Does Washington have a pesticide problem?

A retailer’s testing program sheds new light on the only legal state that does not require testing

Every new legal state that comes on line seems to follow the same the basic patterns: background checks, seed-to-sale tracking, exorbitant tax rate, pesticide testing.

Except in Washington, one of the pioneering adult-use states, where pesticide testing is not mandatory for recreational cannabis, though there are recommendations and action levels from the state’s Department of Agriculture.

With concerns growing and the state’s own random testing program reporting a pesticide failure rate of about 30% (and private labs reporting pesticide failure rates of about 20%) one Seattle chain decided to take matters into its own hands and begin a random, off-the-shelf testing program of its own.

The Uncle Ike’s chain of recreational cannabis stores in October 2018 launched its Ike’s OK program, using a computer program to randomly select products from its shelves each month to be sent to a lab for pesticide, heavy metal and microbial testing.

So does Washington have a pesticide problem?

“Yes, I think it does,” says Uncle Ike’s owner Ian Eisenberg. “Somebody has to do something to get the state to care.”

The tests are fully funded by the chain itself and each month the results are posted on the company’s website. In the first month of the program, all five of the tested products — four flower samples and a concentrate — passed the testing, but in November, three of the 14 products failed the test, leading to those products being pulled from the shelves at Uncle Ike’s locations.

According to the company’s website, five of the 50 products tested since the program’s inception have failed, including flowers, concentrates and pre-rolls. In addition, the company bought four products from other shops and had those tested as well. Of those products, two failed. The results for one of those products, a concentrate wax, came back at 30 times the legal limit of piperonyl butoxide, often found in fogger-style pesticides.

“Yeah, there’s a problem,” says Jim McRae, founder and principal of Straight Line Analytics. McRae’s company has focused on the cannabis industry for about five years. He also helps administer the Ike’s OK program to ensure the program is impartial.

From what he has seen, Washington needs to do more to prevent those products from getting in the hands of customers at stores across the Evergreen State.

“I think there’s a fair bit of product on the shelves that test positive for pesticides and is sold to the consumer,” McRae says.

Ian Eisenberg, the owner of Uncle Ike’s, which started a random pesticide testing program in October 2018, in lieu of state-mandated testing. Photo by Greg James.

VOLUNTARY TESTING

Washington state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board and Department of Health have a testing program in place for cultivators looking to receive the state’s medical marijuana endorsement. However, the vast majority of the approximately 1,100 state-licensed growers do not take part as there is little benefit to customers or producers. There’s also the significant threat of losing one’s entire harvest; one failed test means that crop must be destroyed.

The Liquor and Cannabis Board also conducts up to 75 pesticide tests a month, based on complaints, which produce a fail rate of about 30%, though there have only been a handful of voluntary recalls since 2014.

Testing laboratory Confidence Analytics, which performs pesticide testing on cannabis voluntarily submitted, also has a total failure rate around 30%, according to reports on the company’s website. In the fourth quarter of 2018, the failure rate dropped to 20%.

The failure rate is higher in concentrates than any other product category, partially because the act of extraction concentrates pesticides as well as cannabinoids. In Washington, however, that proves additionally problematic right now, as the fight over a processor’s failure has revealed a “basic dysfunction in the LEAF (seed-to-sale tracking) system,” according to McRae.

According to McRae, it is almost impossible to track products from a processor to find which stores they went to, meaning if there was something found in a product, the state would have trouble getting those products off shelves.

“They cannot execute an efficient and effective recall even if they wanted to,” he says, “and it’s pretty damn clear they don’t want to.”

The Ike’s OK tests have also created some confusion among at least one of the concentrate companies that produced a failed test. After testing hot for myclobutanil and piperonyl butoxide, the company first blamed a grower, who denied using pesticides and produced clean test results from his farm. The processor has since produced its own round of test results showing what a press release calls a “notably different result” from the Ike’s OK program and says it still stands by its products as clean.

Because the state’s numbers show a failure rate between 20% and 30%, McRae says he was a little surprised the Ike’s OK testing failure rate is as low as it is.

On the other hand, Eisenberg says he and his buyers try to vet producers to ensure clean products so he was surprised by the number of failures.

“I never thought our shelves would have as much problems as most stores,” he says.

