Tainted: Can California Solve Pot’s Pesticide Problem?

Cannabis Testing


Lisa M. Krieger | Photo: LiPo Ching/Cannifornian file photo | September 24, 2017


California cannabis consumers will soon have two choices: clean, legal and pricey — or dirty, illicit and cheap.

Think Whole Foods vs. El Chapo.

The big difference will be the amount of pesticides in your weed. That’s because starting Jan. 2,  when California’s vast legal marijuana market opens, all cannabis must be tested — and most chemicals will be banned.

Much of California’s cannabis is tainted, including the “medicinal” stuff. But soon state-sanctioned weed may become the greenest in the nation.

But here’s the catch: Most growers — particularly the get-rich-quick newbies and industrial-scale Big Weed wannabes — aren’t ready to grow marijuana without pesticides. And then there are all those illegal grows in California’s vast and remote public forests, often set up by Mexican drug cartels.

Where will all their weed go if it can’t pass muster with state labs?  Much of it will end up in the hands of that sketchy guy on the street corner, selling it for far less than your local dispensary, growers say.

“It’s much harder to produce clean cannabis. It takes discipline, time and paying attention,” said Brian McCall, owner and operator of Blue Belly Farms, which grows pesticide-free cannabis in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“There are so many ways to fail,” he said. “You can’t sell it if it’s not in compliance with the new state law. The stuff that fails is going to go to the black market — or across state lines.”

While most cannabis cultivators hope to get state licenses, many may end up dumping failed products on the illegal market, while others may opt to stay out of the legal system altogether to avoid the new regulations, growers say.

One reason is that black-market cannabis is so much cheaper to grow. And if it’s sold in states that haven’t legalized marijuana, it will command a higher price than weed sold in California.

Only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the state’s growers will meet the new standards, predicts Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, which advocates for marijuana cultivators. Those who succeed are likely to have rigorous and well-established practices who have long toiled to make a modest, independent and organic living, he said.

Clean cannabis seems like a no-brainer to the millions of Californians devoted to organic fruit and vegetables, natural deodorant, cruelty-free moisturizer, sustainable dental floss and grass-fed-cow cream in their frappuccino lattes.

Indeed, it’s been a point of pride for California’s small marijuana farmers. Every day they attend to each plant, lovingly inspecting it for any sign of stress, illness or infestation.

“The granola-eating hippie also smokes pesticide-free cannabis,” said Allen, born and raised off-the-grid in rural Humboldt County. “There’s a cultural propensity.”

So, from the beginning, clean weed was a big part of the motivation of legalization supporters. Back in 2015, two of marijuana’s strongest legislative champions, Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, and state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, called on California to develop testing, standards and pesticide limits in legislation that increased regulation of the medical marijuana industry.

And by passing Proposition  64 last November to legalize recreational weed, voters directed the state to “establish a certified organic designation and organic certification program for marijuana and marijuana products.”

But state regulators are only now catching up, hastily drafting regulations.  A draft plan released in April set some of the most rigorous standards in the nation.

Meanwhile, there’s a profit-driven “green rush” to capitalize on California’s huge legal market, with growers — from fresh-faced newcomers to violent Mexican cartels — using pesticide practices that would make Monsanto proud.

Sampling reveals alarming amounts of chemicals in the medical marijuana sold at California’s dispensaries. Last year, Steep Hill Labs, a Berkeley-based testing facility, detected pesticides in 84 percent of samples.  At San Francisco’s HempCon competition in August, a stunning 80 percent of the flowers, edibles and concentrates were tainted by pesticides, mold or harmful solvents, according to Anresco Laboratories in San Francisco.

These toxins are smoked, vaped and eaten — unlike, say, the stuff that’s sprayed on your orange peel or banana skin. And because cannabis is a federally banned drug, there’s little research about the health effects of pesticide-laden pot — or whether these chemicals change when ignited. No one really knows what’s safe.

But organic weed is easier said than done.

For starters, the federal government offers no guidance. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the authority for such things, lists no “registered” pesticide products for illegal substances, so the state can’t list them either. And while a different administration may have approved special “local use” petitions, President Donald Trump’s EPA says it won’t, said environmental attorney Joshua Bloom, of the Oakland law firm Meyers Nave.

The state is still drafting the final rules, but its list will likely allow products that are so benign that they’re exempt from federal registration requirements such as cinnamon, rosemary, peppermint oils, sulfur and iron phosphate.

Proposition 64’s pesticide-free requirement is nerve-racking for growers because cannabis is so valuable. It costs more per gram than gold. Plants can be quickly wiped out by plagues from mildew to mites.  And, no, you can’t buy crop insurance.

Soils may hold old chemical residue from previous crops, they add. Or sprayed pesticides may blow in from neighboring fields.

“People get scared when their bottom line is threatened,” said Russell Pace of the Humboldt County-based Cannabis Horticultural Association.

Natural remedies take patience and skill. They’re labor-intensive. They take more frequent applications — and can be less effective.

“The first step is prevention. You start with seeds, not clones. You don’t over water,” said Chrystal Ortiz, operations manager for True Humboldt, a collective of small Humboldt County farmers who expect to excel under the new rules. “The second step is manual control. You use enzymes, essential oils and beneficial fungus. You remove caterpillars and banana slugs by hand.”

Tiny sachets — holding pest-fighting mites — decorate their pot farms.

“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” Pace said.

But proving this cleanliness will be expensive for farmers, eating into profits. State-approved testing will cost about $400 per pound — about half to one-third the $800 to $1,200 per pound price that good commercial grade cannabis brings on the market, Allen said.

In Colorado, tremors ran through the cannabis market when the state imposed pesticide regulations after the legalization vote, said James R. Ott of Precision Cultivation Company, a consulting company in Longmont, Colorado.

“It was quite challenging. There was a huge learning curve right off the bat,” said Ott, previously with Syngenta, a Swiss agriculture and biotech company. “Most people hadn’t thought about the cultural or cultivation practices needed to minimize pests.

“The guy who’s been growing 60 plants in his basement all of a sudden has 10,000 plants in a facility — and he has not seen these things happen at scale,” Ott added. “The easy thing was … just spray.”

Yields fell. Crops were destroyed or diverted to the illegal market. Businesses failed.

“What we experienced in Colorado is coming to the folks in California,” predicted Jay Czarkowski of the Boulder-based consulting firm Canna Advisors. “There will be a massive shift. It takes years to clean up.

“Companies had to issue recalls,” he said. “It was a tough transition for those who did not have horticultural background. They couldn’t rely on those crutches anymore.”

The entrepreneurs who are brand new to cannabis, or who cut corners in the rush to expand, won’t make the cut, experts agreed. And the fly-by-night and criminal cartel growers will continue to supply the black market, just as they always have.

“It’s a very different approach than the industrial agricultural model … which views cannabis as a commodity,” Allen said. “There will be some rude awakenings.”

Come Jan. 1, California will still be awash in cheap, untested and pesticide-treated weed, experts said. But consumers will finally have a choice.

After decades of unregulated weed, will they be willing to pay more for a state-approved product?

If so, the landscape will change, with incentives for growers to do things the right way, said attorney Bloom.

“It all comes back to the consumer,” said environmental attorney Robert L. “Buzz” Hines of San Francisco’s Farella Braun + Martel.

“As consumers get a lot more sophisticated,” he predicted, “I believe you’ll see them choose something they know and trust.”

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