Colorado regulators recalled roughly 65 batches of cannabis produced by two separate companies last Friday. Pesticide recalls plastered all over the news in the past few months have painted a picture of the cannabis marketplace to the public as unsafe and lacking crucial quality standards. The continued pesticide recalls in Colorado, along with poor safety standards in Washington, show the cannabis industry in an unfavorable light. The recalls include not only cannabis sold recreationally, but also medical cannabis, which should highlight a sense of urgency to deal with such a pervasive issue.
Because patients with weakened immune systems are seeking treatment with cannabis, it is the producer’s obligation to grow cannabis safely and without pesticides. That requires proper quality controls, pesticide use standard operating procedures, very robust lab testing and an overall push to protect consumer safety from both regulators and industry leaders.
Largely due to federal illegality, there are no EPA-approved pesticides for use in cannabis production, thus a lack of guidelines for states to follow in regulating pesticide use. As a result, states are working to write their own lists of approved pesticides.
Until very recently, Washington had no procedure for recalls of cannabis in place. “The LCB in Washington State has implemented emergency recall rules but more clarity on what types of pesticides are harmful is needed,” says Trek Hollnagel, co-founder of Dope Magazine and a chain of dispensaries in Seattle, WA. It is no secret that the Washington State Liquor Cannabis Board (LCB) poorly regulates cannabis labs.
Reports show immense variation in different labs’ results and rampant laboratory shopping. Dana Luce, co-founder of GOAT Labs, Inc., a cannabis-testing laboratory based in Vancouver, Washington, has been clamoring for a standardized recall procedure. “The state needs to take a much more proactive approach in monitoring laboratories,” says Luce. “Using blind testing or secret shoppers would give them the opportunity to catching those labs playing below board.” Luce also believes that retail outlets should absorb the cost of recalls, which could help prevent laboratory shopping just for higher potency test results.
In Washington, regulators rely on producers to self-report coupled with random inspections; furthermore they do not even require pesticide testing. Without a burden of proof placed on the producer or even the laboratory, it is hardly a regulated market.
Those producing cannabis with pesticides listed above should know they are violating the law. According to Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C), “applying pesticides off label is a violation of state and federal law and could result in criminal and civil sanctions…”
In reality, the solution to this problem is not just a quick fix, but a multitude of corrective actions to move the cannabis industry forward. Nic Easley, chief executive officer of 3C, believes it starts with educating cultivators on using pesticides properly and good agricultural practices (GAP). “Many of the pest problems prompting the illegal use of pesticides are due to poor facility design, lack of cleanliness, over-fertilization and other general plant health issues,” says Easley. “All of those issues could be greatly reduced through education in GAP.”
Then comes regulator-industry collaboration, where all parties are constantly learning. “Regulators or independent third-party groups need to be performing on-site inspections, which cultivators need to participate in openly and transparently,” adds Easley. The Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) is actively working on this aspect by offering workshops aimed at helping producers get up to speed with worker protection standards.
“Adequate standards need to be applied across the board to labs, and ongoing proficiency testing needs to take place to ensure that a lab’s facility, processes and instruments are fully validated,” says Easley. So the problem is cannabis producers still using pesticides off label and if that continues, so will the recalls. It seems the solution involves industry-regulator collaboration, more robust laboratory systems and calibration methods and educating cultivators on good agricultural practices. Additionally, more state guidance is needed in the form of research for an approved list of pesticides on cannabis and a bigger push for regulation in the form of inspections and laboratory oversight.
I have been working with the chemical analysis side of the cannabis industry for about six years, and I have seen tremendous scientific growth on the part of cannabis labs over that time. Based on conversations with labs and the presentations and forums held at cannabis analytical conferences, I have seen the cannabis analytical industry move from asking, “how do we do this analysis?” to asking “how do we do this analysis right?” This change of focus represents a milestone in the cannabis industry; it means the industry is growing up. Growing up is not always easy, and that is being reflected now in a new focus on understanding and addressing key issues such as pesticides in cannabis products, and asking important questions about how regulation of cannabis labs will occur.
While sometimes painful, growth is always good. To support this evolution, we are now focusing on the contribution that laboratories make to the safety of the cannabis consumer through the generation of quality data. Much of this focus has been on ensuring scientifically sound data through regulation. But Restek is neither a regulatory nor an accrediting body. Restek is dedicated to helping analytical chemists in all industries and regulatory environments produce scientifically sound data through education, technical support and expert advice regarding instrumentation and supplies. I have the privilege of supporting the cannabis analytical testing industry with this goal in mind, which is why I decided to write a regular column detailing simple ways analytical laboratories can improve the quality of their chromatographic data right now, in ways that are easy to implement and are cost effective.
