Pesticides are a problem.
In August, the Environmental Working Group—a nonprofit “dedicated to protecting human health and the environment”—announced the results of a study it commissioned to test foods made with oats. The group found glyphosate, an herbicide linked to cancer, in nearly all of them.
Pesticides are a problem when it comes to marijuana, too.
It’s complicated: Pesticides and herbicides are regulated by the federal government. However, the federal government continues to enforce cannabis prohibition. Therefore, there are currently no pesticides and herbicides approved for use on cannabis plants.
To make things even more complicated, marijuana can be used in so many different ways—smoked, eaten, vaporized, as a salve, etc.—and there is no consensus among scientists regarding safe levels of pesticides with cannabis. A chemical might be safe to consume on food—but highly toxic when exposed to the high heat of smoking or vaping. For example, Eagle 20EW, a common fungicide used on grapes and hops, is not approved for use on tobacco. Of course, this problem goes the other way, too; there is little to no research on what may or may not be safe to be used on cannabis that is eaten as opposed to smoked.
Here in the Coachella Valley, we are seeing the creation of massive indoor grow operations. The Cathedral City Sunniva space under construction, along Ramon Road, is going to be about the size of seven or eight football fields, capable of producing almost 10,000 pounds of cannabis per month. It’s likely that operators of such huge operations will need to turn to industrial-strength chemicals to keep away the molds and mites that can easily destroy a cannabis crop—while adhering to California’s strict regulatory climate.
Let’s face it: Almost all of us already consume pesticide-laden foods every day. Unless you are very committed to “clean eating,” you are already devouring a level of pesticides that the government has deemed safe; as that Environmental Working Group study proves, those oat-based breakfast O’s that you and perhaps your kids have been eating have had cancer causing-herbicides in them for longer than we would like to admit … and we all seem fine with this. Again, the problem lies in the vacuum of research that America’s ill-conceived cannabis prohibition created.
However, now we are finally starting to get some data. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control recently revealed that chemicals and molds are indeed finding their way into the cannabis market: Nearly 20 percent of samples in California showed unacceptable levels of pesticides, mold and bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella, since mandatory testing began on July 1. Studies in Oregon and Colorado have found similar problems. Of course, this is not simply a post-prohibition problem; illegal and medical marijuana has had these same issues for years. However, with full state legality came regulation and testing, which has drawn back the curtain on the extent of the problem.
What does this all mean for consumers? It’s extremely complicated. On one hand, the testing and the removal of tainted products from shelves is driving prices higher—and dispensary prices are already much higher than the costs on the illegal market. On the other hand, we can go to sleep at night knowing the products we are consuming are much safer than they were in the days of complete prohibition; we can now make informed decisions about what we put in our bodies.
The real losers in all of this are low-income medical-marijuana patients. Some of them are returning to the illegal market for economic reasons—meaning the chances they are consuming tainted product is extremely high. Immunocompromised or other sick individuals who are using cannabis as medication need to be very cautious. The irony is that they may be ingesting cancer-causing chemicals while trying to treat the symptoms of cancer.
It is not just pesticides; mold allergies can be deadly. A friend of mine who cannot even eat blue cheese, much to his chagrin, has been advised to avoid cannabis edibles until we know the real extent of mold contamination throughout the industry.
The good news is the Food and Drug Administration may be finally starting to acknowledge that people are legitimately using cannabis. As more states end prohibition—and there is a strong likelihood that at least seven more states will either move to full legalization or decriminalize medical use in the coming year—better science will come to light. We are already seeing substantial growth in the cannabis-testing industry, which should lead to testing becoming less expensive for growers and producers alike. Hopefully as costs go down, the savings will be passed on to the consumer.
Overall, more testing and more information are good things. Whether a person is using cannabis as medicine or as a recreational drug, nobody should have to guess whether or not the product being consumed is laden with toxins.