Tag Archives: EPA

Dr. Allison Justice

What Does it Really Mean To Be Organic in Cannabis?

By Dr. Allison Justice
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Dr. Allison Justice

If you ask an organic chemist, it’s any molecule with a carbon attached. If you ask a consumer of USDA Certified Organic vegetables, they might say it is food produced without chemicals pesticides, that it is safer and cleaner and even more nutritious. Possibly another consumer will say it’s just a hoax to pay more for food, but what does the USDA Certified Organic Farmer say?

Most will agree it is a very rigorous process of record keeping, fees, rules and oversight. The farmers have limited choices for pesticides and fertilizers; they incur higher labor costs, suffer potentially lower yields and generally have higher input costs. However, at the end of the day the farmer does get a higher price point.

With so many misconceptions about organic food, it is difficult to know what is actually organic by definition. First let’s think about what the word pesticide means. A pesticide is “a substance used for destroying insects or other organisms harmful to cultivated plants or to animals.” By definition, a vacuum used to suck off spidermites is a pesticide, so instead we should say that no synthetic pesticides are used. These are pesticides that enter and reside for long periods of time within the plant, which are potentially harmful to the end consumer. Though organic food does not contain synthetic pesticides, the perception of the food being healthier is also not always accurate. Growers often use foliar applied teas or manures, which increase the chance of the product containing E. coli or other harmful microbes. In addition, certain sanitizing agents or gamma irradiation is not allowed, so the post-harvest cleaning is not always as thorough as for conventional foods. When cannabis is sold as a dried product, the consumer cannot wash the flower as they might do before eating an apple. As growers, we should make sure we are disinfecting the flower before harvest and keeping the plant/processes clean throughout curing.

I often hear cannabis growers saying they are producing an organic product, but this simply cannot be true. The term “organic” is a labeling term for agricultural products (food, fiber or feed) that have been produced in accordance to the federal government’s USDA organic regulations. Due to our (cannabis growers) ongoing disagreements with the federal government, this is not a term we can put on our product. However, we can still grow to the same standards as USDA-certified farmers. How can we do this? By using OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) approved products. OMRI is a third-party, nonprofit organization that lets growers know if a product can be used in certified Organic production. You can find this seal on many fertilizers or pesticides.

Next, if it is a pesticide product that is not OMRI approved, check to see if it is registered by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The EPA will provide ingredients and crops that are approved, amounts which can be used safely and storage/disposal practices on the label. Products that are put through the EPA registration are evaluated for their environmental, human and residual risks. Companies pay a hefty fee for this process, and much research goes into providing this information – ALWAYS READ THE LABEL!

A couple of exceptions to an EPA registration are pesticides that are 25B-exempt and biological control. 25B-exempt pesticides are pesticides that pose minimal or no risk to humans. A complete list of these products can be found here. Examples of these pesticides include rosemary, garlic, spearmint, etc.

Biological control is a method for controlling pests by the use of natural enemies. Biological control agents are allowed in organic production. If you are still wondering which pesticides or fertilizer are OK to use in cannabis and you do not live in a state with already enforced regulation, check out allowed lists in states that do.

So we know we cannot be considered a USDA organic cannabis farmer, but we CAN strive to meet the same standards:

  • Follow your state’s regulations; they are there for a reason!
  • Use OMRI products, 25B-exempt products and BCAs.
  • Keep an eye out for upcoming third-party certification companies, such as Clean Green or MPS (beware of the ones that want you to only use their products), because we need more than the state to regulate what we put onto our crop.
  • Finally, always think about the microbial load you’ve put on your plants. Although many can be very beneficial and help to produce high quality crops, many species can be harmful to the end user.

DEA To Consider Rescheduling Cannabis, Could Mean Policy Shift

By Aaron G. Biros
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In a letter sent to lawmakers last week, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced plans to make a decision on rescheduling cannabis by mid-2016. The announcement could represent the culmination of a shift in the federal government’s attitude toward cannabis legalization.Dea_color_logo

Currently, cannabis is a Schedule I narcotic, meaning the government views it as lacking medical benefits and have a high potential for abuse. The rescheduling of cannabis has the potential to open the floodgates for research, including much needed clinical trials.

Derek Peterson, chief executive officer at Terra Tech, a cannabis-focused agriculture company, believes this bodes well for the growth potential of the cannabis industry. “From the perspective of quality and safety standards, I find it unlikely that rescheduling it would negatively impact the degree to which cannabis is examined,” says Peterson. “It’s unnecessarily high position on the DEA drug schedule does nothing but limit the industry’s potential for growth, stall any meaningful pharmaceutical testing and increase law enforcement’s ability to prosecute non-violent drug offenders,” adds Peterson.

