When Medicine Is Poison

When heated, common pesticides found at alarming rates in Cali-grown cannabis turn into a highly toxic poison with potentially life-threatening effects.

From Los Angeles to San Francisco, it's no secret the Golden State grows some straight up fire product. But according to one lab's recent research, California cannabis is also dangerously filthy with pesticides, fungicides, and even residual solvents.

Eagle20, a pesticide that is used widely (and legally) by the wine industry, contains a chemical called myclobutanil. It is commonly sprayed on grapes, strawberries, and also used on much of the state’s agriculture. Myclobutanil is found in a myriad of consumer goods, too. Cheerios, for instance, contain myclobutanil. California-grown weed also happens to be covered in the stuff.

Marijuana is a crop like anything else grown on a farm or commercial cultivation facility. You buy an apple, peel off the sticker, and (hopefully) wash it for this very reason. However, when you smoke or vape cannabis products contaminated by even trace amounts of the chemical, myclobutanil becomes hydrogen cyanide upon combustion. And that's potentially very, very bad for humans.

According to a Steep Hill Labs press release––one of California’s most widely used testing facilities––myclobutanil in your bud is no bueno. “84 percent of California cannabis isn't fit for consumption” because of the presence of such chemicals, say lab technicians. What's worse, California is responsible for half of the nation’s myclobutanil use.

From the Steep Hill Labs press release:

“Hydrogen Cyanide is a Schedule 3 substance under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Of paramount concern is the extremely high level of Myclobutanil detected in cannabis samples tested by Steep Hill, which is in excess of 65 percent of all samples.”

That means if you’re buying cannabis products basically anywhere in California and smoking or dabbing or vaping the weedy goods, you’re putting yourself and your smoking circle at a fairly gnarly level of risk of inhaling the poison.

Image via Steep Hill Labs

A 2016 NBC report tells the story of a cannabis consumer who found himself feeling symptoms of paralysis after blazing down on some locally obtained chronic that contained myclobutanil.

"My hands go numb, my arms go numb, my feet go numb," the Orange County medical marijuana patient told NBC4. "I feel like I was poisoned."

Regulations included in Proposition 64 set a standard all brands and producers will have to abide by in order to keep doing business in California. And the rules would drastically cut down the use of the pesticide and hold producers accountable. The thing is, at status quo, the majority of marijuana brands operating “in compliance” of California laws do not even come close to meeting the standards established by the law.

A 35-page document filed in June with the District Attorney's office has more than 680 California brands and dispensaries receiving notices of violation of the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, AKA Proposition 65. The law, passed in 1986, “requires the State to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm” and update the list on an annual basis. The violations stem from allegations made by Michael Murphy, manager of the Clean Cannabis Initiative, who says the alleged marijuana businesses failed to provide consumers with adequate warning of the dangers of consuming said “tainted” weed goods. These tainted goods include edibles, concentrates, vape cartridges, and flower––all of which, with the exception of the infused foods, require combustion i.e. extreme heat, in order to be consumed. 

Image via Steep Hill Labs

In an interview with The Recorder, Murphy’s attorney, Mark Morrison of the Morrison Law Firm in Newport Beach, describes him as a concerned consumer and details his agenda as being for the consumer.

"Consumers really just need to have the facts for each consumer to make the best choice,” Morrison said.

Law firms representing some of the dispensaries in the complaint describe the claims as being completely “bogus.”

SC Labs, a cannabis-testing firm whose seal of approval has become a selling point for many of the Golden State’s biggest weed brands, recently tested a number of the California market’s most popular weed products to see how they fare against the state’s proposed regulations.

From a report in L.A. Weekly:

“Of the cannabis products SC Labs has tested, in which it screened for the 12 most common pesticides, about 77 percent of cannabis concentrates would fail California’s proposed regulations by a landslide. . . In a review of 44 weed samples obtained from 15 dispensaries throughout Southern California, a lab found that 93 percent of them tested positive for pesticides, at high enough levels that they would have been banned from states that currently regulate pesticides in cannabis.”

Currently, the state’s “residual tolerance requirements”––or the amount of residual toxicants such as pesticides in parts-per-million––are reportedly problematic and would have testing facilities purchasing equipment that can cost up to $500,000.

On the yet-to-come rules, Island's Ray Landgraf told KINDLAND, “At the highest level I think [Prop 64] is a huge win for the consumer, because now the consumer is going to get truly safe medicine. A lot of consumers go into a store and they see that something was tested, most of the time it’s just tested for potency as part of a marketing pitch.”

According to L.A. Weekly, “California’s regulations were determined in large part by recommendations made by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which oversees the sale and use of pesticides in an effort to protect human health and the environment.” The state is reportedly withdrawing the current medical regulations and will have all California cannabis meeting standards established under Proposition 64, which have yet to be determined.

Foods containing Myclobutanil cannot test above .025 parts per million; cannabis edibles are currently capped at containing .02 parts per million. Interestingly, 60 percent of the state’s myclobutanil, reportedly, is used on grapes. But uncertainty remains as to how the presence of the chemical pesticide in California pot will affect consumers in the long run. And, as we know, it is really when pesticide-laced cannabis is smoked or vaped, when it becomes dangerous.

“...chemical residues present on cannabis will directly transfer into the mainstream smoke and ultimately the end user,” wrote after conducting a study on the effects of smoking pesticide-laden cannabis plant matter, published in the Journal of Toxicology.

As the pesticides problem isn't just contained to California, tainted weed has surfaced in other weed-legal states, too. 

In Oregon, which bans the use of certain non-natural pesticides altogether on most foods, and all of the state’s legal weed, a class-action lawsuit was filed in 2016 against an Oregon-based pesticide producer for continuing to use an insecticide on its crops, even though the poison was banned.

“Meeting the state requirements has been challenging because it seems like every few months new pesticides are added to the target list,” Justin Clapick, who founded Oregon’s Deschutes Growery, in Bend told KINDLAND over email.

Clapick’s Deschutes Growery uses indoor growing techniques––indoor grows commonly use pesticides to combat spider mites from tainting the plants. Deschutes raises what is considered to be some of Oregon’s top flower, and the firm’s cultivars grow each flower strain from seeds, as opposed to using clones.

“Even with the METRC seed-to-sale tracking system it’s very possible that bad actors can still get pesticide-ridden product through to market using backdoor tactics. Most producers we speak with are very nervous about touching any chemical based pesticides and we see the industry shifting quickly to IPM based strategies using nature to fight nature,” Clapick said. “Recreational growers in Oregon have been able to adapt and feel most growers are considering alternative Integrated Pest Management strategies that use beneficial insects rather than toxic pesticides.”

Washington and Colorado have also stepped up pesticide testing efforts on the recreationally legal states, in recent years.

“We are hopeful California will enact the toughest standards yet,” Steep Hill Labs’ Public Relations Director Cathie Bennett Warner, said to KINDLAND. “And lead other states to a standard that the federal government can adopt when they fully legalize.”

In the meantime, the health and well-being of Golden State cannabis consumers remains at risk. And producers are accountable only to their bottom line.