Anyone with an instrument can perform chromatographic analysis and generate data. Even though results are generated, these results may not be valid. At the cannabis industry’s current state, no burden of proof is placed on the analytical laboratory regarding the validity of its results, and there are few gatekeepers between those results and the consumer who is making decisions based on them. Even though some chromatographic instruments are super fancy and expensive, the fact is that every chromatographic instrument – regardless of whether it costs ten thousand or a million dollars – is designed to spit out a number. It is up to the chemist to ensure that number is valid.
In the first couple of paragraphs of this article, I used terms to describe ‘good’ data like ‘scientifically-sound’ or ‘quality’, but at the end of the day, the definition of ‘good’ data is valid data. If you take the literal meaning, valid data is justifiable, logically correct data. Many of the laboratories I have had the pleasure of working with over the years are genuinely dedicated to the production of valid results, but they also need to minimize costs in order to remain competitive. The good news is that laboratories can generate valid scientific results without breaking the bank.
In each of my future articles, I will focus on one aspect of valid data generation, such as calibration and internal standards, explore it in practical detail and go over how that aspect can be applied to common cannabis analyses. The techniques I will be writing about are applied in many other industries, both regulated and non-regulated, so regardless of where the regulations in your state end up, you can already have a head start on the analytical portion of compliance. That means you have more time to focus on the inevitable paperwork portion of regulatory compliance – lucky you! Stay tuned for my next column on instrument calibration, which is the foundation for producing quality data. I think it will be the start of a really good series and I am looking forward to writing it.
In the first part of this series, I presented some issues with perpetual harvest models for cultivation with respect to inefficiencies in technology and environmental monitoring. I made the case for compartmentalizing cultivation facilities to not only increase energy efficiency, but also to mitigate contamination and control risks for pest incursions. In the second part of this series, I will elaborate on how compartmentalizing your facility can help you stay compliant with pesticide use regulations and promote worker safety.
Problems with Pesticide Use and Worker Safety Regulations
Where there are pests there are pesticides, whether they are low-toxicity materials derived from natural sources or chemical products that are illegal to use on cannabis. Even in the case of growers that are following current pesticide guidelines and using only products approved by their state department of agriculture, perpetual harvest models present issues in ensuring that the workplace is safe for employees and compliant with pesticide use regulations.
One obvious difficulty is the impossibility of containing drift from pesticides applied as foliar sprays. At this point, due to the lack of research performed on pesticides and cannabis, there are currently no defined pre-harvest intervals (PHI), even for products allowed for use on cannabis. A pesticide’s PHI is the number of days that must pass between the time of the last application of a pesticide and when the crop is cut for harvest. While no official, research-based PHIs have been outlined for pesticide use on cannabis, most conscientious cultivators refrain from spraying their crops with anything once flowers have emerged, as the resinous, sticky buds and their many crevices would presumably retain a great amount of any material applied to them. However, flowers do not generally emerge fully until the third week of the flowering process, and many growers apply preventative applications in the first two weeks of flower. In a perpetual harvest facility, what is to stop drift from applications made early in flower from contacting plants close to harvest? One could simply not spray in flower at all, but eliminating early-flower preventative treatments could increase the chances of a pest incursion, which, as discussed above, can be seemingly intractable in this type of facility.
It is important to consider the restricted entry interval (REI) when dealing with pesticide use. The REI of a pesticide is the period of time after an area is treated during which restrictions on entry are in effect to protect people from exposure to hazardous levels of pesticide residues. Most of the products and materials approved for use on cannabis in Colorado have no REI or a relatively short one. At the time I left my former facility, the longest REI for any product in use was twelve hours (for Evergreen Pyrethrum Concentrate), though most had REIs of four hours or less. This issue could be avoided in a perpetual harvest facility by simply always scheduling pesticide applications at the end of the workday; if a product is sprayed at 6 PM, for example, then the treated area should be safe for entry by the following morning when employees arrive. However, what is to be done if a pest incursion is discovered in the middle of the day and an immediate treatment is necessary to prevent its spread? Would the management or ownership of such a facility be willing to clear out the entire perpetual harvest area for 4-12 hours, potentially leaving other tasks unperformed or incomplete, so that a few plants could be sprayed? Even if operators went to such lengths to observe REIs properly, instances such as the hypothetical described above would create massive interruptions in daily workflows and scheduled tasks that are highly undesirable in a well-managed commercial setting. Compartmentalization allows for essential tasks in a single room that might need an emergency treatment to be completed in a timely manner, and cordoned off after the pesticide application to observe the REI.
