How well do you know your weed? A Berkeley laboratory recently found that 84 percent of medical marijuana samples contained large amounts of pesticides. Steep Hill, a Northern California–based cannabis testing lab, says its findings were much higher than expected and “are cause for concern for California cannabis consumers.”

“Those in the cannabis community who feel that all cannabis is safe are not correct given this data. Smoking a joint of pesticide-contaminated cannabis could potentially expose the body to lethal chemicals,” says Jmichaele Keller, president and CEO of Steep Hill. “As a community, we need to address this issue immediately and not wait until 2018.”

Many growers throughout California have turned away from pesticides in recent years, but regulations governing their use remain murky as the state grapples with how to handle a burgeoning marijuana market. 

Steep Hill researchers found chemical residue belonging to myclobutanil, a key ingredient in pesticide Eagle 20, in more than 65 percent of samples tested during a 30-day period. Eagle 20 is commonly used by growers due to its effectiveness against powdery mildew and other pests. But when it’s burned, myclobutanil turns into hydrogen cyanide or prussic acid, a colorless and extremely poisonous compound that can be lethal in high doses. Hydrogen cyanide affects organs most sensitive to low oxygen levels, including the brain, cardiovascular system and lungs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has “a distinctive bitter almond odor” but most people can’t detect it.

Eagle 20 is approved for use on certain crops and plants, including turf grass, ornamental flowers and fruit trees. Everything from Christmas trees to cherries might be treated by the pesticide. But unlike cannabis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture carefully tests each plant before issuing guidelines on when it is safe to use Eagle 20 and in what dosage. There is no such regulatory practice currently in place for California marijuana. 

Eighty-four percent of medical marijuana recently tested in a Berkeley laboratory contained large amounts of pesticides.; Credit: Courtesy Clean Green Certified

Eighty-four percent of medical marijuana recently tested in a Berkeley laboratory contained large amounts of pesticides.; Credit: Courtesy Clean Green Certified

Pesticide-related product recalls have become increasingly common over the past year in states where pot is legal, but Berkeley is the only California city to implement rigid limitations on pesticide use. That will change in 2018 when the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act goes into place. Passed in 2015, the bill creates a comprehensive state licensing system for the commercial cultivation, manufacture, retail sale, transport, distribution, delivery and testing of medical cannabis. All licenses must also be approved by local governments.

The folks behind Clean Green Certified, the only nationally recognized third-party certification program, has already begun testing marijuana. Founded in 2004, Clean Green certifies cannabis using sustainable, biodynamic and organic standards. Technically, marijuana cannot be called organic because the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not legally recognize the plant. But it can be grown using alternative pesticides and clean growing practices.

Clean Green tests soil, nutrients, pesticides, mold and dust treatment. Each operator undergoes an annual field test and must enact a carbon footprint reduction plan, water conservation measures and fair labor practices in order to be certified.

“Because marijuana has been developed in the black market, pesticide regulators were never involved in the development of that agriculture,” says Clean Green founder Chris Van Hook, who is also an agricultural lawyer. “Growers would use whatever was easy and effective regardless of how poisonous it was.”

Van Hook likens the synthetic cultivation of weed to the difference between buying organic basil and a mass-produced version. The latter might have greener leaves and stay fresh longer, but what about the chemicals used to create it? With pesticide-treated cannabis, “what the consumer is smoking and inhaling remains unknown,” Van Hook says.

Los Angeles County has only two Clean Green certified businesses: Green Soldiers Healers and Restore Collective, which works mostly with cancer patients who have been referred by oncologists recommending a pure form of cannabis that won’t interfere with ongoing treatment or unnecessarily endanger a patient’s immune system.

“We’re dealing with a lot of very ill patients,” says Jarvis Turnage of Restore Collective. “They’re undergoing chemotherapy and their immune systems are very weak. If you have even the slightest bit of anything that is synthetic, it can make a patient even more ill.”

Restore Collective has a team of nurses that visit these patients in their homes and provide counseling. Their client base skews older, and many have never tried cannabis products before. Clean Green’s rigid guidelines make clients feel more comfortable using medicine that has been carefully screened.

“Even before you harvest, they come out and actually evaluate your soil, your process, and rate it,” Turnage says. “They are very, very strict.”

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