UPDATE: After this post was originally published, I posted a clarification and some added context here. The original post is below.
The Uncle Ike's pesticide tests were just an appetizer. The entrée is even harder to swallow.
Recently, Dr. Gil Mobley, as well as the Clean Cannabis Association (CCA), commissioned a series of pesticide tests at Trace Analytics on random samples of Washington recreational marijuana products.
I just got the results from the 37 concentrate and flower products submitted in their tests, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news (again and again and again), but my initial impression is that we're totally fucking fucked. Since this legal weed bonanza began, I've written a lot of articles calling attention to the issue of pesticides on our pot, and I've been told by a lot of different people—the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) especially—that I'm beating a dead horse.
Well, 25 concentrate and flower products showed up with some amount of sketchy pesticides on them—three out of ten flower samples, and 22 of 27 concentrate samples, some at eye-popping levels.
While I'm not the least bit surprised to see popular concentrate products ringing in at tens of thousands of parts per billion (ppb) of banned pesticides, I am pretty goddamn dismayed. Especially when every cannabis producer's website goes on at length about how their products are the purest puff of unicorn farts to ever grace a vape pen. Many of them are not. The levels discovered in these tests suggest that some people are actively spraying their products with some really terrible pesticides.
As Gordon Fagras, the owner of Trace Analytics, said about the tests that showed up at really high levels, "This was not incidental contact." Fagras also noted that this isn't an isolated issue.
"It’s not gonna be any different if it's 5,000 samples or 45," he said. "If you apply standard deviation to it, it’s industry-wide."
He also added that the high failure rate for concentrates was unsurprising, noting that pesticides that are undetectable in flower samples can be off the charts when concentrated.
So, after two years of sagacious direction by our state's regulators, how is this still happening? Well, in Washington, we didn't set established tolerance limits for pesticides—a task traditionally left to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Obviously, weed is still federally illegal, so the EPA wasn't exactly jumping in to offer guidance. States with legalized marijuana who wanted to regulate pesticides had to come up with their own standards.
When implementing I-502, to expedite the process of getting our system up and running, we opted to just ban everything that would require a tolerance level. Tolerance levels are limits on the amount of a pesticide that can be detected on a product and still be safe for human consumption. The idea was that if growers only used tolerance-exempt pesticides, we wouldn't need to set up a costly and complicated system of pesticide tests and could just ask growers real nicely to clean up their acts, because there are less harmful pesticides they can use. The idea was that people would spray their plants with rosemary oil and hydrogen peroxide and lay off the Eagle 20 and Abamectin. That was a nice little fantasy, wasn't it?
Sketchy pesticide practices in the pot industry predate legalization, and old habits die hard. Setting up a system of zero tolerance encourages cheaters, as Boris Gorodnitsky of New Leaf Enterprises, one early victim of the arbitrariness of the state's illegal-pesticide-enforcement system, argues. If it's all or nothing, and you're about to lose a crop, why not risk it all?
Turns out ol' Boris was on to something.
Zero tolerance systems, like the one we've set up for legal cannabis, come with a need for robust enforcement. The WSLCB has been, in theory, deterring growers from continuing to use banned substances by offering stiff penalties for anyone caught doing so. However, the WSLCB's stick was, apparently, more of a finger wag. While they did catch and fine two of the state's largest growers for using pesticides, it wasn't necessarily due to a proactive investigation. Both busts came from anonymous tips.
Prior to that, the WSLCB busted a weird old hippie on the peninsula for using spinosad, a relatively minor offender, and uncovered some startling revelations about his nude jaunts. Otherwise, the WSLCB's investigations have been largely fruitless on the pesticide front. And, as of November 2015, they'd only dropped in on a third of the state's growers, with not all of those visits being unannounced.
The test results obtained by Mobley and the CCA are a stark reminder that we have a problem with pesticides that we can no longer ignore. Many of Washington state's medical marijuana patients will soon be participants in the recreational market, when new legislation takes effect in July. Many medical marijuana patients have compromised immune systems. Tracy Sirrine, of the CCA and Patients for Patients, said she paid $1,600 out of pocket to conduct her share of the testing when she realized that many of her patients were already shopping in recreational stores. (Sirrine paid for 11 of the 37 tests.)
"The patients can’t afford the products that are on the shelf right now," she said. "So they’re going to be forced to buy what’s affordable, and that may not be product that’s been tested for pesticides.”
