Tag Archives: residue

Steven Burton

Top 4 Food Safety Hazards for the Cannabis Industry

By Steven Burton
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Steven Burton

As many US States and Canadian provinces approach legalization of cannabis, the question of regulatory oversight has become a pressing issue. While public awareness is mainly focused on issues like age restrictions and impaired driving, there is another practical question to consider: should cannabis be treated as a drug or a food product when it comes to safety? In the US, FDA governs both food and drugs, but in Canada, drugs are regulated by Health Canada while food products are regulated under the CFIA.There are many food safety hazards associated with cannabis production and distribution that could put the public at risk, but are not yet adequately controlled

Of course, there are common issues like dosage and potency that pharmaceutical companies typically worry about as the industry is moving to classifying its products in terms of percentage of chemical composition (THC, CBD, etc. in a strain), much as we categorize alcohol products by the percentage of alcohol. However, with the exception of topical creams and ointments, many cannabis products are actually food products. Even the herb itself can be brewed into teas, added to baked goods or made into cannabis-infused butters, oils, capsules and tinctures.

FDAlogoAs more people gain access to and ingest cannabis products, it’s only a matter of time before food safety becomes a primary concern for producers and regulators. So when it comes to food safety, what do growers, manufacturers and distributors need to consider? The fact is, it’s not that different from other food products. There are many food safety hazards associated with cannabis production and distribution that could put the public at risk, but are not yet adequately controlled. Continue reading below for the top four safety hazards for the cannabis industry and learn how to receive free HACCP plans to help control these hazards.

Aflatoxins on Cannabis Bud

Just like any other agricultural product, improper growing conditions, handling and storage can result in mold growth, which produce aflatoxins that can cause liver cancer and other serious health problems. During storage, the danger is humidity; humidity must be monitored in storage rooms twice a day and the meter must be calibrated every month. During transportation, it is important to monitor and record temperatures in trucks. Trucks should also be cleaned weekly or as required. Products received at a cannabis facilities should be tested upon receiving and contaminated products must always be rejected, segregated and disposed of safely.

Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus. It produces carcinogenic aflatoxins, which can contaminate certain foods and cause aspergillosis, an invasive fungal disease.
Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Peggy Greb.

Chemical Residues on Cannabis Plants

Chemical residues can be introduced at several points during the production and storage process. During growing, every facility should follow instructions for applying fertilizers and pesticides to crops. This includes waiting for a sufficient amount of time before harvesting. When fertilizer is being applied, signs must be posted. After cannabis products have been harvested, chemical controls must be in place. All chemicals should be labelled and kept in contained chemical storage when not in use to prevent contamination. Only food-grade chemicals (e.g. cleaners, sanitizers) should be used during curing, drying, trimming and storage.

Without a comprehensive food safety program, problems will inevitably arise.There is also a risk of excessive concentration of chemicals in the washing tank. As such, chemical concentrations must be monitored for. In general, water (obviously essential for the growing process) also carries risks of pathogenic bacteria like staphylococcus aureus or salmonella. For this reason, city water (which is closely controlled in most municipalities) should be used with an annual report and review. Facilities that use well water must test frequently and water samples must be tested every three months regardless.

Pathogenic Contamination from Pest Infestations

Insects, rodents and other pests spread disease. In order to prevent infestations, a pest control program must be implemented, with traps checked monthly by a qualified contractor and verified by a designated employee. It is also necessary to have a building procedure (particularly during drying), which includes a monthly inspection, with no holes or gaps allowed. No product should leave the facility uncovered to prevent fecal matter and other hazards from coming into contact with the product. Contamination can also occur during storage on pallets, so pallets must be inspected for punctures in packaging material.

Furthermore, even the best controlled facility can fall victim to the shortcomings of their suppliers. Procedures must be in place to ensure that suppliers are complying with pest and building control procedures, among others. Certifications should be acquired and tracked upon renewal.

Pathogenic Contamination Due to Improper Employee Handling

Employee training is key for any food facility. When employees are handling products, the risk of cross-contamination is highest. Facilities must have GMP and personnel hygiene policies in place, with training conducted upon hiring and refreshed monthly. Employees must be encouraged to stay home when sick and instructed to wear proper attire (gloves, hair nets, etc.), while glass, jewelry and outside food must not be allowed inside the facility. Tools used during harvesting and other stages may also carry microorganisms if standard cleaning procedures are not in place and implemented correctly by employees.