 

‘IMMINENT’ CHANGES

Though Washington has no required pesticide testing for its recreational program, that may be changing. Liquor and Cannabis Board officials say a rule change that would make it a requirement for all cannabis products is “imminent.”

“We created this stuff when nothing else existed on this,” spokesman Brian Smith says about Washington’s program. “Now we think it’s the right time.”

“Public health and safety is really an important part of our mission and our responsibility,” says Cannabis Examiner Manager Kendra Hodgson, adding that there is now a lot more available information on pesticides and cannabis than there was five years ago when the state was trying to get its program off the ground. “We know a lot more than we did before.”

Smith says he hoped more cultivators would take advantage of the Department of Health medical certification program, but also says a lack of laboratories that could conduct the tests created a situation that would have been too expensive and slow in the earliest days of adult-use. He estimates the state now has 14 labs that could conduct the tests, though admits that only two are actually doing them.

Hodgson says some of the conversation is whether to remove the distinction between recreational cannabis and medically compliant product.

She adds that programs like Ike’s OK are valuable because they can “shine a light” on these types of issues, particularly since no one is entirely sure of what the effects of pesticides can be when consumed, particularly when combusted and inhaled. However, it is known that the banned fungicide myclobutanil breaks down into cyanide when burned.

But while Washington struggles to catch up, all of the other legal states seem to have figured this out already, increasing questions about the Evergreen State’s lack of testing.

Nick Mosely, chief science officer for Confidence Analytics, one of the labs that performs pesticide testing, says the upfront fixed costs of purchasing the machinery and developing the testing programs can run up to $500,000. However, if the lab processes about 2,000 samples each month, that cost could be paid off with an additional $40 charge per sample for pesticide testing.

“It’s not really a huge burden,” he says, adding that the cost to a producer — and a customer — could be as little as a penny a gram to ensure the cannabis is clean. He says when the market first opened, his lab charged $250 for the tests, but today, mainly due to volume, the cost has dropped to $120 for a one-off test and drops to only $20 for companies that routinely include it as part of their testing regimens. He also notes that since the Ike’s OK program began, more customers are requesting the pesticide tests.

“From my seat it really does feel like the pesticide burden is Washington’s biggest liability right now,” Mosely adds.

 

DAMAGING THE BRAND

With an estimated 1.2 million Washingtonians taking part in the cannabis market, McRae says at even a 25% failure rate, the math indicates that in six weeks, 75% of customers — assuming they did not buy the same product every time — would be exposed to a product that tested hot and it is very likely that every consumer has purchased at least one product tainted by pesticides during their shopping experiences.

“This is an acute public health issue right now,” he says.

McRae has testified before the Liquor and Cannabis Board multiple times about the importance of a pesticide testing program and says that if it were up to him, he would hand it over to the department that has already provided a list of actionable levels for pesticides in cannabis.

“Give it to Agriculture,” McRae says. “They do that anyway. They have pesticide people.”

But aside from the public health matter, McRae says this issue strikes right at the heart of the state’s cannabis industry and could hinder it going forward.

“It’s damaging to the image and the brand of Washington cannabis,” he says, adding that in a future market where interstate commerce may be legal, the lack of testing and rumors of a dysfunctional system could make that state’s product less marketable.

Mosely agrees. Not only would consumers and businesses benefit from requiring the testing, but the state would too, particularly if and when interstate commerce becomes possible.

“If we’re not prepared to meet the quality standards of the destination markets then we will not be eligible,” he says.

 

WORTH IT

Eisenberg says he has been doing random testing on the products on his shelves for several years, but decided to institute the program and publish the results.

“I’m old and cynical and don’t trust anybody,” he says with a laugh.

And as one of the top-selling chains in the state, he says the hope is to nudge growers into being more honest about what they are using on their plants. Generally, it has worked to help clean up the shelves, though not always in the way expected.

“In four months we had growers that wouldn’t sell to us anymore,” he says.

He too thinks it will come down to the program’s cost. Eisenberg estimates the Ike’s OK program costs the company at least $20,000 per month in testing fees and overhead costs. And while some customers are excited by the testing and actively seek out certified products, he says it is too early to see if the program has proved to increase sales at his stores, though he reiterates that is not the point of the program.

“But I feel better about what I’m selling,” Eisenberg says. “And that’s something.”

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