The rescheduling could also potentially allow for the prescribing of cannabis for patients. Stephen Goldner, founder of Pinnacle Labs and president of Regulatory Affairs Associates, is hopeful this will lead to a greater shift in public attitude towards cannabis. “The DEA’s announcement is a clear message to all States and possibly even to United Nations policy makers: even the DEA is willing to reconsider cannabis,” says Goldner. “Since the DEA is reconsidering cannabis, state politicians and local police departments can also be flexible and move away from prohibition, towards the regulation of cannabis.”

The rescheduling of cannabis could have a tremendous impact on the growth of the cannabis industry, including more clinical trials, medical research and physician participation. It could also open the door for more federal agency involvement, as the Schedule I status inhibits any EPA research on cannabis pesticide use or FDA guidance on food and drug good manufacturing practices. When reached for comment, the FDA’s press office said they could not speculate on any involvement in the matter.

Pesticide Position Paper: Prepared by Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C)

By Adam Koh, Nic Easley
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Those that follow the legal cannabis industry are undoubtedly aware of the struggles of Colorado to regulate pesticide use on cannabis. At the time of this writing, there have been 19 recalls of products contaminated by pesticides in as many weeks. Authorities could not in all cases identify exactly how many units of products may have been tainted, but based on the numbers available, roughly 200,000 individual cannabis products, if not more, have been pulled from dispensary shelves. Along with these recalls have come a large amount of coverage and commentary from various news outlets, industry stakeholders, and even those companies who have had products pulled from shelves.

As this is a controversial and contentious subject, it can be difficult to parse and evaluate the various points of view being offered. In what follows, we will outline the issues at hand objectively: first providing a brief overview of federal and state pesticide regulations and how they pertain to cannabis; addressing claims of whether pesticide usage is “safe” or not; and, finally, offering our opinion of how the cannabis industry should address the pesticide conundrum considering the current regulatory environment and the state of our knowledge.

Before diving in, we are also aware that there is controversy around cannabis testing methodologies, and that the reliability of cannabis testing labs in general has been called into question by a number of the companies that have faced recalls. While we cannot comment on the operations of particular labs, we do support the application of consistent standards, proficiency evaluations, and stringent regulatory oversight to testing labs themselves, so that their results can be assured of being beyond reproach.

Still, 3C’s stance is that quality cannot be tested into a product. To have growers continue to produce contaminated cannabis only to see it recalled repeatedly is unsustainable for the industry; indeed, it threatens its very existence, as we discuss below. That is why we focus in this paper on the cultivation of the plant, as correcting problems on the production side is the only way to ultimately resolve the dilemma in which the industry finds itself.

Pesticide Regulation in the US Relative to Cannabis Cultivation

Cannabis’ pesticide problems stem in large part from the fact the pesticide regulation takes place at the federal level, under the auspices of the EPA. All pesticides undergo years of research and development before they can be sold to farmers and employed on crops. That research addresses questions such as where and how a pesticide can be employed, on what crops, in what concentrations, with what frequency, and how long before harvest can a pesticide be applied. Questions of worker safety are also addressed, such as those concerning what Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) might be required and how long workers must avoid treated areas (Re­Entry Intervals), among other concerns.

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. Federal and state laws require that pesticides be applied according to label directions, making the label a legal document of sorts. “The label is the law,” is a phrase common among agricultural professionals with which the legal cannabis industry is becoming acquainted.

The sticking point in regard to cannabis is that, due to its federal illegality, no research has been performed on the use of pesticides on cannabis. Due to the lack of research, 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 in cannabis production. However, 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. Additionally, certain pesticides are of such low­toxicity that the EPA has deemed that their registration is not required; these are known as minimum­ risk products under section 25(b) of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). At this time, the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), in an attempt to offer guidance to cannabis growers, is maintaining a list of such products that, either due to broad label language or 25(b) status, may be used on cannabis without that use being a violation of the label.

Are Pesticides Safe for Use on Cannabis?

Since the first plants to be quarantined after discoveries of improper, off­-label pesticide use to the most recent recalls, some of the Colorado cannabis companies caught up in those enforcement actions have made public statements claiming that their products are safe. These statements are dangerously misleading, as they do not take into account the issues laid out above, nor the facts that follow.

Frequently, attempts to justify such claims point out that pesticides are employed on our food and therefore must be okay to apply to cannabis as well. This is a classic case of comparing apples to oranges; or, in this case, comparing apples and oranges to cannabis. Such data cannot be bridged for the simple reason that apples and oranges (and most other agricultural food crops) are not smoked. Smoking remains the primary method of cannabis ingestion, but cannabis products are also vaporized (concentrates), consumed (edibles), applied to the skin (topical creams and patches), and taken sublingually (tinctures, sublingual strips).