As the cannabis industry grows, and regulatory bodies like the FDA and CFIA look to protect public safety, we expect that more attention will be paid to other food safety issues like packaging safety (of inks and labels), allergen control and others. In the production of extracts, for example, non-food safe solvents could be used or extracts can be mixed with ingredients that have expiration dates, like coconut oil. There is one area in which the cannabis industry may lead the way, however. More and more often, risks of food terrorism, fraud and intentional adulteration are gripping the food industry as the global food chain becomes increasingly complex. It’s safe to say that security at cannabis facilities is probably unparalleled.

All of this shows that cannabis products, especially edibles (and that includes capsules and tinctures), should be treated the same as other food products simply because they have the same kinds of hazards. Without a comprehensive food safety program (that includes a plan, procedures, training, monitoring and verification), problems will inevitably arise.

From The Lab

QuEChERS 101

By Danielle Mackowsky
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Sample preparation experts and analytical chemists are quick to suggest QuEChERS (Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe) to cannabis laboratories that are analyzing both flower and edible material for pesticides, mycotoxins and cannabinoid content. Besides having a quirky name, just what makes QuEChERS a good extraction technique for the complicated matrices of cannabis products? By understanding the chemistry behind the extraction and the methodology’s history, cannabis laboratories can better implement the technology and educate their workforce.

QuEChERS salt blends can be packed into mylar pouches for use with any type of centrifuge tubes
QuEChERS salt blends can be packed into mylar pouches for use with any type of centrifuge tubes

In 2003, a time when only eight states had legalized the use of medical cannabis, a group of four researchers published an article in the Journal of AOAC International that made quite the impact in the residue monitoring industry. Titled Fast and Easy Multiresidue Method Employing Acetonitrile Extraction/Partitioning and “Dispersive Solid-Phase Extraction” for the Determination of Pesticide Residues in Produce, Drs. Michael Anastassiades, Steven Lehotay, Darinka Štajnbaher and Frank Schenck demonstrate how hundreds of pesticides could be extracted from a variety of produce samples through the use of two sequential steps: an initial phase partitioning followed by an additional matrix clean up. In the paper’s conclusion, the term QuEChERS was officially coined. In the fourteen years that have followed, this article has been cited over 2800 times. Subsequent research publications have demonstrated its use in matrices beyond food products such as biological fluids, soil and dietary supplements for a plethora of analytes including phthalates, pharmaceutical compounds and most recently cannabis.

QuEChERS salts can come prepacked into centrifuge tubes
QuEChERS salts can come prepacked into centrifuge tubes

The original QuEChERS extraction method utilized a salt blend of 4 g of magnesium sulfate and 1 g of sodium chloride. A starting sample volume of 10 g and 10 mL of acetonitrile (ACN) were combined with the above-mentioned salt blend in a centrifuge tube. The second step, dispersive solid phase extraction (dSPE) cleanup, included 150 mg of magnesium sulfate and 25 mg of primary secondary amine (PSA). Subsequent extraction techniques, now known as AOAC and European QuEChERS, suggested the use of buffered salts in order to protect any base sensitive analytes that may be critical to one’s analysis. Though the pH of the extraction solvent may differ, all three methods agree that ACN should be used as the starting organic phase. ACN is capable of extracting the broadest range of analytes and is compatible with both LC-MS/MS and GC-MS systems. While ethyl acetate has also been suggested as a starting solvent, it is incompatible with LC-MS/MS and extracts a larger amount of undesirable matrix components in the final aliquot.

All laboratories, including cannabis and food safety settings, are constantly looking for ways to decrease their overhead costs, batch out the most samples possible per day, and keep their employees trained and safe. It is not a stretch to say that QuEChERS revolutionized the analytical industry and made the above goals tangible achievements. In the original publication, Anastassiades et al. established that recoveries of over 85% for pesticides residues were possible at a cost as low as $1 per ten grams of sample. Within forty minutes, up to twelve samples were fully extracted and ready to be analyzed by GC-MS, without the purchase of any specialized equipment. Most importantly, no halogenated solvents were necessary, making this an environmentally conscious concept. Due to the nature of the cannabis industry, laboratories in this field are able to decrease overall solvent usage by a greater amount than what was demonstrated in 2003. The recommended starting sample for cannabis laboratories is only one gram of flower, or a tenth of the starting volume that is commonly utilized in the food safety industry. This reduction in sample volume then leads to a reduction in acetonitrile usage and thus QuEChERS is a very green extraction methodology.

