On September 15, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) announced a major consumer safety investment: a $1.15 million contract with the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) to screen the state's cannabis for disallowed pesticides. Under the contract, the WSLCB will pay for the necessary equipment to screen cannabis for pesticides, along with two full-time employees to perform that testing. They estimate that they'll be able to run about 75 samples a month and screen for more than 100 commonly used illegal pesticides. This is a big deal and long overdue.
Legalization, in theory, was supposed to provide us with a safer product, and indeed, every batch of legal cannabis is tested for potency, microbes, and fungi. But until recently, none of it was tested for pesticides.
Since the inception of legal cannabis in Washington, the WSLCB, working in conjunction with the WSDA, has maintained a list of pesticides that are allowed on cannabis. State law provides stiff penalties for those who stray from the list, ranging from fines and suspensions up to license cancellation for a third violation, a huge improvement over the black and medical markets, in which there were no rules whatsoever.
But I-502 did not mandate that legal cannabis be tested for any disallowed pesticides, meaning the state wasn't actually checking against the list. In February 2015, board spokesperson Mikhail Carpenter assured me that randomized testing was mere months out and that it was something the board recognized as important but just hadn't gotten around to yet. But then they never got around to it.
In the meantime, legal growers, many of whom were graduates of the state's unregulated medical market, were still spraying the pesticides that had worked so well for them before. As The Stranger reported in March, when one of the state's cannabis testing labs—Trace Analytics—finally sprung for equipment to test legal cannabis for pesticides themselves, they found plenty of evidence of pesticides in pot.
While randomized testing does not 100 percent guarantee that your pot is free of pesticides—there is likely a trace amount of pesticide on your shirt right now—it helps keep them from being directly applied by unscrupulous or careless growers. As Bobby Hines, co-owner of Redmond cannabis testing lab Confidence Analytics, put it, "It's proof that the stick exists now," referring to enforcement against pesticide scofflaws. "They've been yelling, 'Don't make me go get the stick,' and now they just bought the stick."
What prompted them to finally buy a stick and why did it take so long? If you ask WSLCB director Rick Garza, which several other reporters and I had the opportunity to do last week, he'd tell you this:
"You've all gone through the different challenges that we've had, first in creating the regulations, challenges with respect to bans and moratoriums, the inability to get banking for our industry. It just comes every three to six months—there's another challenge. And then, of course, the issue of testing and pesticides, which is something that, honestly, all of you brought to our attention."
It's true that, more than any other state agency, the WSLCB has been getting its ass kicked on a regular basis. But, while agency wasn't in front of the issue, they did come out swinging eventually, and that's very praiseworthy.
And it's also true that we have quality cannabis journalism to thank for raising the alarm. Because pot is new, and still viewed as something of a strange, silly subculture, people assume that writing about the latest line of medicated bodywash is a worthwhile story. That's fine, and I'm sure Melissa Etheridge appreciates the coverage, but there's also real work to be done, and this pesticide announcement is the result of that.
From the Cannabist in Colorado covering its state's never-ending pesticide recall woes, to Crosscut's article "In Washington's Pot Industry, Pesticide Use Remains Hazy," to Bob Young's Seattle Times piece on product recalls, a lot of good journalists have been working their tails off to give this issue the urgency it deserves. If you're someone who likes smoking pot that isn't laced with Eagle 20, you can thank the journalists who shone a light on the issue.
The contract goes into effect in the fall, and we can expect to see random testing begin soon after. Now perhaps we can turn our pens to the next crisis-level issue in legal pot: the fact that the overwhelming majority of people making money off it are white and the overwhelming majority of people still incarcerated for it are black and brown.