Corrected Version: Growing Pains: Regulating the Use of Pesticides on Marijuana
In 46 states, marijuana smokers still have to worry about being arrested and jailed for their use of marijuana. The latest Uniform Crime Report released a few days ago found more than 700,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges during 2014 — a marijuana arrest every 45 seconds. Of those arrests, 88 percent were for simple possession for personal use – just average Americans who enjoy smoking a joint when they relax at the end of the day, just as tens of millions of Americans enjoy a beer or a glass of wine.
And when our personal freedom is at stake, ending arrests has to be the priority for all of us.
New Challenges with Legal Marijuana
But as we move forward to fully legalize marijuana in more and more states, a number of consumer protection issues come to the fore in those states to assure the marijuana and marijuana products we are offering to consumer are safe, free from potentially harmful molds, pesticides, insecticides or other contaminants, and are accurately labeled.
As with any plant, marijuana is prone to pests and disease, and pesticides and herbicides are routinely used to prevent bugs and mildew from destroying plants, which could cost the grower millions of dollars.
Because marijuana has for decades been considered illegal contraband, there is almost no research available dealing with the potential harm to the marijuana consumer from these potential additives. The closest body of relevant science involves the potential risks from food treated with additives, and from tobacco treated with additives.
And because marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the agency charged with protecting Americans and our environment from potentially dangerous pesticides, has essentially rebuffed state authorities when they have approached the agency for advice and assistance in getting this right. The states are largely having to develop their own list of which additives are safe to use on marijuana, and which are not.
And not surprisingly, there have been some growing pains. As with other legal industries, some in the marijuana industry have used their increasing influence to delay and water-down potential regulations intended to protect consumers, and advocated for less stringent protections.
But that is just part of the usual give-and-take between those who represent the industry, and those of us who represent consumers. Over time these and other similar issues can be resolved in a manner that protects the health of the consumer, while still allowing a robust marijuana cultivation industry.
Problems in Oregon
A recent investigative piece in the Oregonian found that many of the marijuana products being sold to medical patients in Oregon, (they have only recently begun selling for recreational use) with the required lab certificate indicating they had been tested and were safe, in fact were adulterated, sometimes in far greater amounts than is allowed for those same additives on food or tobacco products. This was especially a problem with extracts and concentrates.
“A combination of lax state rules, inconsistent lab practices and inaccurate test results has allowed pesticide-laced products to enter the medical marijuana market,” the Oregonian concluded, calling for far more detailed and stringent state regulations to regulate the testing facilities themselves, to assure reliable results. Those new, more comprehensive regulations are expected to be promulgated by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the state agency designated to regulate the new legal recreational marijuana industry, in 2016, as they officially roll-out the new recreational stores.
Similar Experiences in Colorado
In Colorado, recognizing the problem of different labs coming up with conflicting test results from the same marijuana, the legislature recently passed, and the governor signed, legislation creating statewide marijuana lab standards for marijuana potency, homogeneity and contaminants. And the state Department of Agriculture recently proposed a draft list of about 75 pesticides deemed to be safe for use on marijuana, based on their previous approval for use on food intended for human consumption, down from the current list of 200 acceptable pesticides. The state is finally acting, prodded by the city of Denver that had begun adopting its own standards, and requiring a few growers and retailers to recall some contaminated products.
The Cannabist and the Denver Post report that the pesticide regulations were delayed by a year, and ended-up being less restrictive than originally proposed, because of pressure from the marijuana industry in CO, fearful some of the pesticides currently in common use would be prohibited, putting their crops at risk. The marijuana industry “was the biggest obstacle we had,” in devising pesticide regulations, according to former Colorado Agricultural Commissioner John Salazar.
Two growers based in Denver – Mahatma Concentrates and Treatments Unlimited – are now under investigation by the Colorado Department of Agriculture for excessive pesticide residue on their products, and in at least one case, the products have been recalled.
Washington Tries to be Proactive
The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (recently renamed to include our favorite herb), the agency that has licensing, regulatory and enforcement authority over recreational cannabis growers, processors and retailers, seeking to be proactive, initially attempted to seek guidance from the EPA in 2014, but were advised the federal agency does not consider marijuana to be an herb, spice or vegetable, but rather a controlled substance, and would provide no guidance.
Eventually the state regulatory agency issued a comprehensive listing of 309 pesticides that are permitted to be used in the production, processing, and handling of marijuana. According to a statement issued by the Seattle and King County Public Health Department, “These pesticides were selected because their use on marijuana plants would not be in direct conflict with federal law (they are allowed on other food products) and they are considered to pose minimal risk to health when used as directed.” Marijuana retailers are required to document all pesticides used on marijuana products that they sell and provide that information to customers and regulators upon request.
The Washington State Department of Health is currently formulating quality assurance standards for marijuana products, including guidelines for pesticide testing. The Seattle Times reports that marijuana growers and processors in Washington state that meet new state standards for things like labeling, safe handling, and pesticide screening, can now apply to obtain an “enhanced seal of approval” from the state.
Washington does already require screening for mold and microbes, but the state isn’t mandating that companies also undertake the expensive process of screening for pesticides. Rather, the state Liquor and Cannabis Board is hoping that the incentive of carrying that new label will be sufficient to make it worth their while.
Obviously there is a critical need for comprehensive new research on the safety of pesticides on marijuana, which could then inform revised regulations to further protect marijuana consumers from marijuana adulterated by dangerous pesticides, insecticides or other contaminants. And the newly legal marijuana industry emerging in a handful of states has a moral obligation to carefully adhere to current regulations, as well as those yet to come, to assure the products they produce are safe for human consumption.
Admittedly, we had no such protections from the marijuana we smoked for decades that was cultivated on the black market, and most of us came through that experience without any detectable harm. But with legalization, we now have the opportunity to bring this market under the same protections we provide for other legal substances that are deemed fit for human consumption, and to provide consumers with the assurance that the marijuana they are smoking is free from harmful contaminants.
The experience in this initial group of legalization states in dealing with pesticides and other contaminants will provide a base of scientific data that other states can adopt and build-on going forward.
Like any other industry, there will occasionally be a bad actor who intentionally flouts the rules and puts at risk the health of those who consume their products. But those will, over time, be identified and forced out of the legal industry; and they are surely the exception. Most industry players want to operate in a responsible manner to build their brand’s reputation for quality and safety.
As we move forward, there will continue to be new challenges, but it is wonderful to be at a place where we can begin to address these consumer protection issues, something that was simply not possible so long as marijuana was a prohibited substance, and marijuana smokers were considered criminals.
Due to a technical glitch, the earlier post of this column was not complete. This is the entire column. My apology for any confusion.
October 12, 2015