The complexity of the cannabis matrix can cause great extraction difficulties if proper techniques are not used
The complexity of the cannabis matrix can cause great extraction difficulties if proper techniques are not used

As with any analytical method, QuEChERS is not perfect or ideal for every laboratory setting. Challenges remain in the cannabis industry where the polarity of individual pesticides monitored in some states precludes them from being amenable to the QuEChERS approach. For cannabis laboratories looking to improve their pesticide recoveries, decrease their solvent usage and not invest their resources into additional bench top equipment, QuEChERS is an excellent technique to adopt. The commercialization of salt blends specific for cannabis flowers and edibles takes the guesswork out of which products to use. The growth of cannabis technical groups within established analytical organizations has allowed for better communication among scientists when it comes to best practices for this complicated matrix. Overall, it is definitely worth implementing the QuEChERS technique in one’s cannabis laboratory in order to streamline productivity without sacrificing your results.

Green Man Cannabis Recalls Due to Pesticide Residue Detection

By Aaron G. Biros
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Denver-based Green Man Cannabis last week voluntarily recalled batches of cannabis sold to both medical patients and recreational consumers. The recall comes after the discovery of off-label pesticides during inspections in both dry-flower cannabis and infused products.

Photo: Sheila Sund, Flickr
Photo: Sheila Sund, Flickr

According to the Denver Department of Environmental Health (DEH), the products have labels that list an OPC License number of 403-00738, 403-00361, or 403R-00201. The cannabis in question is not a specific batch, rather, “All plant material and derived products originating from these cultivation facilities are subject to the recall.” The DEH’s statement includes contact information for the company (email: recall@greenmancannabis.com) and the DEH Public Health Inspections Division (email: phicomments@denvergov.org or 720-913-1311).

The DEH statement does not mention which pesticides were detected or the levels at which they were detected. Christian Hagaseth, founder of Green Man Cannabis, says the chemical detected was Myclobutanil. “We had used Eagle 20 in the past, [the pesticide that contains Myclobutanil] but we stopped using it as soon as it was banned,” says Hagaseth. “The DEH found the residues in the growing environment so we immediately performed a voluntary recall.” Green Man has three cultivation facilities, one of which they suspect is contaminated from pesticides sprayed a few years ago.

Christian Hageseth, founder of Green Man Cannabis
Christian Hageseth, founder of Green Man Cannabis

As far as corrective actions being taken, Hagaseth says they are doing a thorough cleaning and sanitation in two of their grows and a complete remediation plan in the suspected contaminated grow. “This was a good learning experience- the key takeaway for us is we need to clean these environments more consistently,” says Hagaseth. “I am grateful that the system is working; public health and environmental safety are being looked after here.” Hagaseth says the facility in question was operating almost without interruption since 2009, but they adjusted and learned to implement preventative actions following the recall.

The DEH says there have been zero reports of illness related to the recall. “The possible health impact of consuming marijuana products with unapproved pesticide residues is unknown,” the statement reads. “Short and long-term health impacts may exist depending on the specific product, duration, frequency, level of exposure and route of exposure.” The DEH advises consumers that may be concerned to reach out to their physician.

The DEH performs routine inspections of cannabis infused product manufacturers and retail locations in Denver, as well as investigating complaints. “I am sorry that it happened to us, but I am happy the system is working and we are more than happy to comply,” says Hagaseth.

The Practical Chemist

Appropriate Instrumentation for the Chemical Analysis of Cannabis and Derivative Products: Part 1

By Rebecca Stevens
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Election Day 2016 resulted in historic gains for state level cannabis prohibition reform. Voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada chose to legalize adult use of Cannabis sp. and its extracts while even traditionally conservative states like Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota enacted policy allowing for medical use. More than half of the United States now allows for some form of legal cannabis use, highlighting the rapidly growing need for high quality analytical testing.

For the uninitiated, analytical instrumentation can be a confusing mix of abbreviations and hyphenation that provides little obvious information about an instrument’s capability, advantages and disadvantages. In this series of articles, my colleagues and I at Restek will break down and explain in practical terms what instruments are appropriate for a particular analysis and what to consider when choosing an instrumental technique.

Potency Analysis

Potency analysis refers to the quantitation of the major cannabinoids present in Cannabis sp. These compounds are known to provide the physiological effects of cannabis and their levels can vary dramatically based on cultivation practices, product storage conditions and extraction practices.

The primary technique is high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) coupled to ultraviolet absorbance (UV) detection. Gas chromatography (GC) coupled to a flame ionization detector (FID) or mass spectrometry (MS) can provide potency information but suffers from issues that preclude its use for comprehensive analysis.

Pesticide Residue Analysis

Pesticide residue analysis is, by a wide margin, the most technically challenging testing that we will discuss here. Trace levels of pesticides incurred during cultivation can be transferred to the consumer both on dried plant material and in extracts prepared from the contaminated material. These compounds can be acutely toxic and are generally regulated at part per billion parts-per-billion levels (PPB).

