More ladybugs, fewer chemicals.
In an ideal world, we'd have more ladybugs, fewer chemicals. Ladybug / Thinkstock

Last week, The Stranger broke the news that more products on the shelves at recreational stores have tested positive for sketchy pesticides. Since then, I've heard from a lot of people in the industry and a lot of readers, and there are a few things it's important to clarify.

The point of publishing those results was not to discredit anyone. The point was to highlight one of the issues that is keeping the legal cannabis industry from being the best legal cannabis industry it possibly can be, and to follow up on a promise we all heard during the legalization fight, which was that legalization and regulation was going to make marijuana consumption safer. Because the regulations around pesticides on marijuana are currently confusing and inconsistent, journalism around pesticide practices is a good thing for the industry and its customers. Lord knows it’d be a lot easier to just write cute stories about traditional Himalayan pipes.

That said, in the rush to get the results published and the information out to our readers, I didn’t offer a clear enough interpretation of them.

First off, no one "failed" anything. In the original text of that post, which has since been updated, I mentioned (not by name) that some growers had "failed" pesticides testing conducted by Dr. Gil Mobley and the Clean Cannabis Association.

Gordon Fagras, whose lab ran the tests, pointed out that there is no standard in Washington State by which a grower could fail (which is part of the problem). Moreover, his lab isn’t in the business of passing those kind of judgments, even on the really heinous stuff.

“Our normal verbiage would be ‘not within state limits,’” Fagras said, “but there are no state limits except ‘you’re not supposed to use it.’" Though having any disallowed pesticide on your product would seem to be a failure in the state's eyes, it's not quite that simple.

Nick Mosely, who co-owns Confidence Analytics, pointed out that the presence of pesticides alone is not illegal. Under state law, only “using unauthorized pesticides” is illegal. While some of the results seem to be clear evidence of that, the mere presence of pesticides not allowed for cannabis isn’t technically illegal. Testing positive for unauthorized pesticides doesn't always mean a grower sprayed them. There are lots of ways they can get there beyond direct application. More on that in a second.

An even bigger problem with my original post was that I gave everyone the what without the why. Zach Izzard, Mosley’s chief chemist, wrote in an email to The Stranger about my reporting:

While he did go to some lengths to provide context for the test results, he left interpretation up to the layman reader, which is always a poor decision. I think Tobias' stance is right where it should be, but I don't think he's taking his readership's relative lack of knowledge on toxicology seriously enough.

Fair enough. While I would like to believe that you, dear readers, can convert ppm to ppb in your sleep and are familiar with the MSDS sheets for all pesticides involved, I admit that might not be the case. Most people might just look at the product names, see that they tested positive for unapproved pesticides, and say fuck 'em. Izzard wouldn’t.

“I, too, have seen the data,” he wrote. “Yes, it is troubling. No, it does not warrant a hair-on-fire, knee-jerk boycott of producers which happened to be tested, which is the sort of response this journalism is receiving.” That is also not the response I intended.

Before you condemn anyone, said Fagras, you’ve got to separate intentional use of disallowed pesticides from incidental contact. And there are a hell of a lot of ways incidental contact with disallowed pesticides can happen. There aren’t many pesticides approved for cannabis crops, but there are tons approved for every other kind of crop, and they’re everywhere.

Fruit farmers, apparently, make shitty neighbors, because a lot of their pesticides end up on their neighbors’ cannabis crops. Vashon Velvet, whose operation falls strictly into the “no pesticides, hyper-sustainable, hug-as-many-trees-as-possible” variety, came up with 40 ppb of myclobutanil (almost nothing!) on one of their products. Did they spray it on there? Nope, but the cherry orchard behind them was using it. It's not an issue when it comes to cherries because you don't smoke cherries.

Fagras told me about another grower whose cannabis tested positive for disallowed pesticides, causing them to lose a $30,000 sale. Turns out, the farm they’d grown their pot on had a past life as a potato farm. The pesticides used on the potatoes remained in the soil. Though they only showed up at way-below-safe amounts, the deal was dead—another striking example of how a lack of meaningful regulation hurts the industry as much as it hurts consumers.