As noted, the studies that pesticides must undergo prior to being approved by the EPA involve measuring acceptable residues based on the method of consumption of the final product. Since most food is consumed and digested, few pesticides on the market have undergone pyrolysis studies, which examine how the chemical structures of pesticides degrade when burned. This means that while the fungicide myclobutanil, the active ingredient in Eagle 20EW, may be approved for use on grapes, that approval is meaningless in regard to cannabis, as grapes are not smoked and the relative safety of myclobutanil residues was not tested in regard to such a consumption method.

While studies may eventually reveal that certain pesticides may be used on cannabis without ill effects to the end users, such research has not been performed and no one can say with certainty what the effects of consuming cannabis containing pesticide residues might be. Even the CDA qualifies the list of products that may be used without violating labeling guidelines with the following statement, “These products have not been tested to determine their health effects if used on marijuana that will be consumed and thus the health risks to consumers is unknown.”

Again, no one can currently say what pesticides, if any, can be safely employed on cannabis; anyone claiming definitively that their products are safe despite off­-label pesticide use is making a statement that at this time lacks any scientific basis whatsoever.

Another claim made numerous times by companies defending their off­-label pesticide use is that no one has yet fallen ill from pesticide use on cannabis. While this is true, we must remember that we are in uncharted territory, and no large­scale public health studies have been done to determine what, if any, effects result from consuming cannabis to which pesticides were applied. We hope that no ill effects will surface, but the fact of the matter is that chronic health issues may take years to show themselves and a public health crisis may yet emerge.

Recommendations for the Cannabis Industry

We are advocates for cannabis legalization and want to see this industry grow and develop into one that is beneficial for all involved. We believe that cannabis can continue to be a force for positive change in numerous areas of society, from medicine to criminal justice to agriculture, and beyond. But, in order for it to do so, we must navigate issues such as those around pesticide use in an intelligent and responsible manner.

Our primary recommendation should be preceded by the statement that the use of chemical pesticides of the type triggering Colorado’s recalls is not needed in cannabis production. We make this statement based on years of experience working in, managing, and advising cultivation operations of all types, methodologies, and scales on how to grow successfully without illegal pesticides. Cannabis has survived and flourished throughout human history without pesticides, and will continue to do so if we cultivate it correctly.

As such, we recommend that growers n​ot​ employ any pesticides in a manner that violates label directions, and only use 25(b) products that have undergone pyrolysis testing to ensure that they are not releasing harmful compounds when burned. Furthermore, applications should only be made during the vegetative stage, prior to the emergence of flowers. Overall, if there is any doubt as to whether a product or material is safe, it should not be used until legitimate, peer­-reviewed research has been performed by a reputable institution.

Successful pest control can be achieved via intelligent facility design, robust environmental controls, workflow protocols, and strict cleanliness standards, in addition to preventative applications of appropriate minimum­ risk pesticides. There is no magic bullet that will solve all pest problems, which is why experienced agricultural professionals rely on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), defined as “an ecosystem­-based strategy that focuses on long­term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties.” Overall, the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) is much needed in the industry, and cannabis growers should look to agricultural operations that promote the four pillars of GAP standards (economic viability, environmental sustainability, social acceptability, and safety and quality of the final product) for guidance in formulating best practices in this new field.

This recommendation is not simply a matter of principle, but one that will preserve your business. In addition to costly and brand­-damaging recalls, we have already seen the first product liability lawsuits filed last year against LivWell by cannabis consumers over off­label pesticide use. Another issue is that of worker safety. Most cannabis cultivation takes place indoors, where pesticide residues can linger in garden areas and on equipment, creating toxic work environments. Unfortunately, based on the widespread nature of pesticide use in the legal cannabis industry, we feel confident in stating that thousands of workers employed in legal cannabis cultivation operations have applied chemical pesticides without proper PPE or safety training. Businesses employing pesticides off­-label will likely find themselves subject to liability claims from workers, as well as consumers, in the relatively near future.

Conclusion

In closing, the bottom line is that applying pesticides off­-label is a violation of state and federal law and could result in criminal and civil sanctions, should regulators and affected parties choose to pursue them.

It must also be noted that off­-label pesticide use threatens the industry as a whole. Point six of the Cole Memorandum states that the federal government will not make the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act a priority as long as the “exacerbation of (…) public health consequences associated with marijuana use” is prevented. The emergence of a public health problem would be a violation of the Cole Memo ­and it could be argued that the current situation unfolding in Denver is already a violation ­ and could trigger federal intervention against states that have legalized cannabis. In this light, the Denver Department of Environmental Health, which is driving the recalls, has not “launched a campaign against legal cannabis,” as a company recently subject to a recall claimed, but is actually acting as a bulwark against a potentially serious Cole Memo violation that could shutter the entire industry.

Based on the current situation, the cannabis industry must come together to denounce and eliminate off­-label pesticide use. In order to ensure the health of patients, consumers, workers, and the industry itself, we must seize this opportunity to grow without chemicals that are currently illegal, potentially very harmful, and ultimately not even necessary.