Every year since Washington legalized cannabis, consumer watchdogs inside and outside of the industry have warned the public about the presence of unsafe pesticides, or unsafe levels of pesticides in the legal weed supply. Most recently, pesticides are at the forefront of consumers' minds again following a report that a medical marijuana advocate with Patients United wrote to the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) to tell them that pesticide contamination levels in Washington may constitute a public health emergency.
“Likely tens of thousands of Washington consumers are consuming regulated recreational cannabis during any one day,” wrote patient advocate John Kingsbury. "With pesticide testing failure rates of 30-43%, it is statistically guaranteed that those consumers will consume product with illegal amounts of pesticides in it every third use.”
Pesticides in Washington Cannabis
The numbers referenced by John Kingsbury came from testing data from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). Without disputing the claims, LCB spokesperson Brian Smith pointed out that the WSDA’s pesticide tests are mostly based on complaints, and "samples submitted based on complaints could result in positive for pesticides results in greater frequency than the average population.” A valid point, though a separate report by Confidence Analytics independently found that an average of 30% of the products they tested contained illegal levels of pesticides or unapproved pesticides. Their findings were that fails for concentrates were the highest (45% failure rate), followed by trim (30% failure rate), and finally flower (11% failure rate).
Concerns about pesticides in cannabis reached a fever pitch after a local chain of pot shops started a program to randomly lab test their products. Within 2 months, they found that 20 to 30% of their products contained high levels of residual pesticides.
You may be surprised to learn that Washington does not require pesticide testing for marijuana products. WAC 314-55-102 specifically states that “certified labs must be certified to the following fields of testing by the WSLCB… with the exception of mycotoxin, heavy metal, or pesticide residue screening.” This section was revised in April 2018 to specify that testing for residual or illegal pesticides is only required if a cannabis producer wishes to incorporate the Washington State Department of Health's (DOH) “General Use,” “High CBD,” or “High THC” compliance logos on their packaging. For clarification, products with these compliance labels are intended for medical users, but any adult may purchase products with “General Use” or “High CBD” labels.
Potential Dangers of Pesticides
Unfortunately, not much is known about the potential health risks of inhaling pesticides. The problem is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can’t legally give the marijuana industry guidance on this, nor can they approve any chemicals for use on an illegal crop. The WSDA has approved 300 pesticides for use on marijuana on the basis that the EPA allows them to be used on food crops, and while these pesticides are safe to eat in small amounts, there are little to no studies about the effects of combusting and inhaling these pesticides.
One legal fungicide that’s especially troubling is myclobutanil, the active ingredient in a now banned pesticide known as Eagle 20. When myclobutanil is heated to 401º F— perhaps using a butane lighter— it converts into a toxic gas called hydrogen cyanide. In case you’re wondering, a standard lighter burns in excess of 3,500º F.
Myclobutanil is approved for use on cannabis in Washington state, but not approved for use on tobacco at the federal level. The action level (maximum allowable concentration) for myclobutanil in Washington cannabis is 0.2 parts per million (ppm), and of the 1,000+ cannabis products tested by Confidence Analytics between June 2016 and October 2018, just 4% failed for myclobutanil.
Even natural pesticides like neem oil can have negative effects on your health when consumed in high doses; the active ingredient, azadirachtin, is believed to be the potential cause of the cyclical vomiting illness that has come to be known as "Cannabis Hyperemesis Syndrome" (CHS). Though neem oil is safe to use as a pesticide while cannabis is in its vegetative state, it should not be applied to the plant once it begins flowering because users who inhale excessive amounts of azadirachtin— especially if it’s been concentrated into dabs— may experience severe nausea, cramps, and vomiting. Note that some conscientious producers like Lazy Bee Gardens specify on their packaging and their website that they only use neem oil during the vegetative cycle.
But make no mistake: you’re still better off buying recreational weed over anything you’d get from the black market. Illegal growers have been using nasty pesticides for decades that have caused harm to medical marijuana patients, to animals, and to the environment; The compulsory lab testing that comes with a regulated cannabis economy holds growers to higher quality standards— even just by banning the use of certain chemicals— but there’s no accountability without mandatory pesticide screenings.
WSDA Certified Cannabis
It goes without saying that lab testing Washington cannabis for pesticides should have been required from the beginning, and now the powers that be are currently working on rules for mandatory pesticide testing.
Many recreational consumers and medical patients concerned about pesticides want weed that was grown using organic cultivation methods; The problem with this— as you might recall from our article on living soil— is a question of semantics. There’s nothing to stop any I-502 producer from cultivating marijuana using “organic" growing techniques, but use of the word “organic” is regulated by the federal government, so we can’t legally use the “o” word in the weed industry until pot is legalized or rescheduled on the national level.
The WSDA is addressing this legal bottleneck by starting their own program to certify Washington cannabis under “organic” like standards. This program was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee in May 2017, and has taken the better part of 2 years to get off the ground. “The goal is to be able to begin offering the service next year, in 2019,” said WDSA spokesperson Hector Castro, “We’re on track right now to be able to do that.” As of this writing, it looks like the program will be called Certified Cannabis.
Unfortunately the state’s Certified Cannabis program isn't up and running yet, and regular consumers are looking for solutions now.
Clean Green Certified Bud
In 2003, accredited organic certification agent Chris Van Hook received a call from a California cannabis farmer who wanted to certify his crop. Van Hook wanted to help the farmer, but he knew that marijuana could not legally be certified as organic, so the following year he started the Clean Green Certified program to certify cannabis by the same cultivation standards.
In order to be certified, a farm must only grow their cannabis using pre-approved soils, nutrients, and pesticides that are allowed under national organic programs. As of 2008, Clean Green has certified over 175 marijuana businesses across the United States, and is now expanding into Canada. About 16 of Washington’s 1,000+ producers are Clean Green Certified, and as Herbn Elements is a Clean Green Certified dispensary, we carry products from at least 4 of those growers.
What About "Pesticide Free" Herb?
There are plenty of brands on dispensary shelves that have the words “pesticide free” on their packaging, but the truth is that the phrase “pesticide free” is misleading; some form of pest control will always be necessary in cannabis cultivation, and even water could be considered a pesticide.
Most growers are aware of the negative connotations and potential health risks associated with pesticides, so the ones who grow “pesticide free” weed abstain from using harsh chemicals. These farms still need to make sure there are no bugs in their buds, so they opt to use natural pest control methods like sage, cedar, rosemary, and/or predatory insects. All this is to say that there’s nothing wrong with natural pest control methods, we just want to point out the misnomer so our customers think of “pesticide free” herb as “chemical free” instead.
Find Clean Weed
In addition to being a Clean Green Certified dispensary, Herbn Elements is also a medically-endorsed marijuana store, so we recently added “Clean Green” and “DOH Certified” filters to our online menu to make it easier for our customers to find certified cannabis products. Clean Green Certified products are denoted with a green leaf icon, and products that are compliant with DOH standards are denoted with a green “DOH.”
Alternatively, if you’re concerned about consuming pesticides and need peace of mind tonight, please visit our Seattle pot shop and ask for Clean Green Certified or “pesticide free” products.
Article by Ramsey Doudar; an in-house marketing and social media strategist at Herbn Elements. His perspective is influenced by 2 years of budtending, 5 years as a cannabis industry marketing professional, and 10+ years of being a super picky medical patient.