There’s very little science on the risks of smoking something with pesticides.
DENVER, CO – AUGUST 19: Lucas Targos the head grower at L’Eagle sprays the marijuana plants in their cultivation room on Wednesday August 19, 2015. They spray with neem oil which helps combat the spider mites and mildew. He sprays the plants every 7-10 days. This was the last spraying before they go into the flowering stage. Targos was an organic food farmer before working with marijuana. (Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images )
Just between 2000 and 2005, the U.S. organic foods market doubled to an estimated value of $13.8 billion dollars. But, despite the fact that more than half of Americans have smoked marijuana at some point in their lives, cannabis has not been under this same scrutiny. With the growing legalization of recreational marijuana, that’s quickly changing.
In recent weeks, the biggest recreational market in the world, California, which is set to begin sales on Jan. 1, has been heavily criticized for not getting on board fast enough. For the first six months, there will be products on the shelves of California dispensaries that have not been tested for pesticides. This means until mid-2018 it will be on consumers to check labels for pesticide use or ask their dispensary about whether it’s doing independent testing of their products.
A study from Steep Hill found that 86 percent of Californian weed contains pesticide traces.
“In regulated legal markets, the types and timing of any pesticide use are strictly specified and controlled. This is true of spinach and tobacco, but not cannabis,” said Steep Hill Labs scientist Donald Land, who is trying to raise awareness about the risks of untested cannabis. “We had a vision to help CA medicinal cannabis patients get access to information that allows them to choose cannabis that is tested for and labeled with the results for safety and efficacy.”
Part of the irregular regulation around cannabis roots back to a commonplace problem for the cannabis industry in general: cannabis remains a federally illegal drug, and therefore the conventional federal organizations that oversee crops—EPA, FDA, USDA—are turning a blind eye. Basic safety measures are therefore left to the states or even independent organizations like Steep Hill.
When something is smoked, compared to eaten, it makes its way into the lungs and bloodstream without being as broken down or digested. Land says one concerning, commonplace pesticide is myclobutanil. Myclobutanil is used to ward off pests and fungus, the most common place banes to Californian crops.
Unlike some chemicals, myclobutanil absorbs into plants so it cannot be washed off. It can even be passed on from a mother plant. Advocates of myclobutanil say traces of it on produce are negligible, but science on the effects of smoking it are unclear, particularly for medical marijuana patients who have a weakened immune system. Land says that people with certain medical conditions should avoid smoking flowers altogether since there can be unsuspecting contaminants which are harmless to a healthy smoker.
Robert Watson of San Francisco dispensary Dutchman’s Flat says that myclobutanil-based fungicides can produce cyanide when combusted. Dutchman’s Flat tests cannabis products independently for their customers. “The use of pesticides on medicine, cannabis or any other herb, makes no sense to us,” said Watson. “We first started to test THC percent and included pesticide testing once labs provided the service.”
While California will eventually enforce pesticide regulation, smokers deserve to know what they’ll be inhaling come Jan. 1. More than regulation, Donald Land says he would appreciate intelligent regulation. According to Land, California’s proposed testing system isn’t cost or result efficient.
“Less than 5% of the legally sold cannabis is currently tested,” says Land. “By the end of 2018, that number will rise to 100%. Patients and recreational users will then have confidence that the system is in place to give them the information they need to make an informed purchase choice.”