Are Contaminants In Cannabis A Serious Concern Or A Manageable Side Effect Of Prohibition?

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Toxins and pesticides in legal marijuana have been in the news lately.  “Alarmingly high” pesticide residuals were found in cannabis tested at the Werc Shop, a cannabis analytical lab in Pasadena, California. Are contaminants in cannabis a “serious concern” or a manageable side effect of prohibition?

The Werc Shop study, published in the Journal of Toxicology last month, raises serious questions about the safety of cannabis. The results show when pesticides are topically applied to cannabis, and that product is combusted, residual pesticides are found in the smoke.

Using a water bong and a pipe, two of the most common methods of smoking cannabis, the contaminant recovery rates were 42–70%. Smoke filtered through cotton and coconut fibers did better, with residue registering at 0.08–10%. The study concludes, “considering these results, high pesticide exposure through cannabis smoking is a significant possibility, which may lead to further health complications in cannabis consumers.”

David Lampach of Oakland, California's Steephill Labs.

David Lampach of Oakland, California’s Steephill Labs.

This looks bad on the surface. Especially since most users do not have access to cannabis tested for purity by third party validated labs. Dave Lampach, of Oakland’s Steephill Lab is an expert on cannabis safety. Steephill Lab, founded by Lampach and fellow entrepreneur Addison DeMoura, was the first non-federal potency, mold and bacterial cannabis-testing program in the United States. Lampach is also a member of the BOTEC team, recently hired by the State of Washington to create regulations for the production, processing and retailing of cannabis.

“I don’t think pesticides are a really big problem,” says Lampach, “But, there is always going to be that one jerk with spider mites, who uses a pesticide that you do not want inhale.”

To weed out this problem completely would require prohibitively expensive equipment, like a Triple Quad LC/MS, only to check for a rare worst-case scenario. Steephill tests specifically for a “top ten” list of chemical contaminants, rather than for the thousands of possible options. As the chemical signature of many pesticides is similar, one test will identify the presence of any member of that “family.” Ten tests at Steephill will show the presence of hundreds of different potential pesticides in contaminated cannabis.

Lampach believes, while cannabis contaminants do not present an overall danger, there is a big potential problem with plant growth regulators like Paclobutrazol. These are used to add height and weight to plants, changing the appearance of the plant. They have been banned across Europe, are not approved for food use in the United States, and their carcinogenic effects are unknown. Certainly, no one wants these chemicals on the cannabis they inhale or ingest.

As of yet, no pesticides have been declared safe for use on cannabis, as the Werc Shop study points out, and thus, none are legal. This does not mean they are not, in fact, safe to use, just that the tests have yet to be completed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Prohibition of cannabis forbids the research and reporting of such information. Yet, like any agricultural crop, cannabis plants are vulnerable to pests, molds and other problems that can be solved with safe application of chemicals, organic or otherwise.

In a regulated plant medicine scheme, the EPA would set rules establishing what is safe for cultivators to use. Producers would be kept honest through compliance visits, tracking documentation, and by lab testing of the cannabis in large lots. Under a scheme like this, consumers could be assured the cannabis they consume is safe.

Patients in the State of Maine are in the middle of a pesticide scare. The cannabis garden at the Wellness Center of Maine had an infestation of pests. They hold four of eight medical cannabis licenses in the State, where complete vertical integration is required and the group has to produce, process and retail all of the medicines themselves.

Apparently, they decided to apply a pesticide to the crop, which had been approved for “agricultural use,” despite State regulations prohibiting pesticide use of any kind on medical cannabis crops.

The group was fined for violating the ban on pesticides, but was allowed to distribute the cannabis to members anyway. In the Bangor Daily News, Kenneth Albert, Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services director, stated, “The state is unable to decide if [pesticide-treated marijuana is a health issue] because of the lack of research in the industry to know the risks associated with igniting pesticides on cannabis.” He also said there was no apparent harm to staff or members, but the group would be required to notify all members of the use of pesticides on the cannabis.

Dave Lampach and Steephill, along with BOTEC, are helping to implement a more sensible process in Washington State, where cannabis was recently legalized for adult use.

“The Washington law is going to be comprehensive. It will be the most advanced set of rules for cannabis any country, anywhere in the world, has designed by a long shot,” says Lampach “It will include a requirement that cannabis be tested for heavy metals, pesticides, molds, trace butane solvents and more.”

While not yet confirmed, the State will likely issue a list of approved pesticides (possibly organic only) for use in cultivation. This will provide overall guidance on to cultivators around the United States, and savvy users will begin demanding pure cannabis.

Yet, as Lampach points out, cannabis use has been documented across the globe for over 10,000 years. In that time, many cultures have produced cannabis for medicine, spiritual and recreational purposes, using a variety of methods and techniques.

There have been more than 10,000 studies related to its use, including long-term research like that of Dr. Tashkin, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at UCLA, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s expert on marijuana and lung carcinogenesis. Taskin studied more than 2,400 Los Angeles residents for more than 20 years, fully expecting to find that cannabis caused cancer. The end results shocked him into become a cannabis supporter, after his results showed the opposite was true, and that cannabis appeared to be cancer preventative.

Any fair and unbiased analysis, using the Federal Drug Administration’s own definition, would determine cannabis has no “serious adverse effects,” despite a kilennium of worldwide consumption.

So, in the regulatory vacuum created by prohibition, cannabis users have to self-regulate, starting with the cultivators. As the Werc Shop study concludes, “there is no better way to avoid pesticide and other chemical residue consumption than to assure it is not present on the product in the first place” Let’s not panic yet, after all, the Werc Shop’s study has yet to be replicated or validated, and cannabis users around the globe are soundly happy.