Consumers Left High and Dry: Public Health Issues Persist with Cannabis Products and Production Practices
(Beyond Pesticides, February 7, 2024) Sun + Earth Certified (SEC), a West Coast third-party regenerative organic certifier of cannabis products, approved the first certification for an East Coast farm in Brattleboro, Vermont ā Rebel Grown. The expansion of independent certifications amidst the ongoing legalization of recreational and medicinal marijuana usage raises questions on the regulation of toxic petrochemical pesticides found in a range of cannabis products.
SEC does establish, in its standards, the use of ābiopesticides…[o]nly if the product brand name is approved for use in certified organic farming.ā Additionally, the label goes beyond the stringency of the National Organic Program in its policy on potassium bicarbonate as an approved input. For example, SEC standards dictate that this input should be, ā[f]or pest control as a last resort only… [and] only if the product brand name is approved for use in certified organic farming.ā Rebel Grownā the new farm that acquired the SEC label ā owner reported to Brattleboro Reformer, “Cannabis grown regeneratively, under the sun and in the soil, without toxic chemicals, is not only high quality but also the best for the earth.ā
Before delving into the weeds, there is important legal context on current regulations regarding marijuana in the United States at the national and state levels. Marijuana use is legal for recreational use in 24 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia, and medicinal use in 38 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia as of 2023, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, marijuana products cannot employ the USDA organic label even if growers and distributors abide by or exceed the National Organic Program standards because of the federal governmentās assignment of cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic. As laid out in Beyond Pesticidesā previous reporting, there has been some state-level action to address this regulatory gap: ā[A]ny state permitting of a pesticide not evaluated for its potential health impacts concerns health advocates. A few states (Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts) and the District of Columbia have adopted regulations that focus on less-toxic approaches to cannabis cultivation, with some focus on ensuring growing practices that avoid or prohibit the use of pesticides. Critically, the federal ālimboā provides an important opportunity for states to incentivize this developing industry to anchor its production practices ā and perhaps its identity ā in protocols that do not rely on toxic pesticides.ā
A series of 2018 laws enacted in California mandated the testing of pesticide residue on cannabis products, marking a change in regulatory posture at the state-level. In addition, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and California Department of Public Health (CDPH) established the OCal Registration Program for Manufactured Cannabis Products in 2021 as a comparable-to-organic standard with the goal to support consumer trust in marijuana products grown and developed in the state. One of the lingering challenges Beyond Pesticides acknowledges regarding this type of program is, āthe inhalation route of exposure, particularly as it concerns medical patients, requires an additional level of scrutiny, and, according to advocates, California state consumers would be well-served by the establishment of a state-level OCal Standards Board to further review whether certain pesticides and other processing materials should be restricted in the context of cannabis consumption.ā A standards board was not established during the rule-making period for this program. Jay Feldman, Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides, speaks to the importance of filling gaps in data collection for aggregated risk assessments relating to pesticide residue exposure for inhalable cannabis products in Environmental Health Perspectives: āIf [the California Department of Pesticide Regulation] does not have this kind of data, which is extremely expensive to produce and to evaluate, then it should use its statutory authority to embrace a precautionary approach. They are establishing a false sense of security regarding the allowed residues, given that they have not looked at the aggregate cumulative risk of dietary and nondietary exposure in combination with cannabis residue.ā
Beyond Pesticides has covered the hazards associated with pesticide-intensive cannabis production in previous Daily News entries and a 2014 Pesticides and You journal entry: Pesticide Use in Marijuana Production: Safety Issues and Sustainable Options. According to guidelines by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while the agency has not registered any pesticides for cannabis production, cannabis falls under āunspecified food crops, home gardens, and herbs,ā despite the lack of an exposure assessment that would otherwise be conducted in setting tolerances (allowable residues) for pesticides used in crop production. In other words, āEPA-permitted pesticide labels do not contain allowances for pesticide use in cannabis production.ā The Pesticides and You piece goes on to explain that: āThe label on a pesticide product delineates the legal uses, application rates, and other restrictions, such as protection of agricultural workers and others who handle pesticides, limitations regarding threatened and endangered species (in coordination with the Endangered Species Act), and other special use and disposal requirements. Because EPA is barred from registering a pesticide for use on cannabis or setting (or exempting from) tolerance limits for pesticide residues on cannabis crops, and given the plantās classification as a narcotic, the evaluation of pesticide use, assessment of exposure hazards, and the setting of pesticide use restrictions by EPA is also prohibited at the federal level.ā
Numerous scientific reports indicate the market-wide exposure consumers face from a variety of cannabis and cannabis-related products. For example, studies have found that over 90 percent of rolling paper products contain heavy metals, such as lead and at least 16 percent contain pesticides such as chlorpyrifos. In other words, there is still a risk of pesticide and heavy metal exposure even if the cannabis itself follows regenerative organic practices. Advocates have also raised concerns over the growth of black-market marijuana vaping cartridges leading to at least 23 reported deaths and 1,100 illnesses as of 2019. In a study commissioned by NBC News, all 18 black market cartridges tested by the commissioned laboratory contained traces of pesticides, including myclobutanil, fipronil, piperonyl butoxide, permethrin, malathion, and others for lung damage. The same study found that, āno heavy metals, pesticides, [and] residual solventsā were found in cartridges sold through medical dispensaries. However, just last year Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board issued administrative holds on 18 licenses to legal marijuana businesses due to pesticide contamination.
To learn more about the impacts of pesticide residues in marijuana products to your health, see our report: Pushing for Organic Cannabis as Industry Grows. If you are concerned that you or a loved one was exposed to pesticides, see Pesticide Emergencies. To learn more information about the impacts of herbicide, insecticide, rodenticide, or fungicide exposure to your health, see the attached links. For additional information on crop production, see the Beyond Pesticides organic agriculture webpage. And to get involved in ensuring that organic standards comply with the principles, values, and letter of the Organic Foods Production Act, see Keeping Organic Strong (KOS). Through KOS, Beyond Pesticides makes it easy for the public to comment on critical issues before the National Organic Standards Board and the National Organic Program/U.S. Department of Agriculture.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Source: Brattleboro Reformer