Even if you bought the right farm with the right neighbors, or grew your cannabis in a sealed warehouse, you might still have an issue with lingering traces of pesticides. Because I-502 growers were allowed to bring in their starter plants from the medical or illegal markets, where pesticide use was completely unregulated, and because many of the disallowed pesticides are systemic, trace amounts can remain in clones taken from a mother plant. The owners of New Leaf learned this one the hard way.

There's also the issue of fertilizer and nutrients. Many nutrients are made with sugar or molasses, two crops that see plenty of pesticides. And fertilizer is just as risky.

While some pot growers, like Solstice, buy a special soil mix from a trusted source to ensure it’s unadulterated, many don’t realize fertilizer or soil can be a source of contamination. Indeed, many fertilizer products marketed to the cannabis industry were found to contain a dangerous growth hormone and banned in California. Fagras is working on testing nutrients and fertilizers to build a searchable database for growers to check, but for now it's a crapshoot.

Beyond that, even trace amounts of pesticides in the water used on plants can cause a positive result on pot.

Considering all the ways pesticides can get into pot that don’t involve actually spraying pesticides on the pot really puts those results from last week into context. In Izzard’s estimation, only 5 of the 37 products tested demonstrate clear evidence of misbehavior, while another 7 are iffy.

“Some of these low levels [of ppbs] in the 50s and 40s and 100s aren’t real telling about the sample,” said Fagras. “It’s the ones that are off the charts that you know they put shit on.”

To really hammer this obvious conclusion home, just because a product showed up with some banned pesticide does not make it unsafe. Pesticides are all around us all the time. True, smoking a pesticide is different—myclobutanil is the one that turns into cyanide at high temperatures—but 40 ppb of the stuff still isn’t enough to fret over.

“When we're detecting pesticides at 10 ppb,” said Mosely, “not only is that not a serious health threat—there’s likely to be far more on your apple—it’s not an indication that the producer sprayed that pesticide. It's basically background. All that said, some of the results are terribly disturbing.”

In last week's post, I urged readers to check the results against Oregon’s standards and decide for themselves what was disturbing and what was merely shrug-worthy. I wish I’d had this lovely spreadsheet that Brad Douglass, of the Werc Shop, put together. It lists all the pesticides involved and their associated "action levels," all in the same units as the Trace test results. Please, please, please compare the test results I posted last week to this reference before you jump to any conclusions. Also, read Bruce Barcott's excellent summary of the issue for Leafly News. He's got a great section on what we do and don't know about the actual health risks of pesticides on pot.

While there were definitely some results that were cause for concern, the real focus here should be on improving the regulatory systems in charge of consumer safety so we don't have to think about this shit. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board’s (WSLCB) current system of regulating pesticides offers us no official method to differentiate between growers who are putting the health of their customers at risk and those who are merely the victims of incidental contact.

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Worse yet, until Trace Analytics came online, none of the state's certified cannabis testing labs even had equipment to test for pesticides. Every one of them I talked to said it was because the state didn't require growers to get pesticide testing or perform any of its own. In lieu of testing, the WSLCB relied on its non-retail enforcement team to check on farms. That team made it to only about a third of the state's licensed growers for a return visit, with many of those visits being scheduled in advance. Any grower doing something shady, therefore, would easily have been able to hide the evidence. As good as the state's zero-tolerance system sounded in theory, it was both wrongheaded and unenforceable.

That system is indeed totally fucking fucked. It needs to be fixed. Calling attention to the system’s problems is the first step to fixing it.

Over the weekend, at a Cannabis Organization of Retail Establishments (CORE) mixer, shop owners across the city told me that WSLCB inspectors had been visiting their shops to buy random samples of product for pesticide testing. Tomorrow, at long last, the board will sit down to issue emergency rules on pesticides and product recalls. Labs and growers across the state are working closely with the WSLCB to set reasonable action levels for pesticides, and more labs are coming online to do testing within weeks. The tangled ball of Christmas lights is finally getting unraveled. And that, my friends, is exactly the response I hoped for by shining a bright light on these issues.