Pot Pesticides Are Harshing Your Buzz

As more jurisdictions are legalizing marijuana, a new report says regulations on chemicals used to grow it don’t protect health.

(Photo: David Walter Banks for 'The Washington Post' via Getty Images)

Mar 14, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

With marijuana effectively legal or outright legal in 23 states and public-opinion polls showing increasing support for federal legalization, there’s less and less stigma around the idea of smoking a joint or five now and again. Research has shown that the drug could help address a range of medical issues—from chronic pain and anxiety to cancer and glaucoma. Another recent study showed that regular, long-term use didn’t have a significant impact on lung health.

With the liberalization of laws regulating what the feds still consider a Schedule 1 drug likely to continue, there’s now an opportunity to address a potentially significant health risk tied up with weed: pesticide exposure. While black-market marijuana could be grown anywhere from a suburban tract home in Pacoima, California, to a mountainside grow-op somewhere in the tropics—and treated with whatever manner of chemicals are needed to get a good crop—legitimacy for the industry means new safety and quality controls.

However, according to a new report from the advocacy group Beyond Pesticides, the patchwork of state and local regulations could harm human health and the environment.

“The use of pesticides in the cultivation of cannabis has health implications for those growing the crop, and for users who are exposed to toxic residues through inhalation, ingestion, and absorption through the skin,” Jay Feldman, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “The good news is that five states and D.C. have adopted rules that require marijuana to be grown with practices that prevent the use of pesticides. State officials have an opportunity to restrict all pesticide use at the front end of a growing market, require the adoption of an organic system plan, and set a course to protect health and the environment.”

Unlike pesticides residues found on food crops, which are processed through the digestive system, any traces of chemicals on marijuana that is smoked “have a direct pathway into the bloodstream,” according to the report. Furthermore, burning the chemicals can trigger decomposition, breaking them down into what can be an even more toxic mixture. Nearly 70 percent of the pesticide residue on the marijuana gets picked up in the smoke, according to a 2013 study from the Journal of Toxicology cited by the report.

Massachusetts has set a high bar by requiring that organic practices be used for growing medical marijuana. That isn’t the case in many states—including California, where the Compassionate Use Act, allowed medical marijuana for the first time in the country nearly 20 years ago. There is “no specific pesticide regulation for cannabis” in California and five other states, according to the report.

A survey conducted by Beyond Pesticides found that 12 states require random testing of medical marijuana for residues. Oregon, which doesn’t tolerate residue over .1 parts per million on samples, has the strictest policies.

“The survey results raise serious questions about pesticide exposure, inadequate regulatory oversight, and incentives or requirements to adopt sustainable practices in the cultivation of cannabis,” the authors write. To improve the situation, Beyond Pesticides is advocating for organic practices to be status quo in the booming industry.