I recently had the privilege of participating in a debate at the Spring 2016 Marijuana Business Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida. My worthy opponent Wanda James, the CEO of Simply Pure Colorado, and I both had to be prepared to tackle either side of the argument over the pros and cons of pesticides use with cannabis.

As we walked into the room, I wondered what the rules of the debate would be…and whether I had prepared enough…or would be willing to go far enough in my argument to win if I pulled the “pro-pesticides” straw.  Wanda drew the ‘pro’ straw, which was easily the tougher position to take, with the recent attention that’s been given to recalling pesticide-laced cannabis in Colorado, the growing number of cannabis testing labs, and the overall public concerns about pesticides.

While I am more firmly in the ‘con’ pesticides camp when it comes to cannabis cultivation, some pesticides do offer limited advantages. Humankind has always used some form of pesticides to protect crops. The first recorded use of insecticides was about 4500 years by Sumerians who used Sulphur compounds to control insects and mites.  The Oaksterdam method still calls for Sulphur.  In ancient Greece and Rome, farmers used products such as straw, chaff, hedge clippings, crabs, fish, dung, and other plant or animal derived pesticides to control plant diseases, weeds, insects and animal pests.  Many pesticides in circulation are derived from plant-based, relatively harmless applications; it is the synthetic equivalents that last longer and can have greater deleterious effects.

Since the introduction of new pesticides after World Wars I and II, pesticides have greatly improved crop productivity and reduced the spread of disease. DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, was the first important synthetic organic pesticide to be hailed a miracle because it was toxic to a wide range of insect pests, it didn’t require frequent reapplication (because it didn’t break down rapidly), it was not water soluble (it didn’t wash off by rain), and it was inexpensive and easy to apply. Unfortunately, DDT is linked to breast and other cancers, male infertility, miscarriages and low birth rate, developmental delay, nervous system and liver damage, and negative ecological impacts to many species both flora and fauna…and yet also destroyed the very mosquitoes linked to hundreds of thousands of malaria deaths where it has been banned.  Fortunately, DDT was banned in the United States in 1972 after growing public concern forced the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the pesticide. After three decades of DDT, it was found to be insect resistant and other more effective pesticides were available.

Over the years those other more effective pesticides have changed and expanded to include insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides, molluscicides, nematicides, plant growth regulators and others. And, ideally a pesticide should be lethal to the targeted pests and not to non-targeted species, including people.

At Oaksterdam, we try to avoid the use of pesticides because of the occupational hazard it creates for employees and students.  Existing studies show that side effects from working with many different pesticides include nausea, dizziness, vomiting, headaches, abdominal pain, skin and eye problems, chronic health problems such as respiratory problems, memory disorders, dermatologic conditions, cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, and miscarriages and birth defects.

While the government allows pesticide use on some food items, cannabis can’t be lumped into that same group; there is simply no agricultural produce that compares. We wash off our apples and kale (I hope!).  We do not, however, wash off our bud! Cannabis is usually cured and exposed to high levels of heat, and then inhaled or eaten. Once inhaled, pesticide residues in cannabis have a direct pathway into the bloodstream via the capillaries in the lungs. Studies on tobacco could guide us—and there are studies showing significant levels of pesticide residues within a cigarette filter—but cannabis isn’t typically filtered when smoked either. Not only that, burning cannabis can cause the decomposition of a pesticide to produce an even more toxic mixture.

So, when it comes to pesticides and cannabis, a huge health concern weighs on all of us.  We need to get this right. Patients certainly don’t want to, nor should they, consume harmful compounds from the medical cannabis they depend on for healing and wellness. Businesses have a responsibility for consumer safety.  Cultivators—we hope—would not want to put patients at risk, but they must also weigh the risk of pests, pathogens and crop damage with proper mitigation techniques.

Until we can affirmatively identify pesticides to which we want to gain access—including answers to maximum tolerances for pesticides, what  foreign object residue is acceptable in harvested cannabis, and the number of bug bits allowable–consider the impact your cannabis will have on others. Begin by using non-chemical methods to mitigate the risk to the consumer and your business by avoiding costly recalls and lawsuits because you used something you “thought was okay at the time.”

Dale headshot thumbnail 2Dale Sky Jones
Oaksterdam University
Executive Chancellor