Using Pesticides on Cannabis: Insights From OU’s Dale Sky Jones on Getting it Right

Warning Pesticides

Last month Oaksterdam University’s Executive Chancellor Dale Sky Jones was a speaker at the Spring 2016 Marijuana Business Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida. She joined Wanda James, the CEO of Simply Pure Colorado, on stage to debate the pros and cons of cannabis pesticides; prior to the debate they both had to be prepared to argue either side. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jones about the debate and learn more about where the cannabis industry stands on the topic of pesticides.

Cannabis Industry Today: What was it like going into a debate where you had no idea what side you’d have to argue?

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Dale Sky Jones

Jones: As we walked into the room, I wondered what the rules of the debate would be. Had I prepared enough. Would I really be willing to go far enough if I pulled the ‘pro’ straw, which was easily the tougher position to take given the recent attention that’s been given to recalling pesticide-laced cannabis in Colorado, the growing number of cannabis testing labs, and the overall public concerns about pesticides.

Cannabis Industry Today: What straw did you draw?

Jones: Fortunately for me, I drew the ‘con’ straw. Personally I am more firmly in this camp when it comes to pesticides and I came very prepared to stand my ground. In fact, George Jage from the Marijuana Business Daily said that I ‘brought a gun to a knife fight!’

Cannabis Industry Today: What ‘pro’ pesticide information did you find in your research?

Jones: It is all very interesting. I think we all realize that pesticides—which by the EPA’s definition is ‘any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, regulating, or controlling pests’—have been around for a long time. What I learned is that 4,500 years ago, the Sumerians used Sulphur compounds to control insects and mites. We still use Sulphur in our horticulture classes at Oaksterdam and many pesticides in circulation today are derived from plant-based, relatively harmless applications. It’s the synthetic equivalents that last longer and can have greater deleterious effects.

Cannabis Industry Today: What’s a synthetic pesticide?

Jones: Well, synthetic pesticides use synthetic chemicals—or copies of natural chemicals—that are manufactured in a lab and are more toxic in killing pests. The first important synthetic organic pesticide was DDT. It was introduced after World Wars I and II and was hailed a miracle because it was toxic to a wide range of insect pests and it didn’t require frequent applications, didn’t wash off in the rain, and it was inexpensive and easy to apply. DDT was especially lethal in controlling mosquitoes and its use reduced hundreds of thousands of malaria deaths. However, DDT has been linked to cancer, reproductive issues, developmental delay, nervous system and liver damage, and many environmental problems. Fortunately, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972.

Cannabis Industry Today: Are synthetic pesticides used today?

Jones: Yes. There are insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides, molluscicides, nematicides, plant growth regulators and others. Many household products contain synthetic pesticides. They protect us by killing germs, pests and pathogens that could harm us. Some synthetic pesticides are even allowed for use in organic farming. In general, natural pesticides are allowed unless specifically prohibited and synthetic pesticides are prohibited unless specifically recommended by the Natural Organic Standard Board.

Cannabis Industry Today: What makes pesticide use on cannabis such an issue?

Jones: Cannabis is not like any other agricultural produce. It is usually cured and exposed to high levels of heat, and then inhaled or eaten. Once inhaled, pesticide residues in cannabis have a direct pathway into the bloodstream via the capillaries in the lungs. Studies on tobacco could guide us—and there are studies showing significant levels of pesticide residues within a cigarette filter—but cannabis isn’t typically filtered when smoked either. Not only that, burning cannabis can cause the decomposition of a pesticide to produce an even more toxic mixture.

Pesticide use on cannabis is a huge health concern that should concern us all. We need to get this right. Patients certainly don’t want to, nor should they, consume harmful compounds from the medical cannabis they depend on for healing and wellness. Businesses have a responsibility for consumer safety.  I realize that the absence of lawful pesticides for use on cannabis poses great economic harm to cultivators who want to mitigate crop damage, but we hope they would not want to put patients at risk.

Currently there are no pesticides, nor tolerances for them, approved for use on cannabis by the USDA. There is very little peer-reviewed research regarding the health and safety risks associated with consuming pesticide residue in dried cannabis. And cannabis is still illegal federally, so funding such research isn’t going to come from the federal government. Even if we had money to throw at research, it could take years to accomplish and that would mean no immediate tolerance level recommendations. What’s worse, once the recommendations are available, the Federal EPA needs to adopt them—an unlikely scenario for a Schedule I Substance.

Cannabis Industry Today: Is this an issue that has potential solutions?

Jones: I think so. Our experience with pesticides may mirror our experience with the criminal aspects of cannabis. The focus may need to be on curtailing the enforcement activity in order to create a de facto pathway for complying—even though there is no choice path. Right now, the language used in states that allow cannabis isn’t adequate to create a pathway for cannabis cultivators to gain access to effective pesticides. To motivate positive movement, we must affirmatively identify pesticides to which we want to gain access.  What should maximum tolerances be for pesticides? For other foreign object residue in harvested cannabis?  How many bug bits are allowable in your peanut butter parts-per-million?

Another angle we might consider is to provide direction with regard to enforcement. For example, could the Department of Pesticide Regulation consider it their lowest enforcement priority to take action against cannabis cultivators who use pesticides in a manner that would otherwise be permitted if cannabis were another similar crop?

Cannabis Industry Today: What would you say to those who claim there are no standards regarding cannabis and pesticides?

Jones: We do have standards. Begin by using non-chemical methods. Any synthetic pesticide not specifically labeled for use on cannabis cannot be used on cannabis.

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