She was especially dismayed that one concentrate product rang in at over 200,000 ppb of myclobutanil, because she'd obtained the sample from a cancer patient—a particularly vulnerable customer.
"As you can see from these results," she wrote, "the cancer patient that I mentioned has been poisoned. I cannot sit idly by, I have a heart and a conscience.”
The first reform that needs to be made is to institute randomized pesticide testing conducted by the WSLCB or an independent third-party. Regulations that have no teeth aren't worth the paper they're printed on. Then, we need to establish our own, state-level pesticide thresholds, so that we can put those results in some sort of meaningful context, and sort out the "incidental contact" from the intentional spraying.
"[Busting everyone] is not the goal here," said Fagras. "We’re really after these people who are doing these upper levels. That’s the stuff that people should be scared to hell of."
Once we have a system in place to identify those bad apples, we need to pick 'em. Right now, there's no recall procedure in place, and the state has been loathe to implement one, saying that the two cheaters it caught recently didn't test at dangerous levels (which they determined despite the fact that we have set no official levels. Amazing!). That needs to change.
Mobley told me, "These contaminated and dangerous products would be immediately swept off the shelves in Colorado and the same needs to be done with these identical contaminated cannabis products in Washington."
The recent flap over my blog post on Ian Eisenberg's blind pesticide tests is an excellent illustration of how pesticide thresholds can provide some much needed clarity, and help the state determine when a recall is warranted. After I posted about his findings, which were given to me with the names of the vendors redacted, someone leaked the list. Eisenberg was not happy, as his stated goal in redacting the names had been to avoid ruining any reputations, especially given that some of the results were present but in absolutely negligible amounts. It would seem the list was leaked sans results, as the nine vendors started catching hell regardless of how high their stuff clocked in at.
"It very much frustrates us that Ike’s says that Solstice is spraying pesticides," said Alex Cooley, who owns Solstice (though Uncle Ike's did not technically say it). "It’s a partner farmer. Solstice never failed a test. No one violated the rules. And, the farmer did not use a pesticide that is off of the approved list."
Cooley called Fagras to ask about the results, wondering if perhaps his partner farmer had been the victim of spray drift from a neighboring apple orchard. Fagras, noting that the two substances found on Solstice's sample were commonly used on apples and had appeared in extremely small amounts (26 and 106 ppb), said that was a real possibility. However, the damage had been done.
“Shops are now saying 'Oh my god, you’re on the failure list, you have to provide us pesticide results for everything you supply to us,'" Cooley complained. "Orders have been stopped. We’ve pulled everything from that farm from inventory and sent it out for testing. It’s not awesome."
The shops, for their part, are equally annoyed by the lack of guidance. Logan Bowers, who owns the recreational store Hashtag, acknowledged that shops were largely in the dark when faced with results like the ones from Uncle Ike's.
"One of the challenges we have is that there are not acceptable limits for pesticide on pot," he said. "Your lettuce that you buy at the grocery store has limits for how much pesticide can be on it but your cannabis does not." Figuring out how to interpret the piecemeal data he was getting, he said, was a "haphazard" process.
The Cannabis Organization of Retail Establishments (CORE), a trade association of which Bowers and Eisenberg are members, has submitted a list of requests to the WSLCB that include establishing thresholds and giving retailers access to more traceability data to so they can track down affected products. CORE has also called for randomized pesticide testing.
"There’s already recommendations in to the LCB to do random spot checks," said Bowers. "That’s a no brainer, obviously, that needs to happen. That’s the most basic thing that needs to happen at this point: the LCB needs to do random enforcement checks."
Those thresholds are especially important because it isn't just the sketchy stuff we have to worry about. Many of the products tested positive for high levels of piperonyl butoxide (PBO), a substance that is actually allowed under I-502 regulations. PBO is most commonly found in fogger bombs, which are theoretically supposed to be used only in between grow cycles or on immature plants—never on sticky, bud-laden flowering plants.
The WSLCB assured me in February of last year that, during all those random spot checks they planned to perform on growers, they'd be keeping an eye out for fogger use on flowering plants. Even if those spot checks were happening at every grower, which they weren't, it takes a fair amount of specialized knowledge to catch that particular issue. While the WSLCB's investigators are smart, punctilious people—I've read enough of their investigative reports to say that with confidence—they are not expert pot growers. I know this isn't the Regrets Issue, but I certainly regret buying that hollow assurance and passing it on to the public.
