Pesticide Use in Colorado’s Cannabis Industry: Assessment and Ramifications

In my initial essay on this site, I raised the issue of pesticide use in cannabis cultivation. This post explains more fully the conundrum created by the lack of research on cannabis and hemp as legal, commercial crops, which puts these plants in a somewhat unique situation relative to federal pesticide regulation protocols overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency. I summarize the current regulations governing pesticide use in Colorado’s cannabis industry, as well as the short history of pesticide enforcement in the state. Finally, I consider the multifaceted ramifications of the approach to pesticide use by cannabis growing operations in Colorado, which threaten public health, while also providing biotech and chemical-producing giants such as Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, and others an easy avenue into this young field when they so choose.

Pesticide Regulation as it Pertains to Cannabis

A detailed explanation of the circumstances in which cannabis finds itself as it relates to pesticide regulation can be found here. To summarize briefly, the federal prohibition of cannabis resulted in the lack of research on the plant by reputable institutions. This impacts directly pesticide use in the cultivation of cannabis, as the EPA requires such research to determine safety and environmental recommendations and protocols for the application of pesticides. Important requirements such as personal protective equipment (PPE), restricted entry interval (REI; the amount of time after a pesticide application that workers must stay out of the treated area), and pre-harvest interval (PHI; the amount of time a pesticide may be applied prior to harvest) are determined only after years of research. 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. State departments of agriculture also register pesticides for use in their particular states, and those requirements must enforce EPA standards at a minimum, but may be more restrictive at their discretion.

Federal and state laws require that pesticides be applied according to label directions, making the label a legal document of sorts. Labels specify information including, but not limited to: crops to which a pesticide can be applied, where it can be applied, dilution rates, method of application, and frequency of application, as well as the safety protocols noted above. These requirements pertain both to farmers that work thousands of acres as well as the home gardener (though agricultural use requirements and general use requirements are differentiated and in many cases constitute separate sections on pesticide labels). Due to the lack of research on the use of pesticides on cannabis, 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 on cannabis.

History of Pesticide Regulation in Cannabis Cultivation in Colorado

In Colorado, federal pesticide labeling laws apply, of course, and state regulations include the Pesticide Applicators’ Act, which doubles down on the federal requirement that pesticides must be applied according to label directions. The Pesticide Applicators’ Act (PAA) was originally incorporated into the state regulations governing medical cannabis, which predate the later regulations pertaining to recreational cannabis that also include the PAA. This may have led those formulating the regulations to believe that the issue of pesticide use in cannabis cultivation was addressed sufficiently.

If those who first entered the field possessed formal backgrounds and education in agriculture, then perhaps the long-standing federal regulatory system and the state PAA would have been sufficient safeguards against indiscriminate and illegal pesticide use. However, individuals with such knowledge are at this moment a rarity in the cannabis industry and familiarizing oneself with the hundreds (thousands?) of pages of rules, laws, and labels is tedious and difficult, especially to those without a frame of reference for the subjects under discussion. Whether cannabis growers were unaware of the regulations concerning pesticides, lacked a full understanding of them, or simply chose to ignore them, it became evident that the existing statutes were insufficient and pesticides were being applied to cannabis outside the bounds of the PAA. This is demonstrated by the fact that, in 2013, Colorado’s governor, John Hickenlooper, felt it necessary to issue an executive order that charged the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) with creating, “a list of substances that may not be used in the cultivation or processing of marijuana and it shall promulgate rules for such banned substances.” Unfortunately, I do not believe the executive order’s directive to be feasible for the simple reason noted previously: No research regarding the use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals on cannabis has been performed. Therefore, the CDA has no hard data on which to base the formulation of such a list; anything produced, no matter how well intentioned or cautious, would be guesswork.

In response to the 2013 executive order, the CDA emphasized that pesticide regulation already existed in federal and state law. In an attempt to comply with the order, they offered the following proposal: Despite the fact that no pesticides were labeled for cannabis, 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. Again, a full explanation of the CDA’s position on this topic can be found here. An example of such broad language is, “for use on flowering plants in greenhouses.” A further requirement is that the pesticide must be authorized for use on crops intended for human consumption.

Based on those requirements, the CDA has identified products with broad label language and compiled a list of pesticides, which is posted online and updated regularly, that cannabis cultivators can employ without breaking existing state and federal laws. Curiously, this solution was presented originally in a CDA work group that I attended in the summer of 2014 and, for reasons unknown to me, was found to be insufficient. In a December 2014 work group held by the CDA, it was announced that the original proposal had been tabled and new avenues for pesticide regulation were being explored. Then, in March of this year, the city of Denver issued this bulletin, which stated that the course of action proposed initially, nearly a year prior, would now be enforced. Keep in mind that this bulletin was issued five years after the legalization of medical cannabis and nearly sixteen months after the legalization of recreational cannabis was implemented. However, it is also essential to acknowledge, as I have above, that pesticide regulation existed in law prior to the legalization of cannabis in Colorado and those regulations were incorporated into the rules governing the nascent industry at its outset. While enforcement may have been a long time in coming, that does not mean that the laws themselves are novel: Essentially, pesticide regulation currently is exactly the same as it has been for the past few decades; only the crops have changed. Though cannabis is described frequently as occupying a unique space in regard to this issue, that is not completely so; numerous other specialty crops that are not grown widely face the same dilemma, as companies and institutions are unwilling to spend money on research that applies to only miniscule slivers of the country’s agricultural production.