A final point concerning this topic is that perpetual harvest facility designs make it difficult to observe certain requirements of the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). WPS is administered by the EPA (but is enforced by the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) in that state) and consists of training intended to reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning and injury among agricultural workers and pesticide handlers. WPS training is required for all agricultural workers and pesticide handlers, including those in the legal cannabis industry. One requirement of WPS is that employers provide decontamination supplies for their employees in case of accidental pesticide exposure or poisoning. Sandra McDonald is a pesticide safety expert and owner of Mountain West PEST, which provides WPS and other training to farmers of all crops in Colorado. She states that decontamination supplies cannot be stored in areas that are to be or have been treated by pesticides (such as perpetual harvest rooms, for the purposes of this discussion), as the applications could possibly contaminate the decontamination supplies with pesticide residues, making them useless or even dangerous.
So, in a perpetual harvest facility, where does one store decontamination materials? Again, while there are solutions to this question, they are not ideal. The materials would of course have to be located outside the perpetual harvest room, the entirety of which is a “treated area” at one time or another. But, in facilities the size of the ones under discussion, it could be difficult for an employee who has been exposed to pesticides to reach an eyewash station if he or she has to navigate the expansive perpetual harvest room, as well as a doorway or two, in order to gain access to safety supplies located somewhere that pesticide contamination is not a risk. McDonald notes that most of the products approved for use on cannabis by the CDA would not require immediate decontamination. However, as not to downplay the very real risks posed by some approved products, she also points out that first aid statements on the labels of such pesticides recommend at least 15-20 minutes of continuous rinsing in the case of a worker getting pesticides in his or her eyes, and treatment that takes place sooner rather than later is obviously preferable. Additionally, there are some approved materials with high pH levels that could be immediately damaging if a worker splashed them in his or her eyes.
The issues raised by perpetual harvest designs in respect to pesticide use and worker safety are amplified greatly if businesses operating perpetual harvest facilities employ or have employed chemical pesticides that are illegal for use on cannabis. Unfortunately, the illegal application of restricted-use pesticides has revealed itself to be widespread, as examples from Colorado and Washington illustrate. One of the most commonly used illegal products, Eagle 20EW, carries with it a 24 hour REI. This means that to properly observe this safety measure, employees would be required to keep clear of the treated area for a full day, which I find unlikely to be enforced considering the daily requirements of a cultivation facility. Drift again poses a problem, but a much more serious one compared to the products on the CDA’s approved list.
It should be obvious by now that, when considering facility or site design, compartmentalization is desirable and necessary. This goes for greenhouse and outdoor production, as well as indoor. In fact, some outdoor farmers in the Emerald Triangle area of northern California work multiple, separate parcels to hedge against the threat of crop loss wiping out their entire year’s efforts. Though the discussion above focused mostly on flowering plants; propagation, vegetative, and mother areas should be separate as well, as they effectively contain all future harvests and are therefore of paramount importance.
The appropriate amount of compartmentalization will vary depending on the operation. In most agricultural businesses, some amount of loss is expected and incorporated into plans and budgets. In terms of areas for flowering plants, they should be compartmentalized to an extent that, should a severe infestation or systems failure occur, the loss of expected revenue from one or more rooms or areas will not cripple the business. Such loss should not happen often in a well-run, well-equipped facility. However, I have seen the drastic damage that russet mites can cause, in addition to experiencing the dread that permeates an entirely darkened warehouse after a transformer explosion, and would advise that cash flow projections take into account the possible loss of a harvest or two from a single room per year, just to be safe.
In cannabis farming, as in all agriculture, we must plan for the worst and hope for the best. Compartmentalization is a fundamental and effective safeguard against small pest incursions becoming widespread infestations, while allowing for grow areas to be fully sterilized and decontaminated after a harvest without completely interrupting all operations. It also allows for the observance of REIs, PHIs (even self-imposed ones), and certain WPS guidelines much more easily than perpetual harvest models. Finally, while costing more up front, ongoing operational expenses can be lessened, with a greater return on the energy that is used. While the benefits of wide-open spaces are frequently touted in a variety of contexts, cannabis cultivation is one where being boxed in is preferable to ensure that your employees, plants, and investment are protected.
The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) recently implemented a set of temporary rules effective through June 28th of this year with the goal to establish a set of regulations for cannabis testing by October 1st. An investigation by The Oregonian highlighted some of the previous problems with cannabis testing in the state.
The most impactful rule changes include The NELAC Institute (TNI) mandatory standards for laboratories that the Oregon Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (ORELAP) will use to accredit labs. Initial rules in the Oregon medical cannabis program, HB 3460 from 2013, did not specify accreditation rules for cannabis testing.
ORELAP currently performs accreditation for lab testing under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The new cannabis testing rules will give ORELAP the authority to accredit and regulate cannabis labs in the state of Oregon.
