Many believe that legalizing cannabis solves one of the worst issues associated with black market product: chemical contamination. But legalization doesn’t necessarily guarantee access to safe and clean cannabis for consumers. Since cannabis isn’t federally legal yet, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), two federal agencies that protect public health, haven’t regulated which pesticides are safe to use on cannabis or what levels are safe to inhale or ingest.
Note: The EPA recently announced that it has approved 10 pesticides for use with hemp. You can see the full list here.
Growers are currently operating under state-specific guidelines about what is acceptable for cannabis use, although the rules are inconsistent between states. As a result, samples of both recreational and medical cannabis from various legalized states have tested positive for insecticide, fungicide, or rodenticide contamination. In California, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, CBD testers are finding evidence of illegal pesticide use. In some instances, these illegal pesticide levels are 100 to 1,000 times higher than what would be legally acceptable in corresponding crops.
The EPA labels pesticides for specific crop uses in its regulations for the farming industry. Any off-label applications of approved pesticides are considered illegal, which creates a grey area for legal cannabis growers. Some cannabis farmers have taken matters into their own hands and have, for example, used EPA-approved plant pesticides for their cannabis plants. But both growers and consumers should be aware that just because a particular pesticide is safe to use on some plants doesn’t mean its residue on cannabis is innocuous to inhale or ingest.
In many cases, it isn’t known what happens chemically when pesticides are heated the way they are when cannabis is smoked. In some known cases, the news is grim. For example, the pesticide myclobutanil, a fungicide traditionally used on grapes that has been adopted by some cannabis cultivators, releases toxic hydrogen cyanide when heated and can cause respiratory illness, dizziness, and vomiting.
This is worrying for a number of reasons. Not only are many cannabis products concentrated, which compounds the risks of pesticide exposure, but consuming cannabis through inhalation is the fastest route of exposure in the body and allows potentially dangerous chemicals to go directly from the lungs into the bloodstream.
Similarly, pesticides legally applied to hemp for processing fiber may not be safe to use on smokable hemp harvests. The lack of federal oversight means there are still limited resources for both cannabis businesses and state regulators to consult while trying to build out a framework for safe and reliable growing practices.
The lack of research on the lasting impacts of inhaling cannabis contaminated with pesticides or pesticide residues is mainly due to cannabis’ federal status as a Schedule I substance. According to Ethan Russo, Director of Research and Development for a Prague-based International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, “many of these agents are accumulative in their effects, particularly with the potential carcinogens. We don’t know what’s going to happen down the road, ten to twenty years later, due to exposure to these agents. Just because somebody smokes something and doesn’t notice any untoward effects doesn’t mean that it’s safe. It’s a sort of creeping danger.”
In the meantime, responsible growers that prioritize the health and safety of their customers should either invest in natural and herbal pesticides or avoid pesticide use by implementing clean, compliant growing practices and including a kill-step in their production process. The WillowPure system, Willow Industries’ proprietary cannabis decontamination technology, is an effective kill-step in the cannabis harvesting process because it can ensure product meets state testing requirements while maintaining potency, cannabinoid content, and terpene profiles. Contact Willow Industries today to learn more about how the WillowPure system can help your business.