In mid-May, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) issued the state’s first cannabis recall. The agency pulled back vape products and mints from a manufacturing company in Edmond, citing concentrations of the fungicide myclobutanil.
And while cannabis product recalls like that aren’t coming down every day in the industry, they are still a common enough feature that it’s helpful for companies to plan ahead and think through what this unfortunate process might look like. Alex Hearding, chief risk management officer for the National Cannabis Risk Management Association (NCRMA) says that recalls come hand in hand with an industry still forming out of an illicit past.
“This is very common emerging market stuff that happens,” Hearding says of the Oklahoma story in particular. “The state is in its early stages of getting the testing requirements.”
In Oklahoma, formal enforcement of the state's testing regulations will go into effect July 1. Until then, as the program continues to get off the ground, lab testing is not required by the state. Elsewhere in the U.S., most states have banned myclobutanil as a chemical used in cannabis cultivation.
“What this is is a systemic pesticide, which means you can’t just wipe it off once it’s applied,” Hearding days. “What happens is this pesticide gets into the product and then, when heated, it creates these dangerous gases.” Myclobutanil’s fungicide properties work well against powdery mildew on face value, but the consequences of combustion are dangerous to humans; the chemical reaction continues to be studied.
Soon after the Oklahoma recall, the NCRMA kicked off a new educational video series focusing on these compliance issues. An upcoming video will zero in on myclobutanil specifically. “As pesticide recalls go, this is the one that is going to be referred to the most,” he says.
Hearding has worked directly with growers in Colorado who have dealt with myclobutanil problems. Once the chemical is used, any remediation is complicated.
“What happens with this pesticide, is it actually stays in the walls—in the plastics in your HVAC system,” he says. “I’ve known companies who’ve had to go in and scrub and scrape out HVAC systems for this specific chemical.”
What could happen in that situation is that nothing more than a flake of myclobutanil residue might have blown down onto a plant, which could then intake the tiny piece of chemical compounds.
One immediate piece of advice for any company facing potential contamination is to do a deep clean of the cultivation facility, something above and beyond any standard operating procedures (SOPs).
But on an even more basic level, a good first step would be to continually check with state lists of approved pesticides (often from a state department of agriculture). Find the approved list and the banned list—and keep them in a highly visible place within your cultivation facility or keep them bookmarked on all staff computers or phones.
“Make sure that any pesticide you’re going to use is approved,” Hearding says. “I mean, it’s really that simple.”
That said—the approved list of pesticides evolves frequently in each state. In Colorado, for instance, the list can be found here. It’s on the pesticide manufacturer to go through the special local needs process to earn approval in a given state.
The first line of defense against a potential recall is in-house testing and then initial lab testing at a state-licensed facility. Sometimes, products may pass that initial testing before failing further down the line in retests or random tests. This is a problem that multistate operators would do well to keep in mind, as a company’s cultivation and manufacturing SOPs may clash among different states’ regulations.
“Each state has different testing regimes,” Hearding says. “It actually gets very complicated, because it’s a state-to-state issue.”
Once a product hits the supply chain, non-compliance can be caught several ways. Manufacturers may run quality control tests, patients may call the state with a negative reaction to a product or the state itself may retest for any number of reasons.
If a recall is needed, it’s typically conducted at the expense of the originating facility. That company must track the batch in question and ensure that all products are returned to the facility for quarantine. Another round of retesting will often happen, at which point the state and the company must determine what happens next: Either some level of product reclamation is possible (and legal) or the product is destroyed.
“The industry is being pinched from both sides,” Hearding says. “You want to prevent yeast and molds with pesticides, but you also can’t have pesticide residue on it. It’s a really tight spot for the industry.”
According to dispensary inspection reports pulled by local newspaper Westword from September 2019, 80% of a list of 25 random dispensary reports had cited product testing failures for yeast and molds. Even in a more mature market like Colorado, the pinch persists.
“The contaminant issue is huge,” Hearding says. “The pesticide issue is huge, and it gets a lot of visibility with these types of recalls—like in Oklahoma. But one of the more baseline issues that this industry has is basic testing for molds and microbials. It’s so hard for a lot of these facilities to pass these basic contaminant tests. Those [hygiene and cleanliness] principles can be maybe seen as kind of simplistic, but they are going to be the principles that allow people to pass tests more regularly.”
Testing protocol and compliance is a long-running argument in favor of legalization. In the illicit market, unchecked pesticide use is rampant (alongside chemical thinning agents and other unknown substances). Under a regulatory authority, licensed businesses must follow the rules to remain compliant. Consumers benefit from that transparency.