Rodger Voelker, Ph.D., laboratory director of OG Analytical in Eugene, OR, believes these rules are monumental in establishing legitimacy in cannabis testing. “These new rules have major repercussions mainly because they require not only getting accreditation, but maintaining it with very strict requirements,” says Voelker. “That also includes procedural guidelines that very carefully outline the quality of laboratory practices and establishes a set of criteria for method validation.”
Voelker notes that two of the biggest changes are in quality control and data management. “The documentation they require is very thorough and strict with the idea that any aspect of an analysis can be replicated,” adds Voelker. “This is a real win for us in my opinion because now we have an agency that can issue the appropriate credentials as well as have the authority to make punitive measures.”
The timeline for implementation with temporary rules allows state regulators to work with laboratories to perform accreditation and bring laboratories up to speed. According to Shannon Swantek, ORELAP compliance specialist, products that dispensaries sell in medical and recreational markets are required to be tested under the new rules and in the analyte lists by an ORELAP accredited laboratory, starting on October 1st.
Swantek’s job is to accredit cannabis labs to the TNI standards, which is essentially very similar to ISO 17025, just with more prescriptive measures and the ability to pair with state agencies to enforce rules after accreditation. “The timeline for accreditation is dependent on how ready the lab is and how compliant they are to the TNI standard already,” says Swantek. “The culture had gotten so fraudulent that the legislature felt Oregon needed some serious, more strict rules in place.”
One of the biggest changes coming to Oregon cannabis testing is the new sampling requirement. “An accredited laboratory employee must take the sample because sampling is where a lack of training or outright fraud is skewing results, which occurs when a grower brings in a sample not representative of the batch,” adds Swantek. Sample preparation methods will also be required to be more robust to meet the action limits of pesticide testing in particular, helping to identify lower levels like parts-per-billion, according to Swantek.
Reports were also lacking key information in the past. The new rules will require more information such as the procedure used, the analyst carrying it out, dilution factors and any other information you need to theoretically reproduce the result. This will result in more accurate labels on products.
Many are concerned that the new lab testing requirements will raise the price of testing too much. In reality, those current prices are not realistic for accurate data, which points to the rampant fraud that ORELAP is trying to eradicate. “The old rules were written in such an ambiguous way that the prices were set by laboratories without a proper quality program or even without proper instrumentation,” says Swantek.
The accreditation process will require particularly robust quality control systems in labs. “Accreditation to the TNI Standard means that lab quality systems will require a documentation system, training procedures, record keeping, personnel requirements, organization details, proof of no conflicts of interest and corrective actions if noncompliant,” adds Swantek. “We single out each method or procedure, look at their raw data and proficiency testing and determine if they are meeting the technical requirements.”
According to Voelker, other industries have learned to adjust their costs with stringent lab testing rules. “I get that no one wants to pay more for lab testing, but the reality is that joining the world of commodities comes with additional costs to ensure consumer safety,” says Voelker. These rule changes will undoubtedly bring more consistency to Oregon’s cannabis industry with accurate lab testing and help the OHA shed more light on issues surrounding consumer safety.
Those that follow the legal cannabis industry are undoubtedly aware of the struggles of Colorado to regulate pesticide use on cannabis. At the time of this writing, there have been 19 recalls of products contaminated by pesticides in as many weeks. Authorities could not in all cases identify exactly how many units of products may have been tainted, but based on the numbers available, roughly 200,000 individual cannabis products, if not more, have been pulled from dispensary shelves. Along with these recalls have come a large amount of coverage and commentary from various news outlets, industry stakeholders, and even those companies who have had products pulled from shelves.
As this is a controversial and contentious subject, it can be difficult to parse and evaluate the various points of view being offered. In what follows, we will outline the issues at hand objectively: first providing a brief overview of federal and state pesticide regulations and how they pertain to cannabis; addressing claims of whether pesticide usage is “safe” or not; and, finally, offering our opinion of how the cannabis industry should address the pesticide conundrum considering the current regulatory environment and the state of our knowledge.
Before diving in, we are also aware that there is controversy around cannabis testing methodologies, and that the reliability of cannabis testing labs in general has been called into question by a number of the companies that have faced recalls. While we cannot comment on the operations of particular labs, we do support the application of consistent standards, proficiency evaluations, and stringent regulatory oversight to testing labs themselves, so that their results can be assured of being beyond reproach.
Still, 3C’s stance is that quality cannot be tested into a product. To have growers continue to produce contaminated cannabis only to see it recalled repeatedly is unsustainable for the industry; indeed, it threatens its very existence, as we discuss below. That is why we focus in this paper on the cultivation of the plant, as correcting problems on the production side is the only way to ultimately resolve the dilemma in which the industry finds itself.
