Check your toke before you smoke: Pesticides present in pot, despite state regulations

© Steve Dipaola
The legal marijuana industries in Washington and Colorado are highly regulated. When it comes to pesticides in pot, though, high levels of banned chemicals have been found in pot sold in both states, despite supposed restrictions.

In Washington, at least one buyer for a major retail marijuana store in the western part of the state has seen pot growers applying banned pesticides like Eagle 20 or Avid during his frequent field visits with suppliers, he told the Stranger, a Seattle-based newspaper. Eagle 20 is considered toxic when burned and is banned in tobacco for that reason.

"I'm seeing scary chemicals," the buyer said. "It's awful. A lot of people are doing really horrible things during flower because they've taken so long to get there that once they're already to this point, and they're a month out from hundreds of thousands of dollars, they'll spray. And they'll spray whatever it takes onto their plants. That's not everyone, but that's a lot of people."

None of the suppliers the buyer was referring to have ever been inspected by Washington authorities, despite state law.

In Colorado, one of six samples tested by a state-licensed lab at CNN’s request was positive for imidacloprid, a neurotoxin banned for marijuana by the Colorado Department of Agriculture. While the US Environmental Protection Agency allows very low levels of imidacloprid on some crops, the levels of 100 parts per million in the Colorado sample was extremely high.

"In this case, I would immediately recall that sample and destroy that entire batch," Peter Perrone, head of the Gobi Analytical laboratory, told CNN.

The investigation, which was funded by the news network, led to a voluntary recall in Colorado last week of 2,362 pot products including 23 different types of pot concentrates, all made from marijuana grown and distributed by Tru Cannabis.

Pesticide restrictions in Colorado were not put into place until well after the state’s first retail pot stores opened in January 2014. Originally, Colorado allowed pesticides with warning labels ambiguous enough to avoid any violation, including pesticides with tolerance levels pertaining to food or consumption crops but with no known safety threshold for marijuana.

The state did not propose pesticide restrictions until after authorities were forced to issue two marijuana recalls for unauthorized pesticide use in September, followed quickly by two marijuana users filing a lawsuit against LivWell, a Denver pot business, for using a fungicide called Eagle 20 EW.

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) developed a list of 271 pesticides that cultivators were allowed to use on their pot plants when marijuana became a legal substance last July. The state agency also required growers to record and disclose the pesticides they use on their products, and established strict penalties for anyone caught using an unapproved pesticide. The WSLCB planned to enforce its restrictions through on-site inspections and random testing. At least, that was the plan.

Yet neither state is really testing its pot crops.

“To date, the WSLCB has yet to test a single nug of marijuana for pesticides,” the Stranger reported, adding that, as of September 25, Washington authorities conducted 651 premises checks on 252 out of the state’s 668 licensed growers. Of those, six were found to be violating the state’s pesticide laws by using spinosad, a relatively innocuous insecticide.

Premises checks are done mostly in response to complaints, said Brian Smith, director of communications at the WSLCB.

In Colorado, pesticide testing is not mandatory for marijuana retailers or growers, nor is the cannabis subject to random testing the way other crops are, Mitch Yergert, a division director for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, told CNN.

The state also doesn’t allow consumers to test their purchased products for pesticides. However, retailers can submit their cannabis for testing, which is why the news network paid for two Denver dispensaries to submit three samples each.

Many pesticides are irritants at best and carcinogens or toxic to the nervous system at worst. The problem is that using the substances in the marijuana cultivation process is even worse than for normal crops because cannabis has so many more ways to be consumed.

"You don't smoke tomatoes, you don't smoke grapes," John Scott of Colorado's Department of Agriculture told AP in July. "You don't extract those into oil products that'll be either used through dermal products, through lotions, or infused into other foods."