On March 18th, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) issued its first recall for recreational cannabis products. The recall, according to the press release, occurred because an unnamed wholesaler sent cannabis products to a retailer before the pesticide test results were entered into the OLCC Cannabis Tracking System (CTS).
The cannabis grown at Emerald Wave Estate, LLC is said to fail a test for pyrethrins exceeding the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) action level (the action level for pyrethrins is 1 ppm). Pyrethrins are a class of insecticides derived from the chrysanthemum flower. Their toxicity varies a lot depending on exactly what organic compound was used, but has an acute toxicity level that is cause for concern. When exposed to high levels of pyrethrins, people have reported symptoms similar to asthma. Generally, pyrethrins have a low chronic toxicity for humans.
The retailer, Buds 4 U LLC, located in Mapleton, OR, issued a voluntary recall for 82.5 grams of the strain Blue Magoo sold between March 8th and 10th. After finding the failed test results in the CTS, the retailer immediately contacted the OLCC. According to The Portland Tribune, OLCC spokesman Mark Pettinger says the retailer was very cooperative in immediately notifying the OLCC. “The retailer was great,” says Pettinger. “They get the gold star.” The Portland Tribune also says the wholesaler who shipped the cannabis prior to test results being entered is Cascade Cannabis Distributing of Eugene. That mistake could be a violation of Oregon’s regulations, leading to a 10-day closure and up to a $1,650 fine.
According to the press release, the rest of the nine pounds in the batch is on hold “pending the outcome of an additional pesticide retest.” The OLCC encourages consumers to check if their products have the license and product numbers detailed in the press release. They advise consumers who did purchase the affected cannabis to dispose of the product or return it to the retailer. The press release also mentions that they have not received any reports of illness related to the tainted cannabis.
Last week, Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Karen Murphy announced the formation of temporary regulations for cannabis growers and processors in the state, according to a press release. Those temporary rules were published on Saturday, October 29. Secretary Murphy asked for public comment on developing regulations for dispensaries as well.
The PA Department of Health published the new set of temporary regulations this past Saturday, outlining “the financial, legal and operational requirements needed by an individual to be considered for a grower/processor permit, as well as where the facilities can be located.” The regulations also discuss tracking systems, equipment maintenance, safety issues, disposal of cannabis, tax reporting, pesticides, recalls and insurance requirements. “One of our biggest accomplishments to date is the development of temporary regulations for marijuana growers and processors,” says Secretary Murphy. “We received nearly 1,000 comments from members of the community, the industry and our legislative partners.”
The general provisions published on Saturday outline the details of the application process, fees, inspections, reporting, advertising and issues surrounding locations and zoning. The temporary regulations for growers and processors delve into the minutia of regulatory compliance for a variety of issues: including security, storage, maintenance, transportation, tracking, disposal, recall, pesticides and packaging and safety requirements. A list of pesticides permitted for use can also be found at the bottom of the rules.
The document discusses the regulations for performing voluntary and mandatory recalls in great detail. It requires thorough documentation and standard operating procedures for the disposal of contaminated products, cooperation with the Department of Health and appropriate communications with those affected by the recall.
The department has yet to release temporary regulations for laboratories and dispensaries, but hopes to do so before the end of the year. “I am encouraging the public – and specifically the dispensary community – to review the temporary regulations and provide us with their feedback,” says Secretary Murphy. “The final temporary regulations for dispensaries will be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin by the end of the year.”
Since Governor Tom Wolf signed the medical cannabis program bill into law in April 2016, the state has made considerable progress to develop the program, including setting up a physician workgroup, public surveys for developing temporary rules and a request for information for electronic tracking IT solutions. The PA Department of Health expects to implement the program fully in the next 18 to 24 months.
Regulators in Colorado last week announced another massive recall of cannabis found to contain banned pesticides. 92 batches of cannabis plants, with roughly a dozen plants in each batch, were recalled for using the product, Guardian, on the plants. The culprit was an ingredient in the product called avermectin, a pesticide listed as a ‘bad actor’ by the Pesticide Action Network.
The recall follows dozens of others in Colorado this year, all because tests found pesticides present in cannabis samples. When news spreads of cannabis recalls due to concerns of pesticide contamination, it paints a picture of worrisome problems rampant in the cannabis industry. Alarmists say continued recalls could have disastrous consequences like stalling legalization initiatives or slowing growth in new markets.
In the food industry, recalls are a part of routine business. The FDA created the Reportable Food Registry (RFR) as a way to prevent the shipment of contaminated food products into the supply. In 2015, Chipotle Mexican Grill made news when it sickened dozens with an E.coli outbreak and issued extensive recalls as a result. After that happened, the company reevaluated its practices and improved their food safety program to prevent future outbreaks.