Pesticide Regulation in the US Relative to Cannabis Cultivation
Cannabis’ pesticide problems stem in large part from the fact the pesticide regulation takes place at the federal level, under the auspices of the EPA. All pesticides undergo years of research and development before they can be sold to farmers and employed on crops. That research addresses questions such as where and how a pesticide can be employed, on what crops, in what concentrations, with what frequency, and how long before harvest can a pesticide be applied. Questions of worker safety are also addressed, such as those concerning what Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) might be required and how long workers must avoid treated areas (ReEntry Intervals), among other concerns.
The fruits of such studies are then distilled to the contents of a pesticide’s label, which must be registered with and approved by the EPA before a pesticide can be distributed for sale. Federal and state laws require that pesticides be applied according to label directions, making the label a legal document of sorts. “The label is the law,” is a phrase common among agricultural professionals with which the legal cannabis industry is becoming acquainted.
The sticking point in regard to cannabis is that, due to its federal illegality, no research has been performed on the use of pesticides on cannabis. Due to the lack of research, no pesticides registered currently with the EPA are labeled for use on cannabis. Since all pesticides must be applied according to label specifications, this essentially prohibits pesticide use in cannabis production. However, some labels are written in such a broad manner that the use of those pesticides could not be construed as a breach of the legally binding use directions. Additionally, certain pesticides are of such lowtoxicity that the EPA has deemed that their registration is not required; these are known as minimum risk products under section 25(b) of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). At this time, the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), in an attempt to offer guidance to cannabis growers, is maintaining a list of such products that, either due to broad label language or 25(b) status, may be used on cannabis without that use being a violation of the label.
Are Pesticides Safe for Use on Cannabis?
Since the first plants to be quarantined after discoveries of improper, off-label pesticide use to the most recent recalls, some of the Colorado cannabis companies caught up in those enforcement actions have made public statements claiming that their products are safe. These statements are dangerously misleading, as they do not take into account the issues laid out above, nor the facts that follow.
Frequently, attempts to justify such claims point out that pesticides are employed on our food and therefore must be okay to apply to cannabis as well. This is a classic case of comparing apples to oranges; or, in this case, comparing apples and oranges to cannabis. Such data cannot be bridged for the simple reason that apples and oranges (and most other agricultural food crops) are not smoked. Smoking remains the primary method of cannabis ingestion, but cannabis products are also vaporized (concentrates), consumed (edibles), applied to the skin (topical creams and patches), and taken sublingually (tinctures, sublingual strips).
As noted, the studies that pesticides must undergo prior to being approved by the EPA involve measuring acceptable residues based on the method of consumption of the final product. Since most food is consumed and digested, few pesticides on the market have undergone pyrolysis studies, which examine how the chemical structures of pesticides degrade when burned. This means that while the fungicide myclobutanil, the active ingredient in Eagle 20EW, may be approved for use on grapes, that approval is meaningless in regard to cannabis, as grapes are not smoked and the relative safety of myclobutanil residues was not tested in regard to such a consumption method.
While studies may eventually reveal that certain pesticides may be used on cannabis without ill effects to the end users, such research has not been performed and no one can say with certainty what the effects of consuming cannabis containing pesticide residues might be. Even the CDA qualifies the list of products that may be used without violating labeling guidelines with the following statement, “These products have not been tested to determine their health effects if used on marijuana that will be consumed and thus the health risks to consumers is unknown.”
Again, no one can currently say what pesticides, if any, can be safely employed on cannabis; anyone claiming definitively that their products are safe despite off-label pesticide use is making a statement that at this time lacks any scientific basis whatsoever.
Another claim made numerous times by companies defending their off-label pesticide use is that no one has yet fallen ill from pesticide use on cannabis. While this is true, we must remember that we are in uncharted territory, and no largescale public health studies have been done to determine what, if any, effects result from consuming cannabis to which pesticides were applied. We hope that no ill effects will surface, but the fact of the matter is that chronic health issues may take years to show themselves and a public health crisis may yet emerge.
Recommendations for the Cannabis Industry
We are advocates for cannabis legalization and want to see this industry grow and develop into one that is beneficial for all involved. We believe that cannabis can continue to be a force for positive change in numerous areas of society, from medicine to criminal justice to agriculture, and beyond. But, in order for it to do so, we must navigate issues such as those around pesticide use in an intelligent and responsible manner.
Our primary recommendation should be preceded by the statement that the use of chemical pesticides of the type triggering Colorado’s recalls is not needed in cannabis production. We make this statement based on years of experience working in, managing, and advising cultivation operations of all types, methodologies, and scales on how to grow successfully without illegal pesticides. Cannabis has survived and flourished throughout human history without pesticides, and will continue to do so if we cultivate it correctly.
