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Why are some pesticides so hard to detect?

The medical and recreational cannabis business is booming throughout the U.S., North America, and around the globe. While activists everywhere are celebrating the end of cannabis prohibition, it's time to talk about the elephant in the room—Pesticides. Most cultivators use them. We know the bug killers on our fruits and vegetables are mostly safe. But what about our cannabis?


Approved Pesticides for Cannabis Consumption: None

Testing for pesticides and other contaminants was at the bottom of the concern list for several years as activists worked to gain access to cannabis for sick patients in need of pain and nausea relief from cancer, HIV/AIDS, and at the time, terminal conditions. Even California, the mother of modern medical cannabis in the U.S. didn't focus on pesticides.

The result is a 28 million-year-old plant with more than 5,000 years of cultivation, 23 years legal for medical patients, and 7 years of recreational use, and little guidance on the short-and long-term effects of pesticides. A significant problem is the list . . . Or, the lack of one.

No one has a list of pesticides that are safe for human consumption.

That's not to say there aren't growers that have extensive personal knowledge of what's safe, at least in the short-term, to use. But, given the federal status of cannabis, these growers aren't sharing the information for legal purposes, and even if they did, the federal government wouldn't step in and state governments are slow to approving anything without extensive, scientific data.

Even under normal circumstances, it's a long process for approval. Janna Beckerman, a Purdue professor of botany and plant pathology, explains,

Pesticide regulations are narrow and confusing. A product approved for use on soybeans or corn can only be legally used for those products. It’s illegal to go off-label and use a pesticide on another crop . . . It can take many years for manufacturers to prove the safety and efficacy of their pesticides, and many more to get all the federal approvals . . .

Part of the problem is the plant. Cannabis is so versatile, it's unlike any other plant. Hemp, a close relative of cannabis that contains many of the same compounds, is used in more than a dozen different industries. In fact, it can replace several traditional raw materials, often with better quality and a reduced environmental impact. For example:

  • Paper
  • Cordage (rope)
  • Textiles (Everything from sails to sheets and t-shirts
  • Fueld
  • Animal Bedding

Industrial hemp cultivators have an approved list of pesticides. The difference between industrial hemp uses and medical and recreational cannabis is consumption. Regulators know you won't try to eat or smoke your new hemp t-shirt.

The 2018 Farm Bill brought a new problem to the table—Hemp-based cannabidiol (CBD) concentrates, extractions, and another example of the plant's versatility—It has over 400 chemical compounds with a great deal of medicinal value.

Even before the updates to the Farm Bill expanded legal hemp production on the federal level, companies were pushing the boundaries of the current laws to produce CBD oil and products infused with it such as gummies, honey sticks, vaporization cartridges, and even pet treats using industrial hemp.

Cary Giguere, a Vermont pesticide regulator who spoke at a meeting between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state officials to discuss how to regulate pesticides in hemp following the passage of the 2018 farm bill earlier in June, explained, "If you’re extracting CBD, you’re also concentrating whatever pesticide residues are on it."

A 2017 study of 57 dab (cannabis concentrate) samples, over 80 percent contained solvents or pesticides. The extraction process will pull everything out—Cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, pesticides, and other contaminants such as:

  • Fungus
  • Bacteria
  • Mold
  • Heavy Metals
  • Microbes
  • Fecal matter

Here is where the real issues about why it's so hard to detect pollutants in cannabis—there are nearly a dozen ways to consume the plant:

  • Raw (Just picked, not dried)
  • Smoke (flowers, concentrates, extracts)
  • Vaporization (flower, concentrates, extracts)
  • Sublingual tincture (concentrates, extracts)
  • Edibles (concentrates)
  • Topicals (concentrates, extracts)
  • Transdermal (concentrates, extracts)
  • Capsules (concentrates, extracts)

Only one of these methods doesn't enter the bloodstream—Topicals (However, if it gets into an open cut, trace amounts can still get in.).