Depending on the desired target pesticides and detection limits, HPLC and/or GC coupled with tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) or high resolution accurate mass spectrometry (HRAM) is strongly recommended. Tandem and HRAM mass spectrometry instrumentation is expensive, but in this case it is crucial and will save untold frustration during method development.

Residual Solvents Analysis

When extracts are produced from plant material using organic solvents such as butane, alcohols or supercritical carbon dioxide there is a potential for the solvent and any other contaminants present in it to become trapped in the extract. The goal of residual solvent analysis is to detect and quantify solvents that may remain in the finished extract.

Residual solvent analysis is best accomplished using GC coupled to a headspace sample introduction system (HS-GC) along with FID or MS detection. Solid phase microextraction (SPME) of the sample headspace with direct introduction to the GC is another option.

Terpene Profile Analysis

While terpene profiles are not a safety issue, they provide much of the smell and taste experience of cannabis and are postulated to synergize with the physiologically active components. Breeders of Cannabis sp. are often interested in producing strains with specific terpene profiles through selective breeding techniques.

Both GC and HPLC can be employed successfully for terpenes analysis. Mass spectrometry is suitable for detection as well as GC-FID and HPLC-UV.

Heavy Metals Analysis

Metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium and mercury can be present in cannabis plant material due to uptake from the soil, fertilizers or hydroponic media by a growing plant. Rapidly growing plants like Cannabis sp. are particularly efficient at extracting and accumulating metals from their environment.

Several different types of instrumentation can be used for metals analysis, but the dominant technology is inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). Other approaches can also be used including ICP coupled with optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES).

Rebecca is an Applications Scientist at Restek Corporation and is eager to field any questions or comments on cannabis analysis, she can be reached by e-mail, rebecca.stevens@restek.com or by phone at 814-353-1300 (ext. 2154)

An inductively coupled plasma torch used in MS reaches local temperatures rivaling the surface of the sun. Image by W. Blanchard, Wikimedia
An inductively coupled plasma torch used in Optical Emission Spectroscopy (OES) reaches local temperatures rivaling the surface of the sun. Image by W. Blanchard, Wikimedia

Oregon October 1st Compliance Deadline: What You Need to Know

By Aaron G. Biros
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Oregon cannabis regulators began enforcing new rules over the weekend when the October 1st compliance deadline passed. Compared to the relatively cut-and-dried new Colorado regulations, the Oregon cannabis market faces more complex and changing regulatory compliance issues.

The new rules in Oregon address changes to testing, packaging and labeling regulations along with concentration and serving size limits, according to a bulletin published by the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) earlier this week. Most of the new rules are meant to add safeguards for public health and consumer safety, while putting an emphasis on keeping cannabis away from children.oha_logo_lrg

Around the same time, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) published a bulletin with a new temporary rule that is meant to prevent marketing to children. The OLCC’s temporary rule clarifies “restrictions on product wording commonly associated with products marketed by or to children.” The OLCC reviewed around 500 strain names and found roughly 20 of them that could appeal to children. The OLCC will not approve labels that include strain names like Girl Scout Cookies, Candyland and Charlotte’s Web, among others. This means that breeders and growers have to change strain names on labels like Death Star, Skywalker and Jedi Kush because they contain a reference to the Star Wars franchise, which is marketed to children.

Oregon Marijuana Universal Symbol for Printing
Oregon Marijuana Universal Symbol for Printing

The new testing regulations establish requirements for testing cannabis products for THC and CBD concentrations, water activity, moisture content, pesticides and solvents in concentrates. They also stipulate that ORELAP-accredited laboratories must perform the testing. In the time leading up to the compliance deadline, many lacked confidence that ORELAP would accredit enough laboratories to meet the demand for testing. “We have heard from existing accredited labs that they can meet demand for cannabis product testing,” says Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the OHA. “We don’t yet know how much product requires testing, so we can’t speculate on whether labs will indeed be able to meet demand.” It is still unclear at this time if there are enough laboratories to perform all of the testing for cannabis products in the state.

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The universal symbol on a label of a cannabis product purchased after Oct. 1

At this time, 16 laboratories have been accredited for some form of testing, but only four labs have been accredited for pesticide testing. A list of the labs that ORELAP has accredited can be found here. Notably, only one lab is accredited for testing microbiological contaminants, such as E. coli. Testing for microbiological contaminants is not required for all cannabis products sold, rather it is only required upon written request by the OHA or OLCC.

