According to a press release issued on Friday, September 22nd, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), along with the Colorado Department of Revenue (DOR) and the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), issued a public health and safety advisory for cannabis products tainted with pesticide residue.
The advisory was issued after the detection of pesticide residues on retail cannabis plant material and products with cannabis grown by RK Enterprises LTD, doing business as Rocky Mountain Remedies. The CDA confirmed that they detected the pesticide, Avermectin, an insecticide with a relatively high acute toxicity.
When pesticides like this are not on the list approved for use in cannabis cultivation, it is considered an off-label use. According to the press release, some of the products affected include flower, trim, concentrates and infused-products.
Consumers are advised to look at the label of their products and check to see if it matches the license number 403R-00180 and harvest batch numbers r206goldenkush9.11.17 and m206larryog9.11.17. Consumers are told to either dispose of the product properly or bring it back to the retail store where they purchased it.
When we discuss growing and producing medical cannabis, we must think of it as a medicine. By definition, it is a substance intended to assist you with a medical condition, to help you feel better and not harm you. Drugs produced in the pharmaceutical industry go through extensive quality controls to ensure a level of safety for the consumer or patient. Yet when we talk process and quality controls in medical cannabis production, there is still a lot to learn.
Are we waiting for the wake-up call? Well, ring! Recently Health Canada, the regulatory body overseeing Canada’s medical cannabis market, decided that “It will begin random testing of medical marijuana products to check for the presence of banned pesticides after product recalls affecting nearly 25,000 customers led to reports of illnesses and the possibility of a class action lawsuit.”
Proper quality controls help protect businesses from unforeseen issues like those massive recalls in Canada. These can assure that the product is safe (won’t harm you), has integrity (free of contamination), and that the product is what it says it is (identity). To achieve this important goal, we must have robust systems that will guarantee product quality. Why is this important? Quality controls can ensure a safer and more consistent product, helping build patient and consumer trust and brand loyalty, preventing a public relations nightmare like a recall due to pesticide contamination.
The FDA, among other regulatory bodies, has established excellent guidelines to implement these controls. So there is a lot we can learn from the pharmaceutical industry and that FDA guidance regarding quality controls and assurance. After all, we are all interested in the same thing: a safe and effective product.
So, let’s take a look at some of the controls included in the CFR (Code of Federal Regulation), Part 211 , which include Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for finished products, and how you can implement them in the growing business of growing cannabis.
Personnel selection and training: The GMPs establish that “Each person engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall have education, training… to enable that person to perform the assigned functions.” These include the creation of specific curricula per position and the establishment of requirements for specialized tasks. We all want to be successful so training, in this case, is what we call the vaccine for mistakes.
Facilities: “Any building or buildings used in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall be of suitable size, construction, and location to facilitate cleaning, maintenance, and proper operations.” This requirement includes segregation of spaces to avoid cross-contamination, housekeeping, the cleaning process and detergent types, material storage conditions, humidity levels, temperature, water, and even ventilation requirements to prevent contamination with microorganisms. All with the intention of protecting the product.
Pest control: “There shall be written procedures for the use of suitable rodenticides, insecticides, fungicides, fumigating agents, and cleaning and sanitizing agents. Such written procedures shall be designed to prevent the contamination of equipment, components, drug product containers, closures, packaging, labeling materials, or drug products and shall be followed.” There have been many issues pertaining this requirement. In 2010, Johnson & Johnson received many complaints claiming that the product had a musty, moldy odor. Later, the firm identified the cause of the odor to be a chemical, called 2, 4, 6-Tribromoanisole or TBA; a pesticide used to treat wooden pallets. One of the specific requirements of this section is to avoid the use of wooden pallets, but if you decide to use them, the method of sterilization by heat treatment seems like the only safe option for sterilizing wooden pallets and wood cases.
Equipment/Instrumentation: “Equipment used in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall be of appropriate design, adequate size, and suitably located to facilitate operations for its intended use and its cleaning and maintenance.” The intention is to not alter the safety, identity, strength, quality, or purity of the drug product beyond the official or other established requirements. What would happen if lubricants/coolants or any other substance, not intended to be part of the product, comes in contact with the product?
Procedures and documentation: “There shall be written procedures for production and process control designed to assure that the drug products have the identity, strength, quality, and purity they purport or are represented to possess. Such procedures shall include all requirements of this subpart. These written procedures, including any changes, shall be drafted, reviewed, and approved. When we have followable, well written, clear, and specific procedures, we avoid possible errors that can get us in trouble.
Defects Investigation: “Written production and process control procedures shall be followed in the execution of the various production and process control functions and shall be documented at the time of performance. Any deviation from the written procedures shall be recorded and justified.” We want to be successful, for that we need to learn from failures, understanding the root causes, correcting and preventing re-occurrence is what will keep you competitive. As you can see this requirement is essential for, quality, business and to evidence that such deviations did not adulterate the product.