Enforcement of Pesticide Regulation Statutes in Colorado

Despite the issuance of the bulletin and promises of imminent enforcement, numerous cannabis growing operations did not get the memo. Within a few weeks, routine inspections by the Department of Environmental Health (DEH) resulted in citations for at least ten companies that are suspected of applying pesticides illegally. The companies cited include: LivWell, The Green Solution, Organic Greens, MMJ America, RINO, Mindful, Sweet Leaf, Altitude East Treatments, Evolutionary Holdings, and Green Cross Colorado. In each instance, the plants suspected to have been contaminated were placed “on hold” by the city, which means that they may be maintained and harvested, but must be kept apart from other plants and may not be sold until the produce from the plants in question has been tested by the CDA. The companies cited may also choose to voluntarily destroy the quarantined plants, though according to reports only two companies have chosen to take that route. This article provides a helpful update on the state of each company’s sequestered plants and even notes that product from some of the above named operations has been determined to be safe. Based on my knowledge of industry testing standards, this determination was likely based on residue testing, despite the fact that the lack of research on cannabis means that no information exists on what may or may not be safe residue levels. Additionally, in the case of systemic products such as Eagle 20EW, for which all of the companies noted were commonly cited, consumers and regulators should be concerned about possibly toxic metabolites of the pesticide; systemic products are taken up by the plant, persist in its tissues for some time, and are eventually broken down, or metabolized, into other compounds (hence, metabolites). To my knowledge, this aspect of pesticide regulation and testing has not been raised or investigated in Colorado or elsewhere in relation to cannabis, though the European Food Safety Authority has recognized this realm as one in need of greater attention and further research.

Remarkably, one of the companies cited, Organic Greens, which operates a dispensary in downtown Denver called Natural Remedies, contested the city’s right to enforce pesticide regulations. Just last week, Andrew Boyens, the owner of Organic Greens, sought an injunction to stop the city’s quarantine and testing policy. Boyens declared in a court of law that the cannabis produced in his facility was safe, despite admitting to applying Eagle 20EW to the plants. Eagle 20EW is a powerful systemic fungicide produced by Dow Chemical that is labeled for use on turf, ornamentals, apples, grapes, and stone fruits. Additionally, it is formulated such that the active ingredient is suspended in petroleum-based solvents. The product in question commands a twelve page Safety Data Sheet (SDS) that contains some menacing facts couched in the impassively straightforward language characteristic of such documents. Eagle 20EW, the SDS states, is a “suspect cancer hazard,” among numerous other health risks raised by the product. The SDS also notes that the product may release toxic fumes when burned, which does not bode well for anyone who may have unsuspectingly smoked cannabis that possessed the residue of an Eagle application. While time may in fact reveal that certain pesticides can be used safely on cannabis, the lack of research prevents anyone from saying with certainty whether a product is safe or not. It is arrogant and reckless for Boyens to make such claims, and stunning that he and his attorney had the audacity to do so in a court of law, with no scientific data to support their statements. Unfortunately, Boyens’ testimony is indicative of the attitude of many cannabis growers, as he himself stated while on the stand. Ultimately, the judge hearing the case denied Boyens’ request for an injunction.

While the DEH, CDA, and also the Denver Fire Department are tasked with enforcing pesticide regulation during their inspections of growing facilities, attitudes of individuals such as Boyens attest to the need for regular, mandatory, state-sponsored third party testing of legal cannabis. At the time of this writing, no such regulations exist in Colorado’s medical cannabis realm. The rules for retail cannabis specify testing standards for pesticides, microbial contaminants, heavy metals, and other substances, but those same rules also state that cannabis operations may provide their own samples for required screenings, negating the efficacy of testing as a means to protect consumer health and safety. In the near future, it is to be hoped that Colorado and other states can develop effective regulatory frameworks for the impartial and regular sampling, transport, and testing of legal cannabis, as well as a way to make the results of those tests readily available to the public.

Ramifications of Pesticide Use on Cannabis

Now that numerous operations, including two of the largest in the state (LivWell operates nine dispensaries and The Green Solution eleven), have been revealed to be using potentially harmful pesticides, it has been acknowledged that such practices are widespread in the legal cannabis industry. Such irresponsible actions have a plethora of negative ramifications.

