Pesticide regulation won’t protect marijuana consumers until 2018
Regulation is on the horizon for California’s medical marijuana industry — and for recreational weed, too, if voters pass Proposition 64 next month — but from now until at least 2018, it’s up to consumers to make sure their pot is free of harmful doses of toxins.
In the decade marijuana has been approved for medical use in California, the state has not regulated pesticides or fungicide in cultivation or solvents in processing of the plant product.
Like other crops, marijuana is vulnerable to destructive insects and fungus. Unlike other crops, pot is illegal under federal law and therefore the federal Environmental Protection Agency has not approved any pesticides or fungicides for it.
There are no federal guidelines for how much residual pesticide can be left on marijuana products sold to customers.
Left to their own devices, pot farmers treat their plants with whatever chemicals they deem effective and use as much as they see fit to protect their valuable crops. There’s no requirement that the products be tested before sale or that test results be disclosed to consumers.
Some of the marijuana concentrate products that pass through the San Diego-based testing lab, PharmLabs, test positive for contaminates that can be highly toxic, said PharmLabs chief executive officer and founder Greg Magdoff. Natural pest deterrents can pose health risks, too, if used in very high doses, Magdoff said.
“Organic pyrethrum oil seems harmless, but in reality, if there are large, large doses being used, it can be harmful,” Magdoff said. “It’s not mandatory to test yet, so the people who use it in very large doses aren’t testing it with us, and the people who aren’t are testing it to prove they don’t.”
Magdoff said many licensed dispensaries in San Diego voluntarily test their products at labs, but most only test products for potency — to determine strength of high-inducing chemicals. He said very few pay the added cost to test for pesticides, fungicides and solvents.
Consumers should not assume “lab tested” means the product was screened for anything beyond potency, Magdoff said. Ask to see a product’s certificate of analysis, which will have details and the test date, he said.
“The consumer is really at a disadvantage here, because without enough information, consumers can’t make good decisions,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director California Growers Association. “At this point, the infrastructure doesn’t exist, and so the consumer is at a real disadvantage without regulation.”
David R. Blair, chief executive officer at A Green Alternative, the first licensed medical marijuana dispensary to open in San Diego, said he works closely with the city to maintain the highest professional standards possible, and set a good example for other providers.
Product testing isn’t yet required, but he says having products screened in a skilled, accredited lab is an important part of providing a high standard of care to patients. The dispensary tests at PharmLabs.
“We’re concerned about mold, which is first, and we’re also concerned about the potency,” Blair said. “The testing lab we use tests for those two issues.”
The dispensary takes care to source products from growers and producers it knows use safe, ethical cultivation practices, Blair said.
Lab testing ensures all the marijuana on the dispensary’s shelves is free of pathogenic mold that could harm patients — especially those with compromised immune systems, Blair said. All marijuana-concentrate products are tested for potency.
Blair said it’s important to him that patients know what they’re getting when they make a purchase. He said the marijuana is stored in small jars, and the lab testing results are displayed right on the label.
Under California’s Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, passed last year, state oversight (including mandatory product testing) will begin in 2018, protecting patients regardless of whether voters decide to make recreational use legal for all adults.
Until then, the safety of marijuana products depends largely on the ethics of the growers, Allen said. There can be a night-and-day difference in the cultivation methods of legal and illegal farmers.
“It’s a very, very diverse community of businesses,” Allen said. “There’s some of the most exciting sustainable practices being used, and there are some that are patently criminal against nature.”
Marijuana presents unusual and significant challenges to state regulators because it doesn’t fit into the existing regulatory framework.
The federal EPA sets residue limits for unprocessed crops — and marijuana is processed, said Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Its status as a processed food also means state regulators don’t screen it for pesticides, as they do for fresh produce.
State regulators only monitor use of pesticides the federal EPA has approved, and it hasn’t approved any pesticides for marijuana because the plant is illegal federal level, Fadipe said.
To meet its responsibilities under the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, the department will employ toxicologists to review data and help the new Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation identify safe residue levels for processed marijuana which may be consumed, smoked, or used in topical creams and other products in various amounts, Fadipe said.
To be on the safe — and legal — side until regulation begins in 2018, marijuana growers in California can use a limited number of benign pest and fungus deterrents that are approved for a wide enough variety of uses to include marijuana, and are exempt from the federal EPA’s residue limits. The options include cinnamon, rosemary, peppermint oils, sulfur, and iron phosphate.
Toxicologists will have their work cut out for them, because there has been little research on the health effects of pesticides, fungicides and other contaminants when heated up and inhaled, experts say. Tobacco can’t be used as a frame of reference because the EPA doesn’t set residue limits for it, either.
Safe levels of pesticide residue on food might not be safe for products that are smoked because inhalation delivers a much higher concentration to the bloodstream, researchers have found. Plus, heat can change chemical composition in potentially dangerous ways.
“We don’t know what it’s turning into when it hits the lighter,” said Jeffrey Raber, chief executive officer of The Werc Shop laboratories in Los Angeles. “We have no really good toxicological data on how these things form and how they impact us when we inhale them.”
For example, myclobutanil, a low-risk fungicide used on grapes, turns into highly toxic hydrogen cyanide gas at temperatures that are lower than typically required to light dried marijuana on fire.
The U.S. EPA doesn’t allow myclobutanil use on tobacco, and it hasn’t evaluated the chemical’s toxicity and health risks in the context of smoking, so much remains unknown.
Given the potential health threat, the state of Colorado has deemed myclobutanil illegal to use on marijuana. A Colorado-based manufacturer of marijuana-infused products voluntarily recalled some of its merchandise in January after samples tested positive for myclobutanil and other banned pesticides and fungicides.
Many consumers think of marijuana as a natural product, and it doesn’t occur to them that it may have been exposed to chemicals during cultivation, Raber said. Many are unaware that until there’s working regulation, California is the “Wild West,” and anything goes, he said.
Very rarely, the lab finds evidence that someone has become creative in production of concentrated cannabis products, leaving behind residue of volatile hydrocarbons, Raber said. The lab has found traces of hexane, and, once, benzene, both highly toxic.
“It looked like someone used kerosene to make the oil,” Raber said of the time his lab found benzene. “We found it once in one sample, but we saw it. That’s not OK.”
Residue on marijuana is highly unlikely to make the consumer drop dead after a single use, but toxins can build up in the body and become problematic over years or decades, Raber said.
Regulation is the best way to protect consumers from contaminants, experts said. In the meantime, consumers should use responsible dispensaries, ask for lab testing that includes screening for pesticides, fungicides and solvents, and ask to see the product’s certificate of analysis. Check to make sure the certificate is for the product on the shelf, and has a recent test date.
Raber suggested using a smoking device that has a cotton filter, which research suggests adds a layer of protection against pesticide contaminants the user would otherwise inhale.