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Pot pesticides pose health risks

jars democratFurther investigation into the state’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry has produced a dangerous revelation that suggests what you don’t know could hurt you.

As Yolo County, along with the rest of the state, works to regulate the once underground industry, local ag officials are uncovering unanticipated problems.

The latest, reported by Yolo Ag Commissioner John Young this past week, is that some of the county’s marijuana crops are being treated with unapproved pesticides and legitimate labs have federal licenses that prohibit them from testing these products — which means even marijuana labeled “pesticide free” at dispensaries may still contain anywhere from trace to large amounts of pesticides.

Ingestion of unapproved pesticides can cause a range of health ailments and, according to Young, burn tests have never been conducted to see what happens when they are ignited — potentially posing a greater danger to those who smoke their medicinal herb.

Chlorpyrifos, Disulfoton, and Imidacloprid have all been discovered on local marijuana crops and can have consequences ranging from skin irritation to cancer to fatal toxicity upon contact or ingestion.

This problem is not isolated to Yolo County either, but rather a warning that patients across the state should heed.

“In the Department of Agriculture we’re used to being able to deal with pesticides and we discovered pesticides that are being used on medical marijuana that aren’t on the Department of Pesticide Regulations’ approved list,” said Young. “Immediately, my thought is, we’ll run a sample and if there are any pesticides we’ll order a crop destruct just like any other commodity.”

“We rapidly found out that nobody will run the test,” he continued. “Also, all of the labs that are being used out there in the industry do not run an appropriate test to be able to screen for the pesticides.”

After digging a little deeper, Young found that labs willing to run tests on the crop only screen for 12 different pesticides that are not typically used anyway. “They come back to the dispensary with the certification of ‘no pesticides found,’ but they didn’t look for the vast majority of them,” explained Young.

Additionally, the labs only do a one-gram test and, for other crops, a two-pound test is typically required for clear results.

“We have a situation where the consumer is under the impression that the stuff is screened for pesticides when it’s not,” he continued. “A lot of those statements that say ‘pesticide free’ are not true.”

Growers are not necessarily trying to harm consumers, but rather, are unaware of the dangers these pesticides pose because a lot of them have operated in the black markets up until recently and learn of pest control methods through word of mouth.

“Some of them just don’t know what a systemic pesticide is,” Young explained. “A systemic pesticide is one that goes into the interior of the plant. It’s not something on the outside that you can wash off. It’s in the plant and doesn’t come out of the plant. They have to be used at the right time, there are a lot of processes on a normal agricultural commodity like a ‘30-days-to-harvest’ or something like that — which means you have to wait 30 days before you can harvest this commodity to make sure there are no residues.”

Growers may also not be aware that use of these unapproved pesticides can pose health risks to those who work around the crops. Growers, themselves, may see adverse health effects.

“That’s why we want growers to have operator ID’s so that we can talk to them and say, ‘What are you using? Where are you getting it? Don’t use that,’” Young continued.

Young points to the marijuana industry as one of the few, true free market economies and the lack of regulations is a double-edged sword. “Unfortunately, in a true, free market economy you get to see what really happens,” he explained. “Labor is exploited, illegal pesticides, environmental damage — you see all of the things that happen in a free market economy without regulation in this industry.”

Young also noted the additional risks with edible cannabis products. “The baked goods that you see in the dispensary were made in somebody’s own kitchen and not to commercial standards,” he began. “You start to see that the food safety is not there. There is no listeria testing, salmonella testing, E. coli testing — there’s huge potential for food borne illness to be transferred in this product because it is not being held to the same standard as every other food product we produce.”

Young estimates that it will take five to 10 years to clean up the industry and predicts that liability cases will be the real catalysts for change.

“People will start to say, ‘Oh, wait a minute. You said this didn’t have any pesticides and I consumed it and had it tested in Colorado and it had pesticides and I got sick. My symptoms match what is on that sheet.’ Then, they’ll sue everybody in the chain,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to see and what will clean the industry up.”

Within a month, according to a recent Los Angeles News Group report, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is expected to release a decision as to whether marijuana will continue to be considered a Schedule 1 drug (on par with heroin, LSD, and the like) which, if descheduled or moved to a lower tier, could help with barriers to federally sanctioned drug research, lab testing, and improved regulation.

The current ranking lags behind a growing public consensus. Roughly 80 percent of Americans believe medical marijuana should be legal, according to recent polls, and some 60 percent support legalizing the drug for all adults.

Medicinal marijuana is legal in 25 states and recreational use is allowed for adults in four states plus Washington D.C.

In the event that the drug is completely descheduled, putting it on common ground with alcohol, sweeping changes could be close behind. This would allow local governments to create policies free from federal interference.

In the meantime, there is a way that patients can get their hands on safe products.

Clean Green is a third-party certifier that is based on the national organic program. Chris Van Hook, an attorney and former organic certifier, began the program to bring standardization to the cannabis industry. It currently certifies cannabis farms, processors, dispensaries, and retail outlets in California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

Last year, 20,000 pounds of cannabis were certified through the program, and Hook anticipates a 10,000-pound increase this year.

Yolo Botanicals is a local Clean Green certified operation and grows that produce anywhere from 30 to 2,600 pounds a year are eligible for certification. According to Hook, most of California’s farms are 99 pounds or less due to the state’s lack of regulatory infrastructure.

Clean Green uses soil sample testing and looks to see that grows are sending their products to a legal outlet, have a legal water supply, and a carbon reduction footprint plan in place. “We really try to vet our growers,” asserted Hook. “When the consumer reaches for a Clean Green certified product they know that it is grown legally and that there’s a sustainability element in it as well.”

Hook sees California following the “Washington model” which he sees as a shame. “Farmers can’t communicate directly with the consumer like they can with any other crop. It’s a shame because it’s being broken up into so many different permits,” said Hook.