Washington’s legal marijuana farms get back to work after pesticide concerns lead to restrictions

SEATTLE (AP) — A large mound of fresh dirt sits on Terry Taylor’s marijuana farm in the high desert of north-central Washington state. Each hole for a new plant is filled with clean soil.

Large swaths of recently installed landscape fabric cover the ground, and soon the dirt roads on his property will be covered with crushed stone to prevent contaminated dust from coating the crops.

Taylor’s pot farm is one of many to resume operations after state regulators halted operations in April, citing product testing that found unacceptable levels of chemicals linked to DDT, a synthetic pesticide banned half a century ago.

The growers involved did not use the pesticide themselves, but are located on an 8 kilometer stretch of former fruit orchards along the Okanogan River where it was applied en masse and remains in the ground.

The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board announced last week that it had lifted blocks on the companies, which are now taking steps with state financial support to keep residual pesticide at bay and rebuild their brands. The council said it would increase pesticide testing for the region’s cannabis.

“I haven’t sold any product since April,” said Taylor, who operates two licensed cannabis grower-processors, Okanogan Gold and Kibble Junction. “It just destroyed us. Nobody wants to buy it. »

Taylor, 58, said he’s been living off his savings since April. His income was about a tenth of what it was before. It normally has about six full-time employees and 20 seasonal workers, but now has only two.

Pesticides in cannabis are a concern for regulators and consumers in pot-legal states across the country, particularly because the plant is typically smoked or concentrated, a process that can intensify pesticide levels in the final product. .

Earlier this year, Vermont regulators removed pesticide-contaminated jars from five retail stores after a customer reported feeling sick, and Nevada officials issued an advisory on widely available products that may be contaminated. by an unapproved pesticide.

Due to marijuana’s illegal status under federal law, states have written their own rules about pesticides in cannabis. There is a wide variety of regulated products and the amount of traces that can remain in the products. It’s unclear how many states require cannabis to be tested for legacy pesticides such as DDT.

Washington State’s recent experience with DDE, a chemical residue left in the soil when DDT breaks down, suggests that such regulations go no further in protecting public health.

In March, a chemist with the Liquor and Cannabis Authority noticed several high test results for DDE and traced them back to a single growing area. The companies – Okanogan Gold, Bodie Mine, Kibble Junction and Walden Cannabis – immediately issued recalls when asked in April, but by then much of the product had already been sold.

There were 108 samples tested by the companies and 59 came back with unapproved levels of DDE, the council said.

DDT was widely used in the decades following World War II to control mosquitoes as well as insects that can damage fruit or other crops, but it also killed birds. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” documented its effects on nature, which sparked the environmental movement and contributed to the national ban on the use of DDT in agriculture in 1972.

Studies have shown that women with high amounts of DDE in their blood were more likely to give birth prematurely or have a baby wheezing, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The chemical is considered a possible carcinogen.

Christopher Simpson, deputy director of the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center at the University of Washington, said the risk of DDE in cannabis is likely low, although it may be of more concern for anyone who uses marijuana at home. medical purposes, as it may already be healthy. issues.

“To my knowledge, no one has done a very good risk assessment for this,” Simpson said. “We would have to be able to determine how much cannabis people would consume and how much of this DDT would be deposited in the body. There is simply no experimental data available.

Many problematic cannabis foliage or oil samples have tested at around 0.2 parts per million, which is above the state law limit of 0.1 ppm, but still only around half that. federal authorities tolerate for DDT contamination in tobacco. A sample of cannabis oil or resin came back at 1.7ppm, the council said.

Given the lack of scientific evidence on what constitutes a dangerous level of DDE in cannabis, Taylor and other concerned growers have argued that regulators have overreacted by having them halt operations, rather than simply issuing reminders.

Chandra Wax, director of the council’s enforcement and education division, said in a statement that regulators acted “responsibly, quickly and intentionally”.

“We recognize the significant impact this had on licensees as well as the risk this posed to the public,” Wax said.

It is not known how the DDE ended up in the products. Cannabis is known for its ability to remove contaminants from soil and has been studied for use in environmental cleaning. Taylor said he thinks the contamination most likely came from dust that got on plants as he and others drove or walked on the farm, or even from DDT in smoke from wildfires in the area. region.

In response to the tests, Washington lawmakers this spring released $200,000 to help growers repair their soil, as well as $5 million to study how marijuana plants absorb toxins, how much is transferred to herbal products of cannabis and the potential cost of growing plants in pots or extensively clearing the soil of the area.

“You want a safe product, obviously, and you don’t want people getting sick,” said Republican Rep. Joel Kretz, who represents the area. “I hope we can fix the problem without putting a group of farmers out of business.”

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