When recreational weed became legal in Washington State, it came with strict restrictions on pesticide use, which was unique. In Colorado and Oregon, legalization came with no such guidelines. Pesticides were regulated in Colorado only after it was discovered that a major marijuana grower had been spraying its crops with the fungicide Eagle 20, which releases a toxic gas when burned. That discovery led to the nation's first cannabis liability lawsuit. Colorado is now on its sixth pesticide-related product recall, according to Marijuana Business Daily.
With the passage of I-502, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) developed a list of 271 pesticides allowed on pot. They also required growers to record and disclose the pesticides they use on their products. Most importantly, they established strict penalties for anyone caught using an unapproved pesticide, which they planned to enforce via a combination of on-site inspections and random testing.
But nearly two years later, the state hasn't exactly followed through on those plans.
To date, the WSLCB has yet to test a single nug of marijuana for pesticides. The WSLCB's chief method of enforcement has been premises checks, which are done mostly in response to complaints, said Brian Smith, director of communications at the WSLCB. As of September 25, the WSLCB had conducted 651 premises checks on licensed growers. But these premises checks reached only 252 growers out of a total of 668, leaving nearly two-thirds unmonitored.
Smith acknowledged the possibility that some unsafe weed may be slipping through the cracks. "If labs are not currently testing for pesticides, it's possible that some [tainted] products are making it to the market," he said. Yet Smith also believes the state's current enforcement is a powerful deterrent to scofflaws, saying, "The use of unapproved pesticides is a huge risk for the licensee. If they are caught, they face suspension or loss of their license for repeat violations."
Of the 252 growers in the state that have been monitored, only six were found to be violating pesticide laws, and only two of those resulted in fines—both of which were for the use of spinosad, an insecticide that's far from the most dangerous thing out there. The WSLCB did not find anyone using Eagle 20, Avid, or any of the other usual suspects.
But according to a buyer for a major retail marijuana store in Western Washington—who only agreed to be interviewed upon condition of anonymity—the use of banned pesticides is not uncommon.
"I'm seeing scary chemicals," the buyer said, referring to Eagle 20 and Avid, which he said he's seen during his frequent field visits with suppliers. He added that many of the people he's visited have never been inspected by the WSLCB. "It's awful. A lot of people are doing really horrible things during flower because they've taken so long to get there that once they're already to this point, and they're a month out from hundreds of thousands of dollars, they'll spray. And they'll spray whatever it takes onto their plants. That's not everyone, but that's a lot of people."
Before legalization, the use of heavy-duty synthetic pesticides was common in the unregulated medical market. A report published last year by the Cannabis Safety Institute found pesticides on "close to half of the cannabis sold in Oregon dispensaries." While many of I-502's ganjapreneurs are new to the game, plenty cut their teeth in medical, and those old bad habits die hard.
Boris Gorodnitsky, co-owner of New Leaf Enterprises, one of Seattle's largest growers and the maker of the popular Dàmà line of products, said that in his days in the unregulated medical market, he used many pesticides that are now illegal.
"We were using them when we were in medical, of course," he said, "but those are very, very widely used by everyone." He said he received plenty of negative publicity about his pesticide use, but contends that it was mostly because he was honest about it. "We were just giving people the information."
Gorodnitsky said his company voluntarily switched to using legal pesticides well in advance of obtaining its I-502 license, but he doesn't believe others are doing the same, given the amount of money involved. While he grows indoors, where he can control the environment to ensure a continual rotation of small harvests, outdoor growers face major crop loss because they get only one harvest per year. Such emergencies push people to make questionable choices, and state oversight isn't enough to deter them, he said.
"Are they going to lose their $1 million crop or are they going to spray and hope they don't get caught?" he said. "Nine times out of 10, they won't get caught."
Dash (who declined to give his last name)—a concentrate maker who has worked in the medical, legal, and black markets—agreed with Gorodnitsky on dangerous pesticide use, saying, "It absolutely goes on. The I-502 regulations are weak in a lot of places."
While Dash and Gorodnitsky say the use of banned pesticides is common knowledge in the industry, neither has actually seen it firsthand in a legal grow. So should you be worried?
Consider these sobering facts:
• According to a report by the Cannabis Safety Institute, based on tests of medical marijuana in Oregon, when THC is concentrated, residual pesticide levels shoot up in the finished product. The report noted, "The observation that the mean level of pesticides appears to be roughly 10x higher in concentrates versus flowers is somewhat surprising, given that cannabinoids are only about 2-5x more concentrated in extracted products."
• Concentrates and extracts are rapidly growing in popularity. Paul Radakovich, a glassblower who has made marijuana paraphernalia for upwards of a decade, said he almost completely stopped making pipes because he can only sell dab rigs these days. According to Brian Yauger at "cannalytics" company Front Runner (formerly Tetratrak), the amount spent on concentrates has increased fifteenfold since September 2014. Their overall market share has increased from 8 percent to 15.5 percent, and many of the state's larger producer/processor licensees are switching to making only concentrates, as the profit margin is much higher and the demand is growing, he said.
