UPDATE: Steep Hill Labs releases more information the number of marijuana clones that tested positive for pesticides. 124 cannabis plants were tested and only 17 were pesticide free in California.
According to a recent report from California cannabis testing lab Steep Hill, much of the state’s widespread pesticide problem can actually be traced back to clones. In October of 2016, Steep Hill shocked the state with a report that estimated that 84% of California cannabis wasn’t “fit for human consumption.”
Keller asked the lab to test his theory. Steep Hill officials borrowed clones from their clients and added additional samples by purchasing them from clone producers and dispensaries near its Berkeley location. 17 clones were also sourced from the Los Angeles area.
Of 124 total clones tested for potentially dangerous pesticides, only 17 contained no detectable residues. Only 22% of all clones passed muster under California’s cannabis pesticide thresholds, which are stricter than nearby Oregon’s.
“Given these findings, it is likely that a large proportion of the California cannabis supply currently being readied for harvest will face challenges with respect to pesticide detection,” the report concludes. “Of particular concern are the extract/concentrate product types, since the starting material may contain a significant amount of pesticide contamination, and the extraction process serves to further concentrate the compounds in question.”
Industry experts are predicting only 10-15% of the marijuana growers in California will be able to grow weed that is free of pesticide or other chemicals. The same problem occurred in Colorado, causing a frenzy of cannabis recalls and headaches regarding distribution of clean cannabis. It took years for the Colorado cultivators to figure out how to grow marijuana that would pass state lab testing and with California set to be the largest recreational weed state, it could prove to be a major problem for California marijuana growers.
Where will all of the tainted weed go? Illegal cultivators will be selling to the black market and shipping out of state, like they always have been, until stricter policies are in place and local authorities put the California black market out of business. Do you prefer clean, legal marijuana or would you buy whatever is grown and sold by the illegal cultivators?
California consumers will soon have two choices in cannabis: clean, legal and pricey — or dirty, illicit and cheap.
The big difference will be the amount of pesticides in your weed. That’s because starting Jan. 2, when California’s vast legal marijuana market opens, all cannabis must be tested — and most chemicals will be banned.
Much of California’s cannabis is tainted, including the “medicinal” stuff. But soon state-sanctioned weed may become the greenest in the nation.
But here’s the catch: Most growers — particularly the get-rich-quick newbies and industrial-scale Big Weed wannabes — aren’t ready to grow marijuana without pesticides. And then there are all those illegal grows in California’s vast and remote public forests, often set up by Mexican drug cartels.
Where will all their weed go if it can’t pass muster with state labs? Much of it will end up in the hands of that sketchy guy on the street corner, selling it for far less than your local dispensary, growers say.
“It’s much harder to produce clean cannabis. It takes discipline, time and paying attention,” said Brian McCall, owner and operator of Blue Belly Farms, which grows pesticide-free cannabis in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“There are so many ways to fail,” he said. “You can’t sell it if it’s not in compliance with the new state law. The stuff that fails is going to go to the black market — or across state lines.”
One reason is that black-market cannabis is so much cheaper to grow. And if it’s sold in states that haven’t legalized marijuana, it will command a higher price than weed sold in California.
Only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the state’s growers will meet the new standards, predicts Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, which advocates for marijuana cultivators. Those who succeed are likely to have rigorous and well-established practices who have long toiled to make a modest, independent and organic living, he said.
Clean cannabis seems like a no-brainer to the millions of Californians devoted to organic fruit and vegetables, natural deodorant, cruelty-free moisturizer, sustainable dental floss and grass-fed-cow cream in their frappuccino lattes.
Indeed, it’s been a point of pride for California’s small marijuana farmers. Every day they attend to each plant, lovingly inspecting it for any sign of stress, illness or infestation.
“The granola-eating hippie also smokes pesticide-free cannabis,” said Allen, born and raised off-the-grid in rural Humboldt County. “There’s a cultural propensity.”
So, from the beginning, clean weed was a big part of the motivation of legalization supporters. Back in 2015, two of marijuana’s strongest legislative champions, Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, and state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, called on California to develop testing, standards and pesticide limits in legislation that increased regulation of the medical marijuana industry.
And by passing Proposition 64 last November to legalize recreational weed, voters directed the state to “establish a certified organic designation and organic certification program for marijuana and marijuana products.”
But state regulators are only now catching up, hastily drafting regulations. A draft plan released in April set some of the most rigorous standards in the nation.
Meanwhile, there’s a profit-driven “green rush” to capitalize on California’s huge legal market, with growers — from fresh-faced newcomers to violent Mexican cartels — using pesticide practices that would make Monsanto proud.
Sampling reveals alarming amounts of chemicals in the medical marijuana sold at California’s dispensaries. Last year, Steep Hill Labs, a Berkeley-based testing facility, detected pesticides in 84 percent of samples. At San Francisco’s HempCon competition in August, a stunning 80 percent of the flowers, edibles and concentrates were tainted by pesticides, mold or harmful solvents, according to Anresco Laboratories in San Francisco.
These toxins are smoked, vaped and eaten — unlike, say, the stuff that’s sprayed on your orange peel or banana skin. And because cannabis is a federally banned drug, there’s little research about the health effects of pesticide-laden pot — or whether these chemicals change when ignited. No one really knows what’s safe.
But organic weed is easier said than done.
For starters, the federal government offers no guidance. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the authority for such things, lists no “registered” pesticide products for illegal substances, so the state can’t list them either. And while a different administration may have approved special “local use” petitions, President Donald Trump’s EPA says it won’t, said environmental attorney Joshua Bloom, of the Oakland law firm Meyers Nave.
The state is still drafting the final rules, but its list will likely allow products that are so benign that they’re exempt from federal registration requirements such as like cinnamon, rosemary, peppermint oils, sulfur and iron phosphate.
But proving this cleanliness will be expensive for farmers, eating into profits. State-approved testing will cost about $400 per pound — about half to one-third the $800 to $1,200 per pound price that good commercial grade cannabis brings on the market, Allen said.
In Colorado, tremors ran through the cannabis market when the state imposed pesticide regulations after the legalization vote, said James R. Ott of Precision Cultivation Company, a consulting company in Longmont, Colorado.
“What we experienced in Colorado is coming to the folks in California,” predicted Jay Czarkowski of the Boulder-based consulting firm Canna Advisors. “There will be a massive shift. It takes years to clean up.
“Companies had to issue recalls,” he said. “It was a tough transition for those who did not have horticultural background. They couldn’t rely on those crutches anymore.”
The entrepreneurs who are brand new to cannabis, or who cut corners in the rush to expand, won’t make the cut, experts agreed. And the fly-by-night and criminal cartel growers will continue to supply the black market, just as they always have.
Come Jan. 1, California will still be awash in cheap, untested and pesticide-treated weed, experts said. But consumers will finally have a choice.