The most obvious is the threat to consumer safety. This issue is compounded by the fact that many severely ill individuals use cannabis to gain relief from their ailments. As this is the most widely addressed and straightforward consequence of pesticide use on cannabis, I will forego any further comment apart from providing this link to readers in Colorado. The link will take one to the site where the DEH posts the results of its inspections. It is searchable by business name, so consumers can quickly and easily determine if a dispensary has been caught or suspected of executing unsafe practices. In the cases of many of the operations named above, the inspection reports state that a re-inspection is required. Consumers in Colorado entertaining the idea of patronizing these operations should contact the DEH to inquire whether re-inspections did in fact occur, their findings, and the results of the tests performed by the CDA. I encourage all that partake in legal cannabis to seek out similar resources in their own states, and to contact individuals and regulatory bodies in their respective state and local governments if such important informational outlets do not yet exist.

Worker safety is another apparent, but less-acknowledged concern that carries with it broad implications for the public at large, even those individuals who consider themselves completely segregated from the legal cannabis industry. The use of pesticides creates residues that, depending on the product, persist for various amounts of time and may or may not be toxic. This can be especially problematic for indoor cultivation, where not only plants, but equipment and surfaces of rooms may harbor the potentially poisonous remains of pesticide use. Fumes could also conceivably waft throughout and even exit facilities via ventilation systems. Employees that are not trained properly in pesticide application and safety may not be aware of such residues, which can be carried easily on one’s skin, hair, and clothes. In traditional outdoor farming, workers are generally isolated from densely populated urban and suburban areas. However, in Colorado, hundreds of cannabis cultivation facilities occupy warehouses that are within or directly border such locations; Denver alone contains over 300 such operations. Imagine a worker in a cannabis grow facility spraying pesticides, not decontaminating properly, then going out to lunch at a fast-food chain in Denver. That individual could conceivably bring pesticide residues into contact with dozens, or even hundreds, of completely unsuspecting individuals, who may then ingest them in this hypothetical example. Other possibilities for widespread contamination arise due to the fact that most employees of cannabis growing operations wear their street clothes while working. In such circumstances, those employees could spread residues in places such as laundromats and barber’s shops, as well as into their own homes and onto their loved ones. Suffice it to say that the public health risk posed by irresponsible and illegal pesticide application in urban and suburban areas is significantly wider and potentially more damaging when all possible repercussions are taken into account.

To view the problem from an even broader perspective, the use of synthetic chemical pesticides on cannabis provides an easy avenue into the field for the companies that produce such products, an outcome that some in the industry view as undesirable. While this does not apply to the field as a whole, those familiar with the legal cannabis world can attest that many within it discuss the future of the industry with a certain amount of dread that it will inevitably be perverted by some monolithic corporate group; the tobacco, pharmaceutical, and biotech industries are the most commonly mentioned bogeymen. This sentiment is unsurprising, as many in the industry style themselves as belonging to one or another counter-culture that shuns the straight world of suits, capital, and cubicles. Ironically, based on recent reports, many of those same individuals also want the right to reach for bottles of pesticides that are produced by companies to which any good hippie should be vehemently opposed. What many fail to realize is that reliance on products made by colossal chemical companies gives tacit approval to the damaging methods of large-scale industrial agriculture, providing entities such as Monsanto, Dow, and Dupont, to name just a few, an effortless entrance into the industry when they so desire. If people are serious about keeping the cannabis and hemp industries unsullied by the scorched-earth protocols of industrial agriculture – and I know many are – then that effort must begin by cultivating sustainable organic practices that preclude absolutely the approaches and associated products of a company such as Monsanto, which incidentally is currently looking to enhance its pesticide arsenal by purchasing Syngenta.

Conclusion and Moving Forward

While cannabis has been portrayed as existing in a regulatory limbo in relation to pesticide use, that situation is overstated, as I’ve shown above. Conceiving of the issue in this way results from the misinformed assumption that synthetic chemical pesticides are a necessity in agricultural production. Environmental controls, intelligent facility design, extensive employee training, sound operating practices, and organic methods can provide effective pest management without resorting to illegal and potentially dangerous pesticides. I will in subsequent posts touch on all of those subjects in more detail. For the purposes of this discussion, I reiterate that the circumstances in which cannabis finds itself in relation to pesticides should be seized as an opportunity and a motivation: To become more educated and well-rounded cultivators; to responsibly serve patients and customers the best, safest product possible; and, in doing so, to raise the estimation of our field in the eyes of the public and defend it against certain interests who would seek to pervert it for their own gain. Regulators must also play a part. Developing sound best practices, agricultural education initiatives, effective testing protocols, and clearly defined and enforced boundaries are all necessary components that must be in place if the industry is to move forward successfully.

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