An SC Labs technician examines samples of cannabis for harmful pesticides. The cannabis industry is facing strict regulations following its legalization in California. Photos by Alonso Hernandez

Chemical pesticide used in conventional agriculture has been the norm for decades. It’s why people wash their fruits and vegetables before eating them or choose to buy organic produce. What many consumers don’t realize is these very same pesticides are likely present in cannabis, and the cannabis industry hasn’t been subject to stringent regulations like those governing food.

A large amount of cannabis consumed in California, from both the legal and black markets, is tainted with pesticides that have not been adequately tested for consumer safety. Its effects have not been studied when altered in ways other than ingestion, such as combustion or vaporization.

“If I had to guess, 85 to 90 percent of the cannabis in California is contaminated with a chemical called myclobutanil,” said CannaCruz dispensary CEO Grant Palmer. “It’s in almost all cannabis in California and no one is required to pesticide test.”

Myclobutanil, known commercially as Eagle 20, is a pesticide common in conventional agriculture. It’s used often in California’s wine and table grape crops, accounting for 30 percent of all myclobutanil usage in the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency does not, however, approve it for use on tobacco, the only federally legal crop consumed via inhalation.

The National Institute of Health cautions that myclobutanil breaks down into toxic and corrosive gases when exposed to heat. These gases include the gaseous form of hydrochloric acid, an extremely corrosive substance capable of causing immediate tissue damage on contact, and hydrogen cyanide (HCN). HCN is better known as Zyklon B, the infamous gas used in the death camps of Nazi Germany.

In the cannabis industry, myclobutanil is used as a fungicide to prevent powdery mildew. While powdery mildew lowers the commercial value of a cannabis crop, it’s not hazardous to consumers.

“The cure is worse than the disease,” Palmer said. “Powdery mildew is not going to hurt you. Hydrogen cyanide, probably.”

Despite these hazards of applying general-use pesticides to cannabis, there are no state or federal regulations limiting cannabis pesticide use. Even if there were, there is currently no mandate to test for them before sale in dispensaries.

Extremely sensitive machines can detect even the smallest traces of pesticides in cannabis.

Cannabinoid, or potency, testing is common within the cannabis industry despite being optional. Product safety, however, isn’t necessarily one of the qualities being tested, said Science of Cannabis Laboratories (SC Labs) co-founder and director of client relations Alec Dixon.

“Over the last seven and a half years that we’ve been doing testing, predominantly people have been testing for cannabinoid content,” Dixon said. “That was the first test that people started to access that had intrinsic marketing value behind it.”

SC Labs is a cannabis testing lab that offers a full range of testing services to cannabis businesses in Santa Cruz County. While cannabinoid testing has historically been its most requested service, Dixon said, demand for pesticide testing is slowly rising. He attributed the increase to a greater awareness fostered by similar issues in Colorado’s cannabis industry being brought to light after legalization.

While the use of unsafe pesticides in cannabis cultivation is widespread, it’s likely due to ignorance rather than malice,said Pat Malo,a cannabis cultivator in Santa Cruz County and co- founder of Green Trade Santa Cruz, a coalition of local cannabis businesses.

“Since this has been a greatly unregulated industry for the past 20 years […] people have been using whatever works, whatever is available,” he said. “The availability of those products for other crops inevitably went into the cannabis industry.”

However, not all cannabis growers use chemical pesticides and nutrients. There are dozens of successful organic farms throughout the state. Malo said ignorance about the dangers of chemical pesticide use in cannabis can be traced to the plant’s ambiguous legality. Proposition 64, which takes full effect next month, requires all cannabis products to be tested by an independent laboratory before being put on the market. The maximum allowable levels of contamination will be have at a maximum of about 100 parts per billion, nearly 1000 percent lower than levels currently allowed in produce like grapes.

Many in the cannabis industry hope the new regulations will force growers who have not done so already to adopt more sustainable, chemical-free cultivation techniques.

SC Labs co-founder Alec Dixon believes the regulations will eventually generate a greater shift in public awareness of harmful mainstream agricultural practices.

“All the cultivation that’s being licensed is being pushed to big agriculture areas […] where Driscoll’s [and] all these big companies are spraying pesticides out of helicopters,” Dixon said. “There’s a very real understanding of drift and residual environmental contamination. […] This plant and the regulations around this plant are going to uproot a lot of the dirty secrets and dirty realities about the greater agricultural industry.”

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Sean D. Ross is editor for the City News desk at City on a Hill Press. Previously, Sean served as an editor for the Investigative News desk and as a reporter for the Campus, City and Sports desks over the past two years. Before coming to UC Santa Cruz, he was News Editor for the Diablo Valley College Inquirer, contributing to the Inquirer earning the Journalism Association of Community Colleges’ “General Excellence” award at the 2016 Northern California Conference. For his coverage of California fires in the fall of 2017, Sean was awarded third prize in the California College Media Association’s Breaking News competition. Sean is pursuing a career in law, and has interned for renowned California attorney James M. Wagstaffe. Besides casually browsing LexisNexis, Sean enjoys board games of all stripes, competitive Magic: the Gathering, playing the french horn, automotive racing and the literary stylings of Neil Gaiman.