Failing a test for a banned or disallowed pesticide can happen to any agricultural producer. But such failures seem to be more common in Colorado’s cannabis industry than more conventional products because there aren’t federally approved pesticides specifically for cannabis cultivation, according to John Scott, the section chief of the pesticides program at the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
“We certainly see a higher misuse rate in cannabis,” Scott says. “That is mostly due to the fact that as far as federal regulation and approval of products, 'cannabis' still isn’t on pesticide labels. It is not that we don’t still see misuse occur in conventional products, it is just the core fact that the regulatory approval process has not caught up with cannabis just yet.”
That can create confusion for cultivators, who must do more legwork before applying a pesticide to be sure it is approved for use on cannabis.
The team at the Colorado pesticides program determines which pesticides are allowed for cannabis cultivation and tests to ensure compliance. For all other crops, a national program for pesticide use determination falls under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as it does for federally legal hemp, which is listed on some product labels. Testing for contamination is done by, and on behalf of, the USDA, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
The program has a list of pesticides that are allowed for use on all types of cannabis, regardless of THC content or intended use. The program can issue cease and desist orders for the use of an unapproved pesticide or report a producer to the Marijuana Enforcement Division, which may take additional steps and can issue a recall.
As states’ testing pesticide testing protocols are implemented, it is likely they will see a spike in recalls and fines, as Colorado did, before the industry adjusts.
“I’ll give credit to our marijuana industry, they have done a good job of coming into compliance,” Scott says. “Of course, we still find misuse cases, but by my last analysis, our number of cases has dropped over 60% (since the program started).”
The National Cannabis Risk Management Association, an organization that helps cultivators navigate regulations in individual state programs, including rules about pesticide use, has been working with Colorado cultivators since 2017.
NCRMA chief risk management officer Alex Hearding says misuse cases are down in Colorado, which is encouraging, but there are still cultivators struggling with the fallout from fines and recalls. Although the state operates one of the oldest regulated adult-use markets in the country, it began mandating pesticide testing for adult-use and medical cannabis in August 2018.
Not only are pesticide-related recalls a significant hit on the company’s finances, they damage its reputation.
Hearding still sees cases, sometimes as often as weekly, about a Colorado company being hit with fines or recalls. And he says these stories are even more frequent in states with newer cannabis industries.
“It is huge, especially in these emerging states,” Hearding said. “Setting up a pesticide program for any state has a lot of growing pains, we went through a it here in Colorado, but each state is unique.”
Colorado's list of approved pesticides is updated regularly, and though these updates are often announced, it is the responsibility of producers to always be aware what chemicals and products are allowed.
Reading and following the label on a pesticide is essential, but Hearding also encourages producers to send pesticides to a lab to be tested independently to ensure they do not contain banned chemicals.
Hearding emphasized the importance of being aware of the pesticides that are allowed, but said even the most informed cultivator should have a plan in place for if something goes wrong.
“(All producers) should have a quarantining protocol as well as recall protocols,” he said. “They should know how they are storing and isolating the product and have a plan to retest that product. If it has gotten out on the market, they need to have procedures to source that batch that came up ‘hot’ and recall it. Each company needs to be aware of what those recall procedures are and how to find all of the products from that specific batch and bring them back.”
Failing a pesticide test can be very expensive. One Massachusetts company was recently fined $200,000 for not only using an illegal pesticide, but falsifying records to concealing its use.
A quick response to a recall and cooperation with regulators can limit these expenses and start to win back the trust of consumers.
As with all aspects of cannabis production, staying informed, openly communicating with regulators and having a contingency plan can prevent failed pesticide tests or at least mitigate the damage they cause.
Quick Tips: Pesticide Best Practices for Cannabis Cultivators
Alex Hearding, NCRMA chief risk management officer
- Always read the label of your pesticides, but don’t trust it blindly.
- If possible, send products to an independent lab to be tested for banned chemicals.
- Even “organic” products can contain unapproved substances.
- Track your products from seed to sale.
- If a product fails a test, you need to be able to track down its batch quickly.
- Have a contingency plan in place in case a recall is ordered.
- Even the most careful cultivator should have a recall protocol in place.
- A slow or unorganized recall will exacerbate the financial and public image impact.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to clarify that while the Colorado Department of Agriculture determines which pesticides are allowed for cannabis cultivation and ensures compliance, it does not oversee compliance and testing for other crops. A national program exists for pesticide approval of other crops.