California’s organics-loving, go-green mentality is what makes the state a hub for environmental progress, but in the case of the cannabis industry, some say it could be its downfall. Pesticide regulations released earlier this year by the California Bureau of Medical Cannabis are some of the strictest requirements in the country — possibly the strictest — and have left both cultivators and testing laboratories reeling.
“They will be exceptionally difficult if not virtually impossible [to meet],” said Dr. Jeffrey Raber, chief executive of the Werc Shop, a cannabis research and testing facility in Monrovia.
Pesticides are an integral part of both the indoor and outdoor agricultural industry, and are used to help fend off or kill mites, bugs, diseases or other threats to a plant’s integrity. They’re also poison, and most industry members agree pesticides need to be regulated in a manner comparable to other agricultural products we consume. In fact, marijuana faces additional scrutiny because it is also a form of medicine, and some consumers who use it suffer from compromised immune systems.
However, California’s current “residual tolerance requirements” — basically, how much of certain pesticides is allowed to remain on cannabis products when they’re ready to hit the market — may pose problems on the production line. For one, the microscopic amounts that labs will be testing — either on a parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb) basis — require extremely expensive equipment that’s difficult to maintain and that many facilities will have to specially purchase, Raber said. It’s like investing in a house, he said, and can cost upward of $500,000.
This could not only prove prohibitive for testing facilities but also result in a laboratory bottleneck as producers across the state flock to get products tested in accordance with California law.
One of the most contentious chemicals on California’s list is Myclobutanil, a fungicide commonly used on almonds, berries and grapes in the state. For these foods, Myclobutanil is limited to .025 parts per million, Raber said, while for cannabis edibles, it’s currently limited to .02 parts per million. Based on his lab’s calculations — which take into account how much an average consumer weighs and how much weed they’d be consuming per day — the conservative limit for cannabis should actually be closer to 1.5 parts per million.
In short, people consume less cannabis, so the acceptable pesticide rates can be higher.
“You’re going to eat a whole lot more apples and grapes than you are cannabis,” he said.
Acceptable pesticide levels vary depending on if the product is cannabis flower, an edible or another type of processed cannabis, and Raber said that distinguishing based on method of intake makes sense. When one eats weed, it’s metabolized and filtered by the liver, and there’s already an existing body of research on how pesticides are processed in oral consumption, he said. When weed is smoked, however, it goes straight into the bloodstream. In addition, there's no prior body of research on the topic, so it's appropriate that regulators exercise caution with requirements for cannabis flowers.
The draft regulations also may be difficult for cultivators to meet, especially because up until this time, most had little to no guidance on what types of pesticides to use or at what point of the growing process they should be applied, Raber said. There is the added complication that Myclobutanil (among others) can spread through groundwater and rainwater, and show up in the product of a grower who hasn’t even used that pesticide.
“Pesticide testing makes up a very small percentage of the number of tests we do because it’s expensive and no one's requiring it yet,” said Josh Wurzer, president and lab director of SC Laboratories Inc., a cannabis testing facility in Santa Ana.
Of the cannabis products SC Labs has tested, in which it screened for the 12 most common pesticides, about 77 percent of cannabis concentrates would fail California’s proposed regulations by a landslide, Wurzer said. The findings of a NBC investigation released earlier this year echo this conclusion. In a review of 44 weed samples obtained from 15 dispensaries throughout Southern California, a lab found that 93 percent of them tested positive for pesticides, at high enough levels that they would have been banned from states that currently regulate pesticides in cannabis.
California’s regulations were determined in large part by recommendations made by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which oversees the sale and use of pesticides in an effort to protect human health and the environment. Toxicologists used research data provided by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, as well as existing regulations from other states, to try to pinpoint quantities of pesticides safe for use.
“We welcome these tight regulations on pesticides,” said Ryan Jennemann, manager of sustainability-focused THC Design, a cultivator based in Los Angeles.
For producers like Jennemann — whose pest-management program is 100 percent organic and consists of only natural bacterias and beneficial fungi — these proposed requirements only serve to further distinguish them from the pesticide-using pack. The draft requirements are a lot stricter than anticipated, Jennemann said, but they’re also direly needed, as independent studies have shown widespread use of hormones and chemicals in California’s cannabis.
“You can see how almost nobody in the industry is growing a safe product,” he said. “I have been in zero grows over 4,000 [or] 5,000 square feet that I haven’t seen banned substances.”
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As for the hotly disputed Myclobutanil, Jennemann said, growers shouldn’t be using it in the first place. (Although the drug is classified as having "low acute toxicity," workers exposed to it have reported everything from nausea and eye irritation to abdominal pain and vomiting, and studies in rats show it could have long-term effects on reproductive systems.)
But even Jennemann isn’t totally satisfied with the proposed regulations. For one, when testing is regulated on the parts-per-billion level, it can detect pesticides that were present in the product not just weeks but months before production. This can pose a huge issue for even the greenest of companies, since they often buy genetics or do collaborations with other growers and can as a result be penalized for a poison that was never applied by them.
With a Jan. 1 rollout looming, Alex Traverso, chief of communications at the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation, said that these testing requirements are not set in stone. The state is withdrawing the proposed medical regulations and reworking guidelines that combine both medical and adult-use industries, as dictated by SB 94. While California will certainly have some of the “more stringent testing standards of any state that’s legalized thus far,” Traverso said they’re trying to protect consumers while minimizing financial burden on producers.
“All along we recognize that the overall goal here in terms of legalizing and regulating the industry is to do as much as you can to eliminate the black market, and you don’t do that if you make things cost-prohibitive,” he said.