The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Pesticides and Pot

Pesticides and Pot

The Food Journal

July 9, 2015

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have laws legalizing use of marijuana in some form. As the number of states legalizing use and the amount being used increases, local jurisdictions are being forced to deal with issues normally a priority for the Federal Government. Pesticide use in pot is one of those emerging issues. Like any other farmer, marijuana growers have to manage things like pests, fungus, mold and mildew. And like any other farmer, they may choose to use pesticides and other sprays or chemical treatments to control these threats to their crop.

Pesticide Use in the U.S. 

The use of pesticides is governed by the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). This Federal statute is used to register these compounds and tells manufacturers how to label them. The FDA is also involved through the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. This act sets limits on the amount of pesticide residuals that can be on certain crops. FDA and the USDA test and monitor residue levels.  

In addition to the Federal oversight, state and local governments can set stricter standards than those set by FIFRA, and many state legislatures have prohibited local governments from setting standards, preferring to maintain the regulations at the state level.  

The Legal Issue

Marijuana is a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Our government does not recognize it as having a medical use and does not consider its use as being safe. Because of that, agencies do not examine pesticides to help people grow it, and the FDA does not consider marijuana added to food for safety as it would a food additive.  

This leaves the states that have legalized its use in need of regulations and standards to govern growing practices, labeling requirements, packaging and standards related to its use for consumers.  

The Medical Concerns

So how big of a health issue is this lack of regulation for marijuana users? Dr. Rob MacCoun, a Stanford Law Professor, says the truth is we don’t really have any idea because answering the question scientifically is very difficult.

“We don't have a serious system for compiling basic statistics about marijuana supplies. We don't even have good estimates of average THC content, much less pesticide content. Still, to the extent that this is a health risk, the two (overlapping) groups most at risk are medical users who are already more vulnerable to toxic substances and the heavy 'wake-and-bake' users who use all day, every day,” says MacCoun. 

So the concerns are twofold. Neither pesticide content nor marijuana potency (dose isn’t indicated either) is being regulated, which means that marijuana users of both edibles and inhalents have little understanding of the chemical content (from the drug itself or from the pesticide applications) entering their body. 

Indeed, a recent study found that the increased availability of marijuana in Colorado led to more health care visits related to marijuana exposure. While it is difficult to fully understand or quantify the scope of the larger health care risk, the University of Colorado reports seeing approximately 2,000 patients per week, and each week an estimated one to two patients present solely for marijuana intoxications. Another 10 to 15 present for marijuana-associated illnesses like anxiety, panic attacks, vomiting and public intoxication.

The Particular Problem of Edibles

The majority of health care visits due to marijuana intoxication result from edibles, according to the Colorado study. Eating foods containing the active ingredient in marijuana causes the effect to have a lengthier onset and last much longer. Because people are eating the doses in food, often having variable concentrations of the ingredient, they may consume more than they should. Some news media have even reported deaths that some believe are associated with the use of edible marijuana. 

This is particularly troubling medically for children who may consume the foodstuffs since they often resemble and are manufactured as baked goods and candy. Because of their lower body weights, children who consume these products may suffer severely. Hershey, in fact, recently settled a trademark infringement case. The edible cannabis manufacturer sold candies some felt were similar to Reese’s, Heath, Almond Joy and York Peppermints.  

Herbicide in Inhalants

Herbicide content is another issue. Pesticide amounts in tobacco, for example, have been studied to help guide regulations on pesticide application on tobacco crops. This type of research on cannabis inhalants is especially important because if the product is inhaled compounds directly enter the bloodstream. It is perhaps especially important for those using products for medical reasons. Since medical marijuana patients may already have health complications, the awareness of pesticide use in their pot is extremely important.

In the absence of Federal Regulation the states have very different approaches to the oversight of how the product is grown and what chemicals can be used to produce it. 

Studies indicate that water filtration reduces the residues as does cotton filtration. But lack of regulation isn’t helping clean up the product. In 2009, the Los Angeles City Attorney's office conducted testing on three samples of medical cannabis finding two samples highly contaminated. The first had 1,600 times the legal amount while the second had 85 times the legal limit.

Ken VandeVrede, COO of Edible Garden, a farming operation that provides fresh, locally-grown GMO-free herbs and leafy greens to supermarkets and restaurants, says that as a grower, they are applying the same protocols toward cultivating and processing cannabis as they do toward growing their line of fresh, local, organic herbs and lettuces that are GFSI certified and organic certified. In other words, they do not use harmful pesticides or herbicides on their product.

“This is a going to be a major health issue in the future. Many pesticides that are currently used in many cannabis cultivation facilities now may not be safe for the human body. That’s why we take extra care to avoid all pesticides with Edible Garden,” says VandeVrede.

Where The Regulations Are Now

As a result of health concerns, states are passing laws and enacting regulations to cover these policy needs – but there are many and varied approaches. Colorado, California and Washington State are examples of states providing guidance for pesticide use. In California, for example, growers are now required to use pesticides that are registered by both the U.S. EPA and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Employers must also protect their workers from pesticide exposure. To date, there are no pesticides registered specifically for use directly on marijuana.

“One of the advantages of legalizing a product is that you can then begin to seriously regulate it. Right now, federal prohibition (the Controlled Substances Act) creates obstacles to effective regulation at the state level. It would be easier to rationalize the regulatory system under national legalization, if we ever get there,” says MacCoun.

Dr. Michael O'Hare, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, agrees. He says that since maximum residue levels of chemicals in food is a federal issue, marijuana is still caught in the awkward situation of being illegal federally but legal and thus sold openly and widely in a few states. 

“I think EPA and the FDA will have to come up with some standards for chemical residues on products eventually (also for safety of growers). And of course this also requires an inspection and enforcement system. I'm especially concerned about indoor-grown marijuana because hothouse agriculture in confined monocultures tends to require more toxic inputs. It would be a good idea for the states that have legalized to form some sort of consortium to fund research that would at least get some standards for application rates in place. How to regulate an industry with thousands of small growers and processors accustomed to operating in the shadows is a real challenge,” says O’Hare. 

Meanwhile, states are taking up standards for labeling, packaging and regulating content in attempts to inform consumers about dosage and trying to prevent children’s exposure to these products and overconsumption. Some states are requiring testing and that content be labeled.  

Duplicating the regulations on pesticides that are used in the food industry for the cannabis industry would be a suitable interim step,” says VandeVrede. “Also, labeling should always be clear, and product should be consistent. It’s one thing Colorado regulators learned, and something all states can now improve upon.”

O’Hare adds, “When the state agricultural schools can finally turn their attention to marijuana as a crop – legally growing test plots and so on – this will all be much more tractable.”

How Can Consumers Protect Themselves?

Much remains to be done to ensure food, environmental and human health in this area. VandeVrede says, in this regard, clear packaging and education on proper dosage is the key.

“We think the FDA will eventually regulate chemicals and pesticides related to cannabis cultivation similarly to food, and dose very similar to the pharmaceuticals,” says VandeVrede.

Dr. MacCoun recommends that consumers ask their source if they get their product tested for chemical content by an independent lab, and if they don’t, ask them why not. He also says marijuana growers should use less pesticide as a rule. In other words, don’t put the profit motive (increasing yields at any cost) ahead of your customers’ health. Perhaps most importantly, MacCoun says that while the states and federal government work through their regulatory issues, a reduction in overall use is recommended. 

Bottom line: “Smoke less marijuana. Seriously, many users consume much more than is good for them,” MacCoun adds.