Searching for contaminants on marijuana is a lot like spying a certain red-and-white clad everyman in a children’s book, lab owner Gordon Fagras said.
“You’ve got to find Waldo, hidden in all that stuff,” he said, plying a test tube full of marijuana edibles at Trace Analytics in downtown Spokane earlier this month.
Turns out, there were lots of Waldos hidden in samples tested from across the state. Fagras’ lab, on the request of a doctor who actively fought the legalization of marijuana in Washington state and an organization calling for pesticide-free pot, tested dozens of flower and concentrate samples straight from store shelves.
State regulators and the marijuana industry are preparing for a significant change in state rules later this year when medical marijuana will fall under the same regulations as recreational marijuana for the first time. The change is prompting some to push the state to more strictly enforce rules on pesticides.
In results first published by Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper the Stranger, Trace Analytics found multiple products containing pesticide levels in the tens of thousands parts per billion range.
While several extracts tested positive for pesticides, others – including Spokane County businesses The Happy Crowd, Sweetwater Farms and Kush Comfort Farms – showed no detectable signs of contaminants in the tests.
The Washington Department of Health publishes a list of pesticides approved for use on marijuana. Using any other chemical is outlawed, but there’s no systematic test in place to discover violations.
Unlike produce and tobacco, there are few studies on the harmful effects of smoking marijuana containing large amounts of pesticides. And the way the state’s marijuana laws are written, enforcement is driven by complaints and randomized testing from the Liquor and Cannabis Board, which have produced relatively few violations for pesticide-related offenses compared to other issues.
“The state’s making a valiant effort to get it right, but if you’re looking at it inside the system, there’s holes everywhere,” Fagras said.
“There’s some product on the shelf that shouldn’t be there,” he said.
But Kevin Oliver, a Spokane County grower who also represents the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the results only confirm that there are some bad players in the market, and that the industry is continuing its march out of the shadows.
“It’s nice to know, in a regulated environment, what we’re smoking,” Oliver said. “We’ve never known before.”
Fagras said he’s seeking to plug the holes before the state requires it. Others suggest the system should be set up to allow the Liquor and Cannabis Board to do its job enforcing pesticide laws that should become stricter as state licensers begin examining medical products.
‘The honor system isn’t working’
The specificity of Fagras’ testing, which also determines a product’s potency and includes mapping the genetics of different marijuana strains, attracted the attention of medical marijuana patient advocates who are seeking so-called “clean cannabis,” or products devoid of all pesticides and chemicals used in extraction processes.
Tracy Sirrine, owner and operator of the group Patients for Patients, said the state needs to do more to inform consumers about the chemicals present in state-licensed marijuana, particularly for medical patients.
“You don’t want to add any harsh chemicals to their diet,” Sirrine said. “They’re already avoiding sugar. They’re already avoiding everything.”
While the state does not require testing for specific pesticide levels before a product can be sold, the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board does perform site visits and requires growers to record the chemicals they’re using on plants and to include that information on packaging. But Sirrine said the state is giving up too much responsibility.
“The honor system isn’t working,” Sirrine said.
Mikhail Carpenter, a Liquor and Cannabis Board spokesman, said pesticide enforcement for marijuana is comparable to all other crops.
“There’s not somebody checking every single time you grow, for a particular agricultural product,” he said.
The Liquor and Cannabis Board’s enforcement data show just eight of the roughly 640 rule violations recorded during the first two years of legal marijuana sales in Washington involved the use of illegal pesticides.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been any high-profile violations.
The Stranger also reported earlier this year that two major producers were ordered to stop all sales after illegal substances were discovered in their products – in one case, with the assistance of Fagras’ Trace Analytics.
State investigators use the Washington Department of Agriculture’s list of hundreds of chemicals that are safe to use on marijuana, based on standards for other types of crops, to guide enforcement.
Though Sirrine said she lobbied the state Legislature to require stricter tests and guidelines for pesticides ahead of the July 1 rollout of medical strains of marijuana sold in state-licensed dispensaries, no new laws on testing were passed during this year’s legislative session.
The Department of Health is holding public meetings, including one scheduled Tuesday at the Red Lion Hotel at the Park in Spokane, to take input on rules for pesticides and other contaminants in marijuana intended for medical use.
Who pays for the tests?
Fagras employs geneticists from the recently shuttered Signature Genomics Laboratories in Spokane and conducts testing considered among the most rigorous in the state. It isn’t cheap.
“This a $2.5 million facility. This isn’t garage science,” Fagras said.
