Washington State Cannabis Regulators Consider Mandatory Pesticide Testing
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As the 5-year anniversary of legal cannabis sales in Washington state approaches, the state’s cannabis regulators have been reflecting on what is next for their industry.
In an interview recorded for The Spokesman-Review’s Newsmakers podcast, members of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) stated a wish to make sure that the state will be “well-positioned for an eventual national legalization”, posing the question “how do we get really smart about doing the things we can do now?”
Cannabis testing in Washington state
During the interview, Rick Garza, the agency director of the WSLCB, indicated that one of the areas identified for possible improvement is the state’s cannabis testing regime, or more specifically, the current lack of a mandatory pesticide testing program.
Presently, some areas of quality assurance testing are mandatory under the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) Title 314-55-102; potency analysis of the major cannabinoids in the cannabis is required to be done and accurately reported, and screening is expected to be performed for the potential presence of foreign matter, residual solvent, heavy metals and microbiological contaminants. However, there is no such mandatory requirement for specific pesticide level screening in recreational cannabis products. For that, the state mainly relies on randomized testing, with additional testing carried out based on complaints or tip-offs about a certain producer or batch of product.
For medicinal cannabis, it is a little different. Under WAC Title 246-70-050, medicinal cannabis material must be screened by a third-party laboratory for pesticides, but these tests are merely to detect the general presence of any pesticides currently prohibited by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and do not determine if any other pesticides are present in dangerously high levels.
Shaken confidence in Washington’s cannabis safety measures
At the tail-end of 2018, news broke that California was moving to recall tens of thousands of pounds of cannabis products from shelves on account of recently uncovered pesticide test fraud at a cannabis testing facility in Sacramento Country. The recall is thought to affect tens of millions of dollars worth of cannabis products that had been available at cannabis retailers across the state. Why should this action two states away concern regulators in Washington? Because the neglected pesticide tests that led to the state-wide recall aren’t even necessary in Washington.
Since the legalization of recreational cannabis in California just over one year ago, the state has embarked on an ambitious three-phase rollout of strict cannabis testing requirements — which includes strict rules governing the allowed levels of residual pesticide matter that can be present on cannabis material. In total, 66 different pesticides are required to be tested for and quantified under the new Californian system; of which 22 were not satisfactorily completed in the case of the testing fraud. This is in stark contrast to the situation in Washington, where zero pesticide tests are routinely required for recreational cannabis material.
Even without a comparison to other states which do require mandatory pesticide testing — of which there are many — Washington’s lack of a similar program has been notable following the discovery of widespread illegal pesticide use in the state.
In October 2018, the medical cannabis advocacy group Patients United released a report detailing the results from cannabis samples tested by the WSDA on behalf of the WSLCB. It was observed that in the 16-month stretch between March 2017 and July 2018, 43% of samples tested by the WSDA tested positive for illegal pesticides, or illegal levels of other monitored pesticides. In some instances, the report claimed, certain pesticides were present at over 90 times the allowable limit in the state. In response to this discovery, a WSLCB spokesperson did re-emphasize that due to the complaint-based nature of their testing strategy, this could lead to a greater frequency in positive pesticide test results than the average population of cannabis samples, though the WSLCB did not challenge any of the specific findings of the report.
As concerns surrounding the Washington state pesticide testing system and the prevalence of possible pesticide contamination grows, at least one private cannabis retailer has begun to test the products on their shelves for prohibited substances such as harmful pesticide residues in the absence of any state-mandated law requiring cannabis producers to so themselves.
Potential obstacles to mandatory testing
During The Spokesman-Review’s Newsmakers podcast recording, Rick Garza disclosed that the WSLCB would be discussing the possibility of mandatory pesticide testing soon. Before now, he says, the WSLCB had been deterred from imposing mandatory pesticide controls due to research-stifling federal law that left behind an absence of data that would indicate precise action levels beyond which the substances are unsafe.
“When you take action against a licensee for pesticide use, remember that you’re going to have to go to court, or you’re going to have to go before a judge, and you’re going to have to prove that these action levels that you’ve placed into rule are acceptable,” Garza explains. “And how are you going to do that?”
As well as deciding on reasonable action levels for pesticide residues, the WSLCB must also take into account the feelings of the cannabis cultivation operators whose work will be affected by any new mandatory testing. While new mandatory tests would certainly improve consumer confidence in the cannabis products that are available, some cannabis growers are fearful that the extra costs associated with beginning mandatory testing could prove insurmountable for many of the smallest grow operations. These financial fears are compounded by the current collapse of wholesale cannabis prices in the state which is already putting the squeeze on small cannabis businesses.
As with all changes to WSLCB rules, if mandatory pesticide testing is to be brought forward as a proposed rule change, there will be a period for open public comment in which members of the public and those who are involved in the cannabis industry can contact the WSLCB with concerns or suggestions relating to the proposed rule change.