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California cannabis smokers should beware that they could be sucking in dangerous toxins along with their healing cannabinoids.

California cannabis samples tested across the state were found to carry traces of pesticides and fungicides. While these pesticides are minimally harmful when eaten in small quantities, they can be much more toxic to humans when they are exposed to heat, e.g., when they are smoked or vaped with marijuana. Consumers are protected from these pesticides in most areas of the country with legal recreational cannabis — there are heavy regulations surrounding pesticides and product quality in place in states like Oregon, Colorado, and across all of Canada. But California seems to be lagging behind the rest of the country when it comes to regulation of pesticide use for cannabis growers.

NBC Los Angeles covered a case toward the end of last year in which a medicinal marijuana user, Todd Gullion, became seriously ill as a result of inhaling pesticides when smoking. He was rushed to the emergency room and diagnosed with serious neurological symptoms. Gullion told NBC4, “My hands go numb, my arms go numb, my feet go numb … I feel like I was poisoned.”

Following this episode, Gullion had the product he had smoked tested and found there were high levels of pesticides all over his weed. The NBC4 I-Team investigation went on to report evidence that these pesticides could be present in cannabis being sold across California.

Taking Pot To The Labs

One of the biggest problems is that without proper lab testing, it can be very difficult to tell if cannabis is contaminated. Dr. Donald Land, a researcher at Steep Hill Lab in Berkeley commented that, “You cannot tell by looking at your cannabis if it’s contaminated with pesticides, residual solvents, molds.”

A report from F1000 Research suggested that marijuana across the U.S. carries unsafe levels of pesticides, mold, fungi, and bacteria. So, according to scientists at  Steep Hill Labs, the first step to combating this problem is educating consumers on what exactly they are smoking. Education coupled with greater scrutiny and oversight in testing marijuana (something that will likely happen as the industry ages and expands) will help to improve safety and standards of growing and cultivation of cannabis across California and the rest of the U.S.

In 2016, Reggie Gaudino (Vice President of Scientific Operations at Steep Hill Labs) took samples from three dispensaries in the Bay Area and found that 70 percent of the samples tested positive for pesticide residue. One-third of the samples would have failed to pass regulations in Oregon, the state with the most sophisticated system for pesticide-testing of cannabis in the U.S.

Just How Toxic Is California Cannabis?

A full half of these samples that tested positive for pesticides were also found to contain Myclobutanil – a fungicide that is used on grapes, almonds, and strawberries across the state. It is harmless when digested in small doses, however, when heated (as it would be when being smoked or vaped, like with cannabis use) it transforms into hydrogen cyanide, a gas that  interferes with the body’s ability to deal with oxygen, and can even cause the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, and pulmonary system (lungs) to fail when you are exposed to high concentrations of the gas.

Former USC (University of Southern California) professor, Dr. Jeff Raber, told Marijuana Times that “it’s really like injecting that pesticide right into your bloodstream,” going on to state, “It could cause damage to your kidneys, to your liver, or other organs.”

Interestingly, California currently prohibits the use of Myclobutanil on tobacco, but has not yet extended the regulation to California cannabis. The producers of Myclobutanil (or Eagle 20 as it is known in industry) said in a press statement that the fungicide has not been approved for use on marijuana, and that it should not be used for treating the plant: “Dow AgroSciences, without exception, will not seek regulatory approvals or support the use of its products on marijuana … Eagle 20 is not approved for use nor should it be used under any circumstances on marijuana.”

California Cannabis And Organic Growers

There are a number of growers across the U.S. and Canada that specialize in organic growing (i.e., without the use of pesticides and chemicals), with Organic Kind being one of the few across California. HoneyColony spoke to Richard Brown at AB Cann Medicinals, an Organic Growery based in Ontario, about why they choose to go pesticide and chemical free: “We wanted to grow a very clean product. We manage everything going in and going out – we maintain a very clean atmosphere. Our grow rooms are very sterile.”

All staff have to change clothes upon arrival at work, and then go through an air wash to remove any further chemicals, spores, or outside contaminants.

“That allows us to not have to deal with pests,” Richard says. “It’s much cheaper to use pesticides, and it’s much harder to be pesticide free. There is a list of approved pesticides, but we don’t even use organic pesticides – our product is truly organic.”

You might be thinking that a hydroponic growery would be considered a clean organic source of marijuana, however that is far from the truth. Because of the potential for contamination, it is almost impossible to grow cannabis hydroponically without the use of “heavy metal” pesticides and chemicals — which have been restricted or prohibited in marijuana cultivation. The plants tend to be more uniform when hydroponically grown, but for a truly organic plant, soil grown is by far the superior option.

A Continental View Of Pesticide Use

There are pesticide regulations for use on cannabis across Canada and in Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Nevada. State governments have either set limits or banned certain pesticides for use on marijuana. Colorado, in particular, received a lot of attention last year when they had to make a massive recall after safety worries were raised regarding the use of pesticides on certain strains. Since then, Colorado has had to expand and increase regulations to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again.

HoneyColony spoke to Chris, founder of Clean Green Certified, who are the only licensed distributor of “organic” labelling for cannabis; last year they certified 45,000 lbs of weed across America. He explained to us that weed can never be “organic”, only organically grown, so the label “organic weed” is actually just a marketing device.

“We see a lot of cannabis. The use of prohibited pesticides has been and continues to be a major consumer concern. People that claim that their cannabis is organic, are doing nothing and saying I know nothing about the organic program. Cannabis is not a candidate for USDA organic certification.

He also predicted that we are likely to see more and more regulation in the cannabis industry, especially once it becomes legal at a federal level. He explains that up into now “the crops were grown largely for illegal markets. There was no form of testing or regulation in place. You had cannabis coming onto the newly legal market being tested by unlicensed labs. After that has happened for the last 3 years, Co Wa Or, have started to demand better testing. It’s been a real issue in cannabis, period.”

California (a regulation heavy state) has failed thus far to put meaningful checks and regulations in place to make sure that people are being supplied with a safe and high-quality product. Regulatory legislation is in the pipeline, but is unlikely to protect consumers before 2018.

Until then, California cannabis smokers would be wise to check up on the origins of their weed.

Josh HamiltonJosh Hamilton is an aspiring journalist from Belfast, Northern Ireland, living in London, Ontario. Lover of music, politics, tech, and life.


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