As such, we recommend that growers not employ any pesticides in a manner that violates label directions, and only use 25(b) products that have undergone pyrolysis testing to ensure that they are not releasing harmful compounds when burned. Furthermore, applications should only be made during the vegetative stage, prior to the emergence of flowers. Overall, if there is any doubt as to whether a product or material is safe, it should not be used until legitimate, peer-reviewed research has been performed by a reputable institution.
Successful pest control can be achieved via intelligent facility design, robust environmental controls, workflow protocols, and strict cleanliness standards, in addition to preventative applications of appropriate minimum risk pesticides. There is no magic bullet that will solve all pest problems, which is why experienced agricultural professionals rely on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), defined as “an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on longterm prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties.” Overall, the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) is much needed in the industry, and cannabis growers should look to agricultural operations that promote the four pillars of GAP standards (economic viability, environmental sustainability, social acceptability, and safety and quality of the final product) for guidance in formulating best practices in this new field.
This recommendation is not simply a matter of principle, but one that will preserve your business. In addition to costly and brand-damaging recalls, we have already seen the first product liability lawsuits filed last year against LivWell by cannabis consumers over offlabel pesticide use. Another issue is that of worker safety. Most cannabis cultivation takes place indoors, where pesticide residues can linger in garden areas and on equipment, creating toxic work environments. Unfortunately, based on the widespread nature of pesticide use in the legal cannabis industry, we feel confident in stating that thousands of workers employed in legal cannabis cultivation operations have applied chemical pesticides without proper PPE or safety training. Businesses employing pesticides off-label will likely find themselves subject to liability claims from workers, as well as consumers, in the relatively near future.
In closing, the bottom line is that applying pesticides off-label is a violation of state and federal law and could result in criminal and civil sanctions, should regulators and affected parties choose to pursue them.
It must also be noted that off-label pesticide use threatens the industry as a whole. Point six of the Cole Memorandum states that the federal government will not make the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act a priority as long as the “exacerbation of (…) public health consequences associated with marijuana use” is prevented. The emergence of a public health problem would be a violation of the Cole Memo and it could be argued that the current situation unfolding in Denver is already a violation and could trigger federal intervention against states that have legalized cannabis. In this light, the Denver Department of Environmental Health, which is driving the recalls, has not “launched a campaign against legal cannabis,” as a company recently subject to a recall claimed, but is actually acting as a bulwark against a potentially serious Cole Memo violation that could shutter the entire industry.
Based on the current situation, the cannabis industry must come together to denounce and eliminate off-label pesticide use. In order to ensure the health of patients, consumers, workers, and the industry itself, we must seize this opportunity to grow without chemicals that are currently illegal, potentially very harmful, and ultimately not even necessary.
With 2015 coming to a close, to understand and start strategizing for the next year, we must look back on the year and gauge the industry’s progress. A lot has happened this year and there is a lot to look forward to in 2016.
Nic Easley, founder and CEO of Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C), gave a presentation at the High Times Business Summit last week, reviewing the cannabis industry’s progress in 2015, and providing some insights on what to look for in 2016. 3C is a national cannabis and hemp consulting firm dedicated to ensuring the highest standards in large-scale, sustainable organic production and product manufacturing. Over the past eight years in Colorado and nationwide, Easley has helped more than 60 clients design, build, start up, and optimize their operations. Easley is an active participant on multiple committees in various industries, non-profit groups, and rule making organizations that are setting the standards and regulations guiding this industry. Through his involvement he is able to promote sustainable, sensible practices and policies that drive cannabis cultivation and industry best practices into new realms of productivity, profitability, and professionalism.
We were able to sit down with Nic Easley after the conference to get some better insights for how the industry performed in 2015 and what is in store for 2016.
CannabisIndustryJournal: How do you think Colorado’s year of pesticide recalls will help shape the industry’s future?
Nic Easley: As a member of the Pesticide Advisory Committee with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, I think there is a tangible need for better, more comprehensive regulatory guidance. If we come out with strict pesticide regulations, it will be better for everyone in the industry and consumers, but more importantly it will benefit patients gaining access to safe, laboratory-tested medicine. The regulators will need our help to write the rules. Harder laws are good for us though, because the ethical businesses will always take the route of integrity, as opposed to the businesses that cut corners. Those companies not playing above board will be weeded out and reprimanded in due time. A lot of it comes with the responsibility as a grower and producer to facilitate medical needs, that is a responsibility that requires great integrity. As for the testing regulations, there are too many conflicts of interest and we need to look toward third party testing and accreditation to prevent laboratory shopping, skewed results and other inconsistencies. We need to not allow producers to provide their own samples, sampling and sample preparation needs to be controlled through third party laboratories working above board, as opposed to labs wanting to keep clients instead of providing accurate and consistent test results. Looking forward to 2016, we will continue to see the pesticide issue shape the industry, for better or worse, this is a problem we need to find the right solutions for and that comes through working with regulators, like the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division, to write the required regulatory framework.
