In the aftermath of what one pithy PR executive dubbed "Pestgate"—the recent revelations that illegal pesticides were found on plants at BMF Washington and New Leaf Enterprises, two of Washington's largest growers—the state's cannabis industry has been scrambling to deal with the fallout.
There is currently no unified protocol for how to handle communicating information about pesticide violations to the public, or how to conduct a recall if necessary. "This is an emerging issue," said Brian Smith, director of communications for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, on February 16. "We're actively working on pesticide protocols today."
Many in the industry said they were blindsided by the revelations, first reported in The Stranger, about prohibited pesticides being used in the local market. Dustin Barrington, an assistant manager at Hashtag, a recreational weed store on Stone Way, said he read the Stranger piece and then, the next day, "walked into a crisis."
Many retailers decided to carry out what was essentially a DIY recall.
As Hilary Bricken, editor of Canna Law Blog, noted, though the state "issued a stop sales order against both companies, that order was not announced to the public and it came to light only through a public records request." She noted that while it's good the state discovered these pesticide practices, "What about the marijuana and/or marijuana products that made their way to consumers? What should those consumers do? What redress do they have? What about other companies that purchased this cannabis? What redress do they have?"
Ian Eisenberg, owner of Uncle Ike's Pot Shop, said he wasn't waiting for a go ahead from the WSLCB. Uncle Ike's was one of the first stores to pull products. "[WSLCB regulators are] the experts and they know legally what has to be done, but we're gonna err on the side of protecting our customers," he said. He claimed he didn't know what amount is really poisonous, "but I wouldn't want any in my cookies."
Tim Moxey, co-owner of botanicaSEATTLE, a processing company that had used some of New Leaf's extracts, concurred. "It's important that collectively we do this right and that we build trust in an industry that previously didn't have standards or transparency," he said.
After an initial letter to customers urging them to hold off on sales of certain botanicaSEATTLE products, Moxey met with the owners of New Leaf, did some research, and ultimately concluded his product was safe. New Leaf's plants tested positive for myclobutanil, a chemical that can be dangerous when heated past 400 degrees Fahrenheit. BotanicaSEATTLE used New Leaf's oil only in Bond Sensual Oil, which theoretically should never approach that temperature (insert "extremely hot sex" joke here).
Other manufacturers, however, opted to completely recall some of their own products. "Evergreen Herbal, in its commitment to safety and integrity, is issuing a voluntary recall of products containing Dama Oil," Evergreen wrote in a letter to retailers. "This is a voluntary recall and no formal recall has been mandated by the WSLCB."
BMF Washington voluntarily pulled its Liberty Reach brand from the market, but noted that its other brands—JuJu Joints, Jack's Seaweed, etc.—were made with flower it had purchased from other producers and were unaffected by the pesticide issue. Dama still offers its flower products, with the WSLCB-mandated warning about "trace amounts" of disallowed pesticides, at the reduced price of $3 per gram wholesale.
Industry insiders bemoaned the lack of assistance from the WSLCB.
"We've all been combining data to figure out who sells whose product," said Eisenberg. "The WSLCB has traceability, and that's what they should be giving us. What if there were a real recall for salmonella? What if there was a cookie with salmonella? I was kind of disappointed, I guess. It's a new industry, I'm sure in 10 years time, there will be [a system]."
The WSLCB reiterated that it had no official cause for concern and would not be taking any action beyond requiring the warning label for New Leaf's products. BMF didn't have to worry about the labels, as it decided to pull Liberty Reach off the market entirely.
"If there was a known public-safety concern, we would take immediate action," said Smith. He noted, "There is a scarcity of information about the impact of pesticides on consumers who smoke marijuana as opposed to eating it."
Jeremy Moberg, of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association, said he believes that all products that could have been affected should be recalled regardless of the amount of pesticide detected. "The WSLCB supposedly has a recall protocol for handling the use of illegal pesticides, but nobody knows what that is or if it even exists," he said. "Meanwhile, experts debate the harms of a pesticide that may turn into cyanide gas when heated or smoked. Myclobutanil is banned by the federal government for use on tobacco—one of the most pesticide-laden crops in the world."
"How is this not a recall?" he asked, adding that it seemed unjustly lenient. "The WSLCB is willing to destroy up to 50 percent of a farm's inventory for minor violations, but it will not recall potentially contaminated cannabis."