Process controls: Besides written procedures and deviations management, operation controls are pivotal in guaranteeing the quality as well as complete documentation of your process. These controls will vary depending on your technology and your product. If you do alcohol (ethanol) extraction, for example, you want to keep an eye on the temperature, dissolution time, and even have color standards to be able to quickly and correctly identify possible abnormalities, while you can still correct the mistake. In-process product testing will allow you to monitor “performance of those manufacturing processes that may be responsible for causing variability in the characteristics of in-process material and the final product.”
Regardless of federal regulatory guidance, quality controls can be that one factor which can make or break your business. Why re-invent the wheel?
When newspapers and television run a cannabis story, it is frequently accompanied by photos or video of vast, cavernous warehouses filled with veritable oceans of plants. Photos used to illustrate stories in the New York Times and Denver Post serve to illustrate this point.
This type of facility design is sometimes referred to in the cannabis industry as a “perpetual harvest” model. This is because plants are harvested piecemeal – one row at a time, for example – with new plants ready to flower replacing the recently harvested ones. In this model, flowering plants of various ages occupy the same space and the room is never completely harvested and empty, hence the “perpetual” moniker. This is in contrast to more compartmentalized facility designs, in which flowering plants are segregated in smaller groups in various rooms, which are then harvested completely before the room is cleaned and new plants ready to flower replace the previous ones.
The perpetual harvest setup appears impressive and lends itself well to portraying the volume of production being achieved in large facilities. This is likely why I have seen such models, or similar ones, copied in other states. Prospective entrants to the industry have also approached my firm with such designs in mind for their cultivation facilities. However, we generally advise against the perpetual harvest facility model, as this type of design imposes serious difficulties upon operators. Problems arise primarily in the areas of pest and contamination mitigation, ability to properly observe pesticide use and worker safety guidelines, and inefficiencies in lighting and HVAC usage. The problems noted are linked to the perpetual harvest design and can be mitigated with increased compartmentalization. Before getting to my recommendations, however, lets run down the issues created by the perpetual harvest model.
Lighting and HVAC Inefficiencies
In many photos I see of perpetual harvest facilities, the ceilings are extremely high, as are the light fixtures in most cases. This is likely the result of one of the main perceived advantages of such spaces, which is that they require minimal construction prior to getting up and running. There are no walls to be put up or ceilings lowered, and the lack of compartmentalization makes running wires and ducting much easier.
However, whatever capital was saved in initial construction will likely be burned up by increased ongoing operational costs. High ceilings such as those in the above photos mean more cubic footage that climate control systems must cool or heat. Additionally, due to the great height of the light fixtures, plants are not getting the most bang for their buck, so to speak, compared to designs that allow lights to be lowered appropriately to provide optimal intensity and spectrum. Double-Ended High Pressure Sodium (DE HPS) lamps are probably the most common type of lighting in use for flowering by commercial cannabis cultivators today, and they are ideally situated about four feet above the canopy when running at full capacity.
For businesses aiming for a no-frills production model with minimal attention to the light management needs of individual cannabis cultivars (or strains, as they are commonly referred to), then this consideration may be moot. However, those operations attempting to produce the highest-quality flower and plant material know the value of proper light management, as well as the fact that some cultivars respond differently than others to intense light. Indeed, I have observed cultivars that produce more when light intensity was decreased, while others thrived under intense light that would have seriously damaged others. This makes the one-size-fits-all approach to light management I’ve seen in most perpetual harvest designs generally detrimental to the quality of the final product, in addition to using the same amount of energy, or more, to achieve that lower quality result.
Difficulties in Pest and Contamination Mitigation
Such a design makes it easy for a small pest incursion to become a full-blown infestation. Because plants about to be harvested are sharing space with plants just beginning their flowering process, this means that both current and future harvests will be affected, or even lost entirely if the pest problem is severe. Having plant groups of different ages share the same space is generally unadvisable. This is because older plants, particularly those close to harvest, are weaker and more susceptible to pests by virtue of the fact that their life cycles are nearing an end. On the other hand, a more compartmentalized facility design provides physical barriers that can contain mites and mildew spores to some extent, limiting the damage done by individual pest incursions.
One of the essential tasks in an indoor cultivation operation is sterilizing just-harvested spaces to ensure that the subsequent run gets off to a clean start. This task could conceivably be performed in a perpetual harvest model; say, for example, trays, trellis frames, and other equipment are scrubbed after a row has been cut down and removed for drying or processing. However, due to the fact that there are always other plants in the room, it seems impossible for any plant group to get an assuredly clean start, as other plants may be harboring bugs, mold spores, or viruses, despite not showing signs or symptoms. The presence of plants also eliminates the possibility of using cleaning agents such as bleach, which gives off harmful fumes, but is sometimes necessary to completely sterilize an area that might have previously experienced some amount of powdery mildew or botrytis.
In Part II of this series, I will discuss some problems with pesticide use and worker safety regulations as well as provide recommendations for compartmentalization in cultivation facilities. Stay tuned for Part II of A Case for Compartmentalization: Problems with “Perpetual Harvest” Models in Cultivation, coming out next week.
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 not 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.
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.