CIJ: Looking nationally, what major trends were highlighted in 2015 and what would you like to see change for 2016?
Nic: With Oregon going online October 1st, and Maryland’s license application process opening up, we are recognizing some diminishing barriers to entry in markets previously difficult to tap due to things like residency requirements and where the capital came from. Maryland’s infused product and processing licenses are much more readily available as opposed to the cultivation licenses due to stipulations. States like Oregon and Alaska that dragged their feet a little with regard to their regulatory model, are just releasing a lot of barriers to entry for licensing applications. Oregon may have missed some tax revenue in the initial launch of the program, but they are doing it right through diligent research instead of using their citizens as guinea pigs. For businesses looking to get started, you can avoid poor decision making by knowing the rules. New and established businesses alike need to take the responsibility to write the rules to be socially, environmentally and economically responsible. If we want to make money in this industry to help the government’s role in keeping us safe, then doing business in the most socially responsible way possible will lead to profitability. What I would like to see change for 2016 is the expanding list of qualifying conditions. As a military veteran, I would like to see Colorado stop looking at the tax revenue of adult use cannabis, and make PTSD a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. The Bob Hoban lawsuit suggests that Colorado is marginalizing medicine because they will make more tax revenue by blurring the lines of adult use and medicine. All of the studies out there, including Dr. Sue Sisley’s work, suggests PTSD can be treated with medical marijuana. That highlights another trend I would like to see change in 2016: We need clinical research on these conditions, because observational research just is not credible enough. We [businesses in the industry] need to actively promote the need for clinical research to help propel social change and get the information and knowledge out there. With the right information, this industry can make informed decisions that will help all stakeholders.
CIJ: What advice can you offer to cannabis businesses for 2016?
Nic: I tell my clients that, because cannabis is still federally illegal, you must understand the present risk associated with the work you are doing. We need to ask questions like how can we do this responsibly and set a good example so when the time comes, the federal government will look to us as a legitimate industry, working with regulators to write the rules for safety. For new businesses, produce the safest, highest quality, and affordable medicine and work with other businesses and regulators to keep innovating in the area of safety. Focus on the structure of your business: build your foundations and using expert advice, you can avoid major pitfalls and become the leaders in this brand new industry. Look for environmentally sustainable solutions, climate change issues need to be addressed in this industry. Use appropriate technology instead of burning coal to grow marijuana, which increases our carbon footprint. This includes both environmentally sound standard operating procedures and the right technologies, but also social justice. We are presented with a terrific economic opportunity to work on climate change issues, so work to address inefficient practices and innovate to be as sustainable as possible.
CIJ: For the entire cannabis industry in 2016 , what kind of growth do you expect?
Nic: We have reached a point where I foresee a holding pattern beginning to take shape. In 2016, the industry will continue to grow and demand will not be satiated by supply. August of 2015 was the first month when Colorado saw over $100 million in sales. We will increasingly see more price fluctuations as bigger projects come online. Many states in 2016 will focus on problems with their regulatory models and devising solutions for them. Businesses will continue their strategic growth planning, with key states potentially coming online for adult use such as Nevada and California. Nevada is one of the most up and coming markets in America with a 68% approval rating, and they have the ability to grandfather in businesses and previous rules associated with their medical marijuana program. Knowing licensing applications can take eight to eighteen months before you can become operational, we have to place our bets wisely. There is a lot happening in all these states and from the big November votes on, chaos will ensue as regulators tackle big problems with the overhaul. In 2016, the cannabis industry will make a big impact on the United States, and the exciting part is that progress is made through business as usual for us.
As of now, it is difficult to find information available on pesticide use and flowering, its effect on the body through combustion and inhalation, and its effect on medical patients with already weakened immune systems. Research suggests up to 69.5% of pesticide residues can stay in marijuana smoke. Of course, there is a need for more research, but it is safe to accept that pesticides already banned for use on foods by the USDA or state departments should not be allowed in cannabis production.
The Oregonian and OregonLive investigation found pesticides in most of the 10 marijuana concentrates that were screened. “Many of the pesticides detected aren’t regulated by Oregon’s medical marijuana rules, which means products that contain these chemicals still can be sold.”
Just last week, two of the largest recalls in the cannabis industry occurred in Colorado due to potential pesticide contamination. According to The Denver Post, as many as 30,000 packages of edibles produced by two companies were recalled by the Denver Department of Health.
