were actively spraying, he replied, “No comment. I don’t want to speculate about what other people are doing.”

While Gorodnitsky couldn’t confirm intentional pesticide abuse from his samples, BMF’s case seems to indicate that there are people out there—people with a whole lot to lose—who are willing to take that risk.

Backpacks, Misters, and Foggers, Oh My!

WSLCB spokesperson Smith declined to comment on the BMF investigation, as it is still wrapping up, but the investigator’s reports for BMF indicate that the WSLCB found that, of the 17 pesticides on site during an October 8, 2015 visit, 12 were disallowed pesticides. Also, the WSLCB collected one sample of plant matter and three samples from various applicator jugs and backpack sprayers. All four tested positive for unapproved pesticides. BMF was issued a violation notice, and will receive the same penalty as New Leaf.

Peter Saladino, BMF’s owner, issued a statement via his PR firm, saying, “In 2014, our lead grower consulted with a horticultural expert to help our organization create an approach for our cannabis growing operation that would allow us to produce the highest-quality cannabis products possible using the smallest amount of chemical products, including pesticides.”

The statement said that pesticides were never applied to flowering plants, which can retain more residue, and that Saladino believed everything they were using was legit. BMF’s PR firm also supplied a list of six disallowed pesticides it says were used before the company became aware of its error. That list included pesticides containing abamectin and spiromesifen.

Worth noting here is the fact that the PICOL database, which lists the pesticides that are allowed on marijuana in Washington, is freely available on the Washington State University website, and BMF employs a dedicated compliance officer whose job is, in theory, to know this type of shit.

Indeed, Smith confirmed that all growers receive education on the PICOL database saying, “There is a bright line on this. At minimum, [the PICOL list] is reviewed during final inspection.”

Finally a Wake Up Call?

“Patients have long been aware that the state's cannabis is being grown with pesticides,” said Muraco Kyashna-tocha, a long-time cannabis safety activist. “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.”

She’s right. Until very recently, investigators could have taken all the samples they wanted, but they would have had nowhere to take them for that all-important pesticide residue testing. Essentially, to catch a pesticide cheat, they would have had to walk in on them in the act of spraying plants. Now, thanks to the Washington State Department of Health’s (DOH) proposed rules for “compliant” products, which include requirements for pesticide residue testing, our state’s labs have been gearing up to offer such services in order to meet the state’s July 1 deadline for retailers to begin offering compliant products to medical patients.

With testing, and increased collaboration with the WSDA, the WSLCB’s enforcement arm finally has teeth. Kyashna-tocha praised the WSLCB’s new set of dentures as an important step for consumer safety, but said it still wasn’t enough.

“No one has ever gotten cancer from pot," she said. "But, sadly, I think we will see cancer patients in a few years who got sick from the pesticides in their pot. I really wish we had done better from the beginning.”