“This is a first in agriculture,” SC Laboratories Research and Development chemist Josh Wurzer says. “Almost as much as 80% of the [cannabis] industry relies on pesticides for mites, fungicides, molds and mildews for cannabis products. All these cannabis producers are going to learn that regulation could mean cannabis is the only crop disallowed from using pesticides.” It’s an assertion with which not everyone agrees.
“I am not aware of any organic certifier that is actually certifying organic cannabis,” organic-minded cannabis agriculturalist Jai Malloy tells THCist. “You haven’t seen any other crop held to a standard of organic only.”
In January, Oregon approved 250 pesticides to be used in cannabis cultivation. But, Mr. Wurzer says both Oregon and California will prohibit pesticide use in cannabis crops, and that Washington State is bolstering its testing. He doesn’t think one can find pesticide regulation precedence in fruits and vegetables.
“You can’t draw a straight line between cannabis to other crops,” the SC Labs chemist says. “Cannabis is combusted and smoked, sticky and resiny. Cannabis is a completely different crop than water-based fruit and veggies.”
The Santa Cruz based SC Labs has been testing for pesticides in medical cannabis since 2010. Mr. Wurzer started testing as lab director at Steephill Labs when they opened in Oakland, California. After leaving there, he co-founded SC Labs. He’s seen the cannabis testing industry evolve with recreational states adding mandatory pesticide testing.
Things came to a head in 2015 at the sustainability-focused Emerald Cup. The cannabis cup had become the first major cup to introduce pesticide testing, which is often skipped due to expensive costs.
“We did a pesticide test on every sample and detected pesticides on a couple that were supposed to win and ranked high, but instead got disqualified,” Mr. Wurzer remembers. “We had one or two people threaten to sue. Most people were like, ‘you got me.’ The pesticide test is defensive. You don’t get false positives.” 50% of samples tested positives for pesticides. They were all disqualified.
At the 2016 affair, contestants were again disqualified for pesticides use. About 25 percent of 263 samples were disqualified from the concentrates categories for pesticides. Cup founder, Tim Blake , said he was “dumbfounded” by the level of pesticide use.
“The flowers had an overall failure rate much lower than the general population of samples we see through the lab,” says Mr. Wurzer. “Though there was a significant portion of flowers found to contain pesticide residue, it was about 1/4th what we normally see. On the other hand, some of the concentrates we tested had much higher failure rates than the flowers and more in line with what we expect from other samples we see. Due to cross contamination of pesticides from batch to batch during the extraction process, these products often have four or five different pesticide residues that have carried over from previous batches. We see this as one of the biggest challenges facing the cannabis industry as it moves into regulation. When you concentrate cannabis you also concentrate pesticides.”
Between 35%-50% of samples SC Labs sees on a daily basis contain pesticides. “And we expect that number to go way up with more sensitive tests and as we cover more pesticides,” Mr. Wurzer imparts.
There are two components to organic production: what you feed the plant, which has to be nonsynthetic, and what you spray to control pests and fungus. In cannabis, this is unregulated.
“Growers have taken shortcuts and sprayed plants with chemicals not allowed for food grade crops, let alone organic standards,” says Mr. Malloy. Regulations exclude many harmful chemicals, which are commonplace in the cannabis industry.
“Plant growth regulators are not allowed in food grade crops, but are commonplace in cannabis products, and without any regulations or standards,” Mr. Malloy explains. “These bad practices will continue.”
Mr. Wurzer sees strict regulation as an opportunity for cannabis growers. “As a scientist, I think it’s a cool experiment,” he says. “In broader agriculture, we’ve learned commercial farming has reached the limit of its ability to sustainability in broader agriculture.”
This could lead a return to organic farming techniques used before chemicals were available, he suggests.
At any rate, “We need to do more organic growing,” Mr. Wurzer concludes. How exactly this will affect cannabis is unknown.
“That cannabis becomes petri dish for no or few pesticides,” the scientist says, “is interesting. It will be a good mark on the industry that we can’t use pesticides in a lot of these states. It might become one of the greenest crops, and cannabis growers could learn to be the most ingenious of any type of farmer.”
Questions remain: What happens to the cannabis supply when major tools for growing are outlawed? Which tests should be required by law?
“There’s definitely not consensus on that,” Mr. Wurzer says. “What California does is really important. Washington and Oregon have a head start. But, California is the larger, more established market.”
Many growers may prove incapable of maintaining their crops due to stringent regulations. A lot of crops will fail, though thanks to concentrates a crop damaged by mites, insects or mold can be extracted into a concentrate.
“But once you spray pesticides on it, there’s no way to get it out,” Mr. Wurzer says. “A lot of producers have a hard time growing cannabis without pesticides. The ones that can do so, and have best practices to skip pesticide use, will flourish and a lot of people who can’t won’t be able to do it.”
Mr. Malloy suggests the organic food industry provides a blueprint for what may become of the cannabis crop.
“We saw similar in the organic food industry when it gained popularity with consumers ” Mr. Malloy says. “There was a lot of money to be made in that industry, and now we’ve seen a lot of these big chemical and biotech companies coming and diluting the standards of the cultivation method. I would say that is one major concern from the cannabis consumer’s [perspective]. That this whole thing will go commercial and we will see a lack of quality in the product.”
He adds: “It’s could squeeze out a lot of smaller farmers who do take pride in what they produce. It’s kind of a double edged sword. Just to see big chemical and biotech companies coming in, they have a way of shaping legislation in whatever industry they get into, to kind of degrade the standards of the industry.”
Images via Shutterstock, Emerald Cup