Alex Garton, a cultivator in Michigan, agrees with many proponents of organic methods, citing the need for close management of the plants without pesticides. “The best way to avoid pests is to keep the grow room clean,” he says. “Mites will come and go, as will temperature and humidity issues, but without using pesticides, there are some safe, natural products that are very effective.”
“I treat my plants with natural compounds that are permitted under the federal government’s guidance for use in vegetable applications for human consumption,” Garton adds. “Never use anything remotely resembling a pesticide on flowers particularly when maturing and in the flowering process.”
Adam Jacques, master cultivator and owner of The Growers Guild in Eugene, Oregon, agrees with the sentiment of caution shared by many in the industry. “I would say, nationwide, there needs to be a more in depth look at pesticides, even organic strawberries can have [the pesticide] Eagle 20 on them,” he says. “With cannabis, we can’t scrub and wash pesticides off like fruit that you take off the vine, and there is a real lack of research on residues and combustion.”
Jacques tests all of his cannabis products for pesticides, molds, microbials and pathogens along with potency profiles, most of which is not required by the state. Growers should take lessons from Garton and Jacques by forgoing any application of pesticides until there is more confident state-level guidance on the dangers associated with pesticides on cannabis.
LIMS (laboratory information management systems) is a software-based information management tool that can streamline laboratory workflows, data management, automate repetitive steps, and improve instrumentation efficiency. The cannabis industry’s rapid growth, coupled with fluctuating state regulations, gave rise to a number of cannabis testing laboratories nationwide. Cannabis labs test primarily for potency, but testing regulations for pathogens, pesticides, and other contaminants are on their way to approval in California and Colorado.
“The recreational and medical cannabis industry is in its infancy and many cannabis laboratories are small operations that need to be very capital efficient as they navigate a rapidly changing regulatory environment,” says Tim Kutz, vice president of business development at BGASoft.
“LIMSABC provides a flexible, modern platform to handle all of a testing laboratory’s operational needs while providing the rigorous tracking and audit trail required by today’s regulations, with the ability adapt to future regulations.”
According to Kutz, LIMS can help cannabis laboratories with bi-directional instrument and automation integration, and automate client reporting to help improve efficiencies and reduce errors. Because the software is cloud-based, the system is accessible through a secure web browser connection from any device.
“As legalization efforts advance nationwide, many states are putting in place strict regulatory requirements for the testing and handling of cannabis,” says Kutz. “Many states require or will require testing for pesticide levels, terpenes, cannabinoid levels, moisture, heavy metal, fungi and molds.”
As a result of strict sampling requirements, laboratories must account for all the sample test results from a variety of instruments as well as for every gram of the sample, from receiving it to consumption in testing to disposal.
“These requirements can quickly overwhelm even the most efficient laboratory trying to maintain paper and excel based records,” says Kutz. “LIMS allows laboratory personnel to keep sample and requisition-centric records, track the sample quantity and location, integrate all the test data, provide client reports all while providing an audit trail of each and every step.”
As testing regulations continue to roll out, cannabis laboratories will be required to use information management systems for traceability in compliance with state and local laws.
GOAT Labs, Inc. is a veteran-owned, i502-certified cannabis testing company with laboratories in Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon. The laboratory launched in 2010 by Dana Luce, the owner, with a personal mission to provide safe and tested cannabis to patients in need.
Dana Luce’s daughter, Dani Luce, CEO of GOAT Labs, has previous experience working in dialysis and watched cancer patients lose their battle to the illness. Many years later, Dani’s oldest son was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma. Cannabis proved instrumental in alleviating the side effects of chemotherapy. “With a severely compromised immune system, we had to find a place to test all the raw foods given to him, including cannabis,” says Dani Luce.
Dani Luce’s son was in remission nine months after starting chemotherapy in conjunction with cannabis and has now been in remission for five years. “We want to ensure patients are not ingesting something potentially toxic and that proper testing is done, which includes not only potency, but testing for microbials, pathogens, and pesticides.”
With pesticide use on cannabis recently entering the spotlight, there is a growing need for standards in cannabis testing. “We need better regulatory oversight so that all laboratories are standardized, including proficiency testing done by the state,” argues the Luce’s.
Roger Brauninger, biosafety program manager of A2LA (American Association for Lab Accreditation), is working on an accreditation process for cannabis laboratories that would be accepted nationally. “We believe that an accreditation process would increase efficacy of lab results, reduce laboratory shopping, and create consistency with results across different laboratories,” says Brauninger.
GOAT Labs, among a number of other laboratories and organizations, is working toward putting cannabis in the lens of mainstream medicine. Not only are they looking to achieve a safe standard for medicine, they are advancing legalization efforts nationwide by setting the benchmark for getting patients access to safe, lab-tested cannabis.
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