Scientists and medical professionals don't know the potential effects of pesticides entering the body through these various methods. While one pesticide may be safe to use on avocados, people don't smoke, vape, or absorb avocados through their skin.

Federal Cannabis Safe Pesticide Guidelines: None

As mentioned earlier, the federal status of cannabis as a Schedule 1 is a significant barrier to product safety. With all other foods, drinks, and medications in the U.S., there is a minimum of one agency to oversee product safety, testing, and issue recalls across the entire country like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Although cannabis testing labs in different states are slowly developing their own list of standards, these still vary state-to-state because of different rules and regulations. For example, the ANSI National Accreditation Board offers Cannabis Testing Lab Accreditation, which has international recognition.

There is a bright spot—The FDA is developing guidelines for safe pesticide levels in hemp for CBD products. The similar chemical composition of the two plants means these guidelines will also apply to cannabis. (Just don't expect federal authorities to admit it.)

What Pesticides Have Been Found in Cannabis Products?

California's made some promising changes in pesticide testing. But that wasn't always the case. In 2017, an investigation by NBC4 took 44 samples from 15 dispensaries in three counties (Orange, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino) and what they found was disturbing. Testing for only 16 commonly used pesticides, they found 93 percent of the products, 41 out of 44, had levels well above the acceptable amount in other states at the time. Dr. Raber, the co-author of the study below and the founder of a separate cannabis testing lab, explained, "It's really like injecting that pesticide right into your bloodstream."

In September 2018, the Associated Press reported the results of another safety failure, with nearly 20 percent of cannabis products failing purity tests, taking 1/3 of infused products off dispensary shelves. The silver lining: Testing is working to reduce pesticide concentrations in states with solid regulations.

It's unfortunate, but, what the limited research has found is that pesticide residue has been found in cannabis. A 2013 study in the Journal of Toxicology confirmed that low levels of common pesticides—bifenthrin, diazinon, paclobutrazol, and permethrin stay on the plant particles and transfer in large quantities to cannabis smokers and into their bloodstream. In conclusion, the study found the results, "While there are differences between the devices, in general, the portion of pesticide recovery is alarmingly high and is a serious concern."

How Do You Verify Your Cannabis Products Are Safe?

When purchasing products at a dispensary, ask to see each item's third-party, independent lab results. Each report has contact information for the testing facility—If you're unsure, call or email the lab to verify the pesticide levels.

For products in states with little or no testing requirements, you can still take them to a private lab (Don't mail cannabis products, even in a legal state, that's illegal.) Keep in mind you will have to pay out-of-pocket for the testing.

Another choice is to grow your own plants. Although this can take time and it can have significant start-up costs depending on where you live, it can save money in the long run, and you'll always know what's in your cannabis flowers.

Once you find a supplier you trust, stick with them.

How is Canada Testing Cannabis for Pesticides?

The Minister of Health oversees mandatory cannabis testing maintains a list of active chemicals commonly found in pesticides and the allowable amounts in parts per million broken down by raw plant materials, dried flowers, and cannabis oils. Another part of the list are asterisks that advise when a chemical's limit is still in development.

Full legalization for recreational use in 2018 is helping remove some red tape for researchers that made it difficult for human clinical trials under the country's medical cannabis laws. These changes should provide more data on cannabis contaminants at various stages of growth (Seed, seedling, and flower) and after harvesting, drying, and manufacturing concentrates and extracts.

More than half the states in the U.S. have a legal, medical cannabis program and with the changes in hemp farming, nearly every jurisdiction in the country is jumping on the CBD train (with good reason, it really works) better regulations and oversight are necessary. When we started this adventure, it was for safe access to cannabis for patients. Now, we need access to safe cannabis for everyone.

Disclaimer: It's important to stress that this doesn't mean all cannabis products are dangerous or tainted. Instead, we just want you to be proactive and talk to dispensary staff, read lab reports, and encourage others to do the same.

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