Massachusetts Regulators Crack Down on Pesticide Use in Cannabis Production
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A statewide crackdown on the use of pesticides on cannabis products has led to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health issuing a cease-and-desist letter to a cannabis brand operating in the state.
Good Chemistry, a Colorado-based cannabis brand with a dispensary in Worcester and a growing and processing plant in Bellingham, has been ordered to stop its operations in Massachusetts following a routine inspection in early September. During the inspection, officials from the Department of Public Health observed that the growing facility in Bellingham was using unapproved pesticides on the cannabis crop and ruled that this could pose “an immediate or serious threat to the public’s health, safety, or welfare”. The investigation has also been referred to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) which governs the use of pesticides on all crops, including cannabis.
Until the review is complete, the Good Chemistry dispensary in Worcester has been restricted to only selling cannabis and cannabis-infused products from third-party cannabis producers.
The use of organic pesticides
Good Chemistry maintains that their operations in the state pose no risk to public safety. The firm points out that the three natural pesticides that were in use at the facility - sulfur, pyrethrins and Reynoutria sachalinensis (giant knotweed extract) - have all been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for other agricultural purposes. Additionally, the states of Colorado, Nevada, Washington, and Oregon specifically allow these pesticides to be used on cannabis crops.
“These organic compounds are safe all over the country, and they’re safe in Massachusetts,” said Jim Smith, a lawyer for Good Chemistry, in a statement for the Boston Globe. “For the state to single out Good Chemistry for using an industry-standard practice is absolutely wrong. It’s not acceptable - and we’re not going to destroy the crop, because it poses no risk to public safety whatsoever.”
As part of the application to operate in Massachusetts, Good Chemistry was required to submit a Management and Operations Profile (MOP) to the Department of Public Health (DPH) which would detail the full cultivation process. Their application did discuss the intention to use these organic compounds in their process - using pyrethrins as a pest control measure, and sulfur as a nutrient booster to aid plant growth. The DPH approved Good Chemistry’s application to operate in the state on April 10.
Regulations surrounding pesticide use
Despite the approval of Good Chemistry’s MOP, Massachusetts regulators never intended to permit the use of pesticide products in cannabis cultivation.
Due to the wording of a passage in the Code of Massachusetts Regulations which explicitly stated that “application of any non-organic pesticide in the cultivation of marijuana is prohibited”, it appeared that organic compounds were in fact permitted for use. This wording of this section (105 CMR 725.105(B)(1)(d)) was corrected by the DPH in December 2017, but the MOP from Good Chemistry had already been submitted before the change.
“During our application process for a medical license, the state provided us a specific list of chemicals that are prohibited for use by cannabis cultivators,” explains Matthew Huron, CEO and managing member of Good Chemistry, to the Worcester County’s Telegram & Gazette. “But, in addition to the list, the state marijuana regulators specifically tell cultivators they are required to ‘use best cultivation practices to limit contamination, including but not limited to mold, fungus, bacterial diseases, rot, pests, pesticides not approved by the Department, mildew, and any other contaminant identified as posing potential harm.’”
The humid climate in Massachusetts means that growing operations can often be plagued by airborne ambient yeast and mold, which poses an active public health threat. By using organic pesticides to protect cannabis crops from these harmful fungal infections, Good Chemistry would have been following ‘best cultivation practices’ as used elsewhere in the United States.
But while the wording of the state regulations at the time may have technically allowed this operating procedure, DPH officials say that it is the responsibility of those in the cannabis industry to ensure that their procedures are updated to remain compliant with DPH policy.
“The use of pesticides of any kind by a registered marijuana dispensary in the cultivation of medical marijuana is prohibited under both Department of Public Health and Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources regulations,” said Marybeth McCabe, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Public Health, in a statement to the Worcester County’s Telegram & Gazette.
Next steps for Good Chemistry
The initial cease-and-desist ruling required Good Chemistry to close both its cultivation facility and dispensary, but was later amended to allow the dispensary to remain open and sell cannabis products from other suppliers. Good Chemistry are now asking the Department of Agriculture Commissioner, John Lebeaux, to conduct a further review of the organic pesticides as a way of proving they are safe for use.
“DPH has not found or identified a specific health concern in any of the approved active ingredients in the organic compound that we used to cultivate cannabis,” Mr. Huron said. “The Department of Public Health has the discretion to amend or rescind their order to allow us to make the cannabis we’ve cultivated available to patients in the Worcester community. We’ve asked the state to incorporate the research, analysis and experience that led other states like Colorado, Nevada, Washington and Oregon to determine that the use of these cultivation methods are best practices and helps create healthier, contaminant-free cannabis for patients and the industry as a whole.”