The lobby of Fagras’ testing lab looks more like a business office. Trade magazines and snacks have been laid out on granite countertops, and a 1984 performance by jazz fusion band Weather Report plays on a big-screen TV. Behind safety windows and under the surveillance of security cameras, however, sit machines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that Fagras and his team are using to test bits of cannabis flower, oils and edibles.
Fagras estimated the cost of testing a gram of marijuana, often submitted to laboratories in 5-pound lots, would be about 35 cents. That price could be palatable to producers and processors if they viewed safety testing the same way as other farmers, he said.
“An agricultural person will go to his apple crop and spend $400 or $500 to test for pesticides in the blink of an eye,” Fagras said. “That’s the cost of doing business.”
But Crystal Oliver, who owns Spokane County producer and processor Washington’s Finest Cannabis with her husband, Kevin, said the financial ripples of paying more for testing could cripple the nascent market, especially if the rigorous testing of medical marijuana strains is extended to recreational pot.
“You could definitely see some problems,” Crystal Oliver said. “We’re going to try to tell our retailers that our product is going to cost a dollar more per gram. The customer base would probably say, ‘No,’ too.”
The Olivers point to a Department of Health report prepared in February that predicts the potential economic effect of pesticide and heavy metal testing on small marijuana businesses. Forecasters predict producers and processors can expect 4 percent of their total sales to be eaten up by the testing.
“No other agricultural product on the market goes through this kind of scrutiny,” Crystal Oliver said.
But patient advocate Sirrine said she believes the market could support more expensive marijuana that’s been subjected to rigorous testing. And the state could kick in to pay some of the costs of testing, easing the burden on businesses, she said.
“I think the state should subsidize some of the cost for this testing, absolutely,” Sirrine said.
Kevin Oliver agreed.
“It doesn’t mean that consumer safety needs to be purchased on the backs of producers and processors,” he said. He suggested businesses pay a one-time fee to the state that would go toward randomized testing throughout the year, rather than mandated testing on all marijuana packaged for sale.
Oliver and Sirrine’s proposals would require a change to administrative codes, which mandate businesses pay the costs of testing. There are several agencies already vying to receive some of the excise tax revenue from marijuana, which totaled more than $64 million statewide in 2015.
The Olivers aren’t worried about the testing, they say, because they don’t use banned substances on their crops. Kevin Oliver said the current level of testing is still better than before the state became involved in licensing pot.
“Even recreational marijuana has a list of pesticides that are approved,” he said. “That’s more oversight than medical ever had in the past.”
How strong of a test?
Fagras keeps a box of edible marijuana products that have been broken down for genetic-level testing in one of the back rooms of the Trace Analytics lab. He pulled out a test tube filled with mushy kernels of microwave popcorn laced with cannabis, then another “after” tube that shows the snack in powdery form, ready for the oil to be extracted, so that potency and pesticide testing can begin.
Eventually, the oil goes through a process involving helium that spins off ions of psychoactive materials, providing the level of potency as well as evidence of any contaminants, including pesticides.
The testing process, while lengthy and costly, will add value to the product, Fagras said, and he hopes ultimately put more money back into the producers’ and processors’ pockets because of the higher price that can be charged in stores for “clean” cannabis that has undergone rigorous testing.
Sam Calvert, who owns the retailer Green Star Cannabis in Spokane, only sells small-batch, indoor-grown marijuana on his shelves. He said he’d welcome tougher testing, because he’s seen products of subpar quality coming through his door.
“In my opinion, most of the testing scenarios we’re forced to utilize are flawed,” he said.
The market will determine the level of testing that’s desired, Calvert said, and he believes state-licensed marijuana can withstand an increase in cost. He said he understood why the state was moving deliberately on increasing testing rigors.
“In an emerging market, they want to be careful, because if they’re too aggressive, they can increase the cost too much and shut it down,” Calvert said. “If they aren’t aggressive enough, people could get sick.”
Carpenter, with the Liquor and Cannabis Board, said his organization also supports increased testing, now that pesticide screening is beginning to become a reality.
“The industry continues to evolve,” he said.
Washington has not seen the far-reaching recalls of marijuana that have taken place in Colorado, following the filing of a class-action lawsuit over pesticide-heavy marijuana that eventually was dismissed.
Fagras said the state system in Washington is not set up for recalls. He’s taking work with cannabis companies to recoup his million-dollar investment, and also sees a larger role for labs in the state. Based on the rules made by lawmakers and stakeholders, they’ll serve as guardians for the market. That also puts pressure on labs to act ethically, he said.
“If we’re going to be gatekeepers, we’ve got to be good gatekeepers,” he said.