The new labeling and packaging requirements concern testing, consumer education, childproofing and preventing marketing to minors. All cannabis products must contain a label that has been pre-approved by the OLCC. “Cannabis products have to be clearly labeled, showing that is has been tested, or if it has not been tested then it must display ‘does not meet new testing requirements’,” says Modie. “It [the label] must be clear, legible and readable, so they [the consumer] know exactly what it contains, including what cannabis product is inside the package, how much of it, how much THC, and where the product came from.”

According to Modie, it is particularly important that the packaging is not attractive to minors. Cartoons, designs and names that resemble non-cannabis products intended for, or marketed to children, should not be on the packaging or label. “Part of our education to the public and recreational cannabis users focuses on keeping these products out of reach of children in the first place, like storing cannabis in a locked area or an area where a child cannot reach or see,” says Modie. “Our goal is always to protect public health.”

Sustainability for the Cannabis Industry, Part II: The New Cannabis Consumer

By Olivia L. Dubreuil, Esq., Brett Giddings
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Most readers ought to be well aware that the cannabis industry is rapidly growing. The Arcview Group, an Oakland-based investor network, estimates the retail and wholesale cannabis market will reach $22.8 billion by 2020. That number represents a lot of people consuming cannabis in many different ways.

The average cannabis consumer is changing. A new range of social groups is consuming cannabis-based products. From yoga diehards, to middle-aged men and women, veterans that have ‘tried everything else’ and young professionals looking for a different way to relax, the market is broadening.

This new segment of cannabis consumers are often not looking to get high- they are looking for anti-inflammatories, relaxants and ways of dealing with chronic pains and stress. For these health and wellness seekers, the last thing they want is a product dosed with pesticides, insecticides or butane residues. We can expect to see these consumers to follow broader consumption trends- specifically when it comes to a product like cannabis that people are inevitably placing in or on their bodies.

These consumers come with new sets of expectations, similar to those when they buy fruit, vegetables, coffee or chocolate. They are increasingly curious about the contents of the products they purchase- they are a large part of the reason that the sales of organic produce has ‘ballooned’. They are asking questions like: Does the product contain pesticides? Has the product been cultivated in a way that minimizes negative environmental impacts? How do we know that the supply chain quality controls are rigorous enough to ensure no one has tampered with the product? Who is growing and picking this product and how are those people being treated?

When a curious consumer enters a modern American supermarket, they are guided by a range of messages relating to the contents and supply chain that was part of making each product. Organic, non-GMO, pesticide-free, fair trade, free-range and locally produced are some of the common criteria. The more credible labels are supported by codes and procedures in which the whole supply chain is audited, monitored and approved by the certifying body according to certain standards- for example the USDA certifies organic foods.

Being a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law, cannabis is probably not going to receive USDA organic certification any time soon. However there are organizations out there that are committed to increasing the availability of cannabis grown with organic practices. Certifying bodies like Certified Kind and the Organic Cannabis Growers Society are gaining popularity among growers who see the market evolving in that direction. At the same time, businesses such as Delicious Fog (an ‘organic-focussed’ delivery service in Santa Clara County) and Harvest (an ‘organic’ dispensary in San Francisco)- are specializing in the sale of these ‘organic’ cannabis products.

Just like any sustainability issue- ensuring your cannabis product comes from a well-managed supply chain cannot be a last minute add-on. Whether a business is small, large, mature or emerging, developing a strategic approach to the diverse spread of sustainability challenges is critical.

As a cannabis business what can you do to appeal to the new cannabis consumer?

Pesticide Position Paper: Prepared by Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C)

By Adam Koh, Nic Easley
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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 n​ot​ 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.

Conclusion

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.

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Pesticide Recalls an Ongoing Issue for Colorado

By Aaron G. Biros
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In the wake of investigations this summer in Oregon and Colorado, which found that numerous marijuana products contain levels of illegal pesticides, state regulators, laboratories, manufacturers, and cultivators alike are acting fast to minimize risks to consumers and patients. The largest recall ever to occur in the cannabis industry happened on October 30, when two companies in Denver found potential pesticide contamination in tens of thousands of packages of edible cannabis products.

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.

In Colorado, “Nearly six months after the city of Denver began a crackdown on unapproved pesticides in marijuana products, a spot-check by The Denver Post found that the chemicals were still being sold to consumers.” This presents a major problem to an industry still trying to change public opinion for wider legalization efforts.

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.”

While state regulations on pesticide use continue to get hammered out, the U.S. Department of Agriculture along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently working on identifying pesticides that might be safe to use on cannabis. That guidance is crucial for any industry in order to establish safe levels of pesticides allowed, as well as which pesticides are more dangerous to the consumer than others.

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.