When a recall occurs, it should prompt a surge in inquiries, responses and audits that need to be addressed and reviewed carefully. Ample proactive planning including HACCP, comprehensive risk analysis and validation studies or documents help prevent recalls from occurring in the first place. When recalls do happen, reactive measures should occur immediately with a strategy in place to deal with all of the regulatory compliance, quality, safety and branding ramifications.
When a recall occurs in the food industry, it generally means that there was a foodborne illness outbreak, followed by a reactive measure. That reactive measure, the recall itself, is what prevents foodborne illness outbreaks from growing or becoming an epidemic. Recalls in the food industry show that regulators are concerned about contamination and taking action to safeguard public health. In other words, when a recall occurs, it means that someone is watching.
I think recalls in the cannabis industry are a sign of the marketplace growing up. Recalls can be seen as a good thing, a sign of proper safety measures in place to prevent further contamination. Reporting recalls or failures means that professionals are beginning to pay attention to the safety and quality of processes in place at cannabis production facilities. Looking at the long-term sustainability of the cannabis industry, keeping quality and safety at top of mind will help businesses self-legitimize. Those not striving for the safest practices and the best quality will lose their ability to compete as the market continues to grow. Recalls can tarnish a company’s brand, but they also indicate that the industry has reached a point of legitimacy. Cannabis is now out of the closet and under a microscope.
With the news of Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis legalization measure passing, lawmakers are clamoring for strict regulatory oversight in the form of traceability to prevent diversion and misuse. State Senator Daylin Leach (D- Montgomery/Delaware) introduced the bill and believes it will have the most intensive protections for safety in the country. “Our goal was to create a system that helps as many patients as possible, as soon as possible and as safely as possible,” says Steve Hoenstine, spokesperson for State Senator Leach. “The seed-to-sale tracking system and the bill’s other protections do just that.”
At the recent Cannabis Labs Conference, Cody Stiffler, vice president of government affairs at BioTrackTHC, discussed why traceability is so important. Stiffler previously served as the chief executive officer of the American Medical Management Association, where he fought the Florida prescription drug abuse epidemic. “We originally started tracking prescription medications and methamphetamine precursors to combat the prescription drug abuse and meth epidemic in Florida,” says Stiffler. He focused on providing accountability and traceability, making sure every prescription was legitimate and keeping drugs off the black market. Implementing tracking protocols allowed for the accountability of pharmacists, physicians and patients.
The primary goals of a traceability system, according to Stiffler, are to prevent diversion and promote public safety. “We want to advance the cannabis industry with respect to traceability and regulatory compliance by integrating laboratory testing with traceability,” says Stiffler. “Our software helps get safe products to patients and consumers in a responsible manner.”
Stiffler’s role at BioTrackTHC is to provide industry insights to states looking to legalize cannabis and support them with identifying the best practices that meet requirements in their state. Traceability is commonly defined as the ability to verify history, location and application of a product from source to distribution. BioTrackTHC’s tracking software covers everything from seed to sale, involving regulatory bodies in oversight. In the beginning of cultivation, each plant is assigned a bar code or sixteen-digit identifier. According to Stiffler, Colorado’s system uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags while Washington’s system gives the business a choice because the software can work with any type of identifier, whether it is a barcode, QR code or RFID tag. “Our system generates those numbers and prevents diversion with a closed loop system,” says Stiffler.
Washington, Illinois, New York, New Mexico and Hawaii are the five states that use BioTrackTHC’s software. “If the state wants to see the chain-of-custody, they can go back in the system and see every touch point and the full life cycle of the product in real time,” says Stiffler. “Our system also incorporates lab testing to ensure no product reaches shelves unless test values are associated with it.”
For many states, problems lie not in diversion, but inversion, where black market growers bring their products into the legal market. “A lot of people growing black market product are inverting it into the regulated market,” notes Stiffler. This kind of black market activity can flood the legal market with un-tested cannabis.
Product recalls are examples of when traceability software can be very useful. Pesticides, microbiological contaminants, heavy metals and other contaminants are at issue. Stiffler invokes an example from a company in Washington making THC-infused drinks. “Because of an issue in the manufacturing process, the bottles were exploding in refrigerators and on shelves,” says Stiffler. “Because the product’s lineage was completely tracked, we could isolate all of the products in that specific batch from that specific manufacturer and then forward trace to every retailer that had it in inventory,” he adds. “Whenever someone who did not get the recall notice would attempt to scan that barcode at point of sale, a message appeared noting its recall status and that it is not for sale.” The software’s financial data analytics can provide real time visibility for profit margins or losses resulting from recalls.
According to Stiffler, these kinds of protections in place give law enforcement and government agencies piece of mind that they are helping to prevent diversion and promote public safety. Traceability software is one of the very important safeguards protecting food safety and product safety.
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.