In fact, I regret concluding that article with a blanket assurance that legal weed was safer. Given the recent scandals involving a few of our state's more popular cannabis testing labs luring customers with guarantees of zero microbial failure rates, along with these pesticide results, I think it's safe to say that we've got a long way to go before making any more sweeping statements on the safety of Washington weed.
To be fair, having any regulations at all in place is a major step forward. But the citizens of Washington didn't legalize weed to bring it halfway out of the basement. We can't pat ourselves on the back for writing rules if they don't work and if we don't consistently enforce them.
The WSLCB has, however, been quite zealous about keeping our state's system in compliance with the Department of Justice's Cole memo, which dictates certain standards that states who legalize cannabis must meet to avoid running afoul of the Feds. But those standards are all about signage, where racks can go, security-camera placement, ID stings, things like that.
A well-regulated system, as the Cole memo demands, doesn't just mean that trimmers aren't sneaking a gram off the production line and teenagers aren't toking up. It means that the labs testing pot for microbes participate in robust proficiency testing to ensure the veracity of their data. It means that everyone in the I-502 system gets secret shopped, not just the retailers. It means that the WSLCB steps up and sets clear, science-based pesticide thresholds now. It means that the WSLCB starts running randomized pesticide tests, and gets that recall procedure they were "actively working on today" a month ago written.
Really, it means that the citizens of Washington who voted for legalization get what they voted for.
Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the WSLCB, said that the board could take action on the lab and pesticide issues within a month. The board, as usual, is "actively working on" the issue, but he did provide firm dates for emergency rulemaking. WSLCB staff will present the board with emergency rules on recalls on March 23, and Carpenter expects to see proposed rules on the lab-testing issue sometime in April.
"Both rulemakings would strengthen the Board’s protocols and abilities regarding illegal pesticide use," he said. Asked how the board would react to the current round of results, which show twenty-five different producers failing the zero tolerance test, Carpenter said they would be handled like any other complaint.
"We would treat the results you mention as a complaint and investigate them," he said. "Should a licensee risk using an unapproved pesticide on their product, they run the risk of potentially losing their license as well as being shunned by retailers and consumers." It seems extremely unlikely that the WSLCB would suspend twenty-five growers at once, given the impact that would have on the I-502 system, but a recall would be nice. That process, until those emergency rules come through, will continue to be one of haphazard shunnings.
The WSLCB is, at least, coming ever so slowly to Jesus here. I guess this is progress? Unfortunately, while we wait for their epiphany on this, products with high levels of sketchy pesticides in them sit on our shelves. Trying to avoid them ain't easy. Everyone's website says they grow 100 percent organic shit, brah, but the tests tell a very different story.
Not all hope is lost, however. For starters, retailers and producers alike are taking it upon themselves to run pesticide tests. After being fined for pesticide violations in January, New Leaf has been "very proactive" in testing their products, said Fagras. Bowers told me that many of his suppliers are testing their products of their own volition. Because cannabis is sold between producers and processors so frequently, and different batches of trim or flower can end up in the same batch of extract, it's often difficult for a supplier to be sure themselves if their pot is clean, and many have decided to get out ahead of the issue.
"The industry wants to be better about this," said Bowers. "We want changes that let us police the industry ourselves. We can be more vigilant as a group."
Bowers went on to say, "[The WSLCB] listens to the industry when we bring up these issues. They want to solve these problems as much as we do." In the meantime, while you're waiting for that sweet, sweet regulatory intervention, you can still take steps to make sure you're not smoking crap.
If you know a guy who grows some really pure shit in a greenhouse out in Yelm, you're golden. If you're a nihilist and you don't give a shit what they spray on your pot, great. If you're like me, and you're trying to support this wacky legalization experiment by shopping at recreational stores, put your reading glasses on.
In the interest of transparency, which everyone in the industry who isn't doing vile things to their weed agrees we need more of, I'm posting all of the results below. You can cross-check these results against Oregon's thresholds (page 11, make sure to convert ppm to ppb) and figure out what you're comfortable with. For anything you don't see here, your best bet is to buy Clean Green or Certified Kind labeled products, or ask for some test results before you buy. Money talks. On top of all that, the fine folks at the CCA are also out there doing some legwork for you. Their website (http://cleancannabisassociation.com/) is under construction, but check back frequently for up-to-date info on what passes muster in Washington. Good luck out there, potheads.
This post has been updated since it was first published.