• According to a report by Frank Conrad, lab director of the Colorado Green Lab, myclobutanil, the active ingredient in Eagle 20, releases hydrogen cyanide when heated past 205 degrees Celsius. (Butane lighters burn at around 1,977 degrees Celsius.) While "chronic exposure to dilute hydrogen cyanide (ex. 0.008 parts per million) is not immediately deadly," he writes, it is "known to cause serious neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular, and thyroid problems." He also notes that it doesn't take large amounts to cause those long-term problems: "Cannabis retaining even marginal amounts of myclobutanil (ex. 0.03 ppm) could potentially expose consumers to non-lethal, but clinically relevant levels of hydrogen cyanide."
Unlike the food we eat, weed isn't classified as an agricultural product, which means that the people who are usually in charge of regulating the safety of similar consumable products—the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and the state Department of Health (DOH)—have not played much more than an advisory role when it comes to pesticides and pot. Instead, that's been the responsibility of the WSLCB, whose primary area of expertise is retail enforcement. The enforcement of growers is totally out of their purview. So perhaps it's not entirely surprising that the WSLCB has bungled this aspect of legalization.
Fortunately, on October 5, the DOH announced new standards for "compliant" marijuana—an optional designation that growers can obtain by adhering to rigorous safety guidelines, including a pesticide residue test that looks for 13 of the most notorious problem pesticides such as Eagle 20 and Avid. Retail shops that want to obtain a medical endorsement must have 25 percent of their inventory compliant with these standards, which provides an incentive for growers to test their weed and adhere to the DOH standards for sanitary growing and safe extraction.
The DOH rules are a breath of fresh air, but they are also a reminder of just how far the pesticide can has been kicked down the road. The "DOH compliant" designation was issued via an emergency rule-making session to ensure the state's vulnerable medical marijuana patients have access to safe weed. Growers needed at least six months to have compliant weed by the July 2016 deadline, when medical marijuana will officially get folded into the recreational market.
As wonderful as it is that testing is finally getting under way, the WSLCB has been talking about randomized pesticide testing since at least February, when I first reported on the subject. And testing will need robust enforcement to back it up. The practice of growers cherry-picking—selecting testing samples from a crop's best plants or from plants grown under special conditions to get higher THC numbers or to pass microbial screenings—is already an issue, according to Steven McNalley, senior microbiologist at Analytical 360, and has very troubling ramifications in the context of pesticide testing.
Also, WSLCB inspectors need to know what they're looking for. Those who came across spinosad in their walk-through of a grow in Sequim had to check with Erik Johansen, the WSDA's pesticide guru, to determine if the pesticide was banned, according to their inspection report. This is alarming, as WSLCB inspectors are currently the only line of defense against dangerous pesticide use. While no one expects them to be experts on pesticides, they should at least be familiar with the PICOL database—the online and publicly accessible list of allowed pesticides maintained by Washington State University.
What has the WSLCB been doing instead of writing testing rules and checking up on growers? Conducting ID stings, apparently. They've issued 64 warnings or citations related to sales to minors or allowing minors on the premises, handed out over the course of 1,253 retail premises checks, since weed became legal.
Smith pointed out that the WSLCB has had to develop a regulatory system completely from scratch and says pesticides are "just one of the many, many issues we face." He added, "Pesticide testing is not required by I-502. Testing for pesticides is very complex and expensive. None of the state's certified labs are able to test for pesticides today."
Part of the reason it has taken labs so long to test for pesticides is because they haven't known what they were supposed to be testing for. Bobby Hines, co-owner of Confidence Analytics, said looking for all banned pesticides is like looking for "a needle in a stack of needles." Smith also cited the absence of testing guidelines as a major reason for the lack of pesticide testing.
But who had the authority to set up those guidelines? The WSLCB. And who ended up doing it? WSDA's Erik Johansen and DOH legal director Kristi Weeks came up with a short list (likely to be expanded later) of pesticides to check for. There are a few more details to work out before labs will have all the information they need, but it's a start. McNalley of Analytical 360 said his lab wasn't ready to invest in the necessary equipment yet, but "when the DOH finalizes the rules for medical [marijuana] and those become not emergency but official rules, we'll be ready to go at that point."
Smith is also correct that testing can be expensive. Bradley Douglass of the Werc Shop says his lab has the capacity to do pesticide testing for $500 per sample. But if all growers were required to run a pesticide test as part of their state-mandated testing panel—which currently requires testing for THC, CBD, and microbial content—prices would decline, as it would create an instant economy of scale. Hines said having a guaranteed market for pesticide testing would definitely lower his prices.
Labs should be ready for DOH-required testing by spring, said Smith. But that testing will cover a fraction of the total market. And the weed that carries that "compliant" designation will cost more, which could drive the most vulnerable users—medical marijuana patients—to buy cheaper weed that isn't as safe. Though Smith agrees that testing is important for the entire marijuana market—he told me the WSLCB is "working closely with the WSDA" to develop a testing-based pesticide enforcement program—he couldn't give me a firm date for when the state will begin regularly testing marijuana. When I asked him why it wasn't a higher priority given that growers are likely out there spraying crops with Eagle 20 right now, he pointed out that weed has never been tested for pesticides.
While true, it's also true that legalization has created a new landscape of marijuana use. One of the main arguments in favor of legalizing marijuana was to improve consumer safety, but whether weed is indeed safer is questionable. And with more people smoking pot since it became legal, and more of those people smoking concentrates, pesticide testing isn't just a nice idea—it's a matter of public health.