Thursday July 2, 2015
In recent months, low rumblings regarding pesticide application in cannabis cultivation practices turned into a load roar. In March of this year, nine Colorado commercial cultivators were caught and exposed illegally using pesticides following an investigation headed by the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division (MMED), the cannabis regulatory agency of Colorado. Since then, cannabis consumers have been on high alert, and their speculation as to whether or not their favorite flowers and edibles contain harmful pesticides that might adversely impact their health is growing with every purchase. In much of the same fashion as the famous relationship between banking institutions and cannabis dispensaries, so too are parallels being drawn between pesticide use and cannabis cultivation practices. Because cannabis is federally illegal, regulators are unable to formally approve many of the chemicals implemented during the overall gardening process. Currently, there is a complete lack of federal guidance concerning pesticide use and as is with the financial sector, individual cannabis-legal states are left to resolve the issue themselves. A few states have approved processes and procedures in an attempt to bring better consumer protection, however these steps still may not completely address many health and environmental concerns raised by pesticide use in cannabis cultivation.
In Colorado’s market, stores that advertise or promote a 100% organic product are few and far between. As with food, if the packaging does not state the product is organic, the consumer assumes there is something less than ideal involved in the manufacturing process. State regulations require the labeling of ingredients used during the cultivation process so the use of synthetic pesticides has been visible for quite some time. However, research discoveries and evidence are beginning to surface as to these chemicals’ effect on human health and the environment. Booming business and legalization in states around the nation are accelerating conversations with consumers, operators, and regulators alike as to the ingredients contained in commercially grown cannabis. The case being made that pesticide use should be illegal or heavily regulated amid health concerns fuel the recent publicity and further widen the debate over ethics and morals with the cannabis industry.
Specifically, the application of synthetic pesticides on cannabis is only illegal due to the fact that these chemicals have not been officially and formally approved for use on cannabis. Every pesticide has to be approved for each crop individually and the question that many consumers then have is, “Are these chemicals not approved because cannabis is federally illegal, or because of human health hazards?” The answer is most certainly the former due to the fact that a wide variety of these illegal chemicals are perfectly legal to apply to food crops such as wheat, corn, potatoes, and many more. But, the aforementioned food crops are not federal Schedule I narcotics and pesticide use in this sector has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through a rigid compliance process.
The power to approve pesticides in commercial cannabis cultivation in Colorado rests at the doorstep of the Colorado Department of Agriculture in conjunction with EPA oversight. While this sounds like an uncomplicated situation to resolve, the Department of Agriculture and the EPA cannot approve pesticides for federally illegal substances like cannabis. Essentially, the pesticide problem has been swept under the bureaucratic rug in a retroactive move to avoid precedence as opposed to brought to light in a responsible proactive manner. But now that more than half the states in the nation have medical and/or recreational cannabis programs on the books, the EPA finally provided limited guidance to state regulators and operators. A letter was recently sent from the federal agency to the Colorado Department of Agriculture outlining a process to approve pesticides. Under a provision of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), a pesticide for cannabis may be approved as a “Special Local Need” and thus provide some wiggle room for states that have legalized cannabis programs. For a pesticide to be approved by the EPA, the provision requires the product manufacturer to identify a federally approved pesticide used on a similar crop or grown under comparable circumstances.
While the conversation is focused on the approval of chemicals, a greater question still remains about what consumers desire and intend to ingest. Approved pesticides may eventually become legal, but that does not necessarily mean that they are safe or appropriate to use. Unfortunately, the research and results the EPA examines during their pesticide approval process is saturated with sponsored studies by the corporate producers of the very chemicals under review. In these studies, environmental harm and negative human health effects are all too often criticized as underrepresented. Furthermore, many of the pesticides in question used on food and cannabis crops are known to possibly be human carcinogens and are also petroleum-based, which is very taxing on local and regional environments. Many of these chemicals bio-accumulate, meaning they do not degrade at an adequate rate and remain in the food we eat, water we drink, and cannabis we consume.
It is probable that some chemical pesticides will get the green light after the EPA’s FIFRA approval and so far, the Colorado Department of Agriculture is pleased with this new process that will help in providing clarity to the confusion on what chemical agents are legally allowed in commercial cannabis cultivation. Many large-scale commercial cannabis retailers are also happy with the approval process that will assist them in being responsible and compliant operators. The previously mentioned Colorado producers in violation of the pesticide protocol enforced by the MMED described to have been “doing something they had no idea was unlawful.” Perhaps those producers did not know the law on paper, but from a consumer’s standpoint they surely knew the cost on human health and the environment they were advancing by using harmful chemicals.
The use of synthetic chemical pesticides is less a legal issue than it is a moral or ethical one. Though pesticides may be legal, the production, distribution, and application of these chemicals take a toll on human health. One recent study confirmed that out of a glass pipe, up to 70% of the pesticides present on the flowers could be exposed to the lungs when smoked and that this number is decreased only slightly by inhalation through a water pipe. This study highlights two important points, the first being that rather than degrading, the pesticide molecules remain attached to the smoke and that two, more studies need to be conducted in this field.
Alternatives to synthetic pesticides include the bio-rational approach that incorporates predatory insects, living soil, and natural botanicals to combat garden pests. This particular approach requires calculated timing, longevity in application, and close monitoring, but it is overall safer to the environment as well as a more conscientious process than using synthetic chemicals. In addition, the organic agricultural community accepts this method as the more sustainable and healthy approach to agricultural practices. Even as pesticides are approved for use on cannabis, there will still be a community of cannabis cultivators that maintain integrity to provide clean flowers and concentrates. Kind shops will remain a standard for the industry regardless of the permissibility of poisonous additives to cannabis.
 Warner, Joel. "Marijuana Legalization 2015: EPA Issues Guidance On Marijuana Pesticides Amid Industry Uncertainty." International Business Times. 09 June 2015. Web. 23 June 2015.
 Heath, David, and Ronnie Greene. "EPA Contaminated by Conflict of Interest." PBS. PBS, 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 23 June 2015.
 Warner, Joel
 Warner, Joel
 Warner, Joel