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Is the lack of Alaska pesticide rules for cannabis a gap in consumer protection?

Alaska’s commercial marijuana is tested for microbials but not pesticides. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

Keep up with news in states where recreational marijuana is legalized, and occasionally you'll see reports of cannabis that has been taken off the shelves because it was treated with pesticides considered unsafe or illegal. 

But you won't see those reports in Alaska, where no pesticide testing is required and there are no rules about which pesticides to use, or how to use them safely.

Alaska requires marijuana to be tested for potency and microbials — things like mold and fungus. Concentrates are also tested for residual solvents. But fearing that it would be too expensive for fledgling marijuana businesses, Alaska's regulators chose not to test for pesticides when crafting the rules back in 2015.

As the market grows and other states tackle the same issue, is a lack of pesticide rules a gap in consumer protections?

Can't say it's safe

Evan Neal, COO of Anchorage cannabis shop Cannabaska, said he relocated to Alaska from Colorado to start both a retail shop and a cultivation facility.

In Colorado, Neal saw how marijuana treated with unapproved pesticides led to recalls that rocked the industry and affected consumers. He's worried.

"Here in Alaska, we need some help," Neal said.

The Department of Environmental Conservation oversees pesticide use in Alaska. It's providing basic guidance to growers on which pesticides it considers legal to use, according to their labels, said Karin Hendrickson, environmental program manager at DEC.

But DEC's advice isn't a lot to go on.

"We can't say, 'This is safe to use and this product isn't,' " Hendrickson said.

That's because not much research has been done on how pesticides affect human health when smoked. The best comparison would be with tobacco, and the effects of pesticides aren't researched because tobacco use is already so unhealthful, Hendrickson said.

One study in the 2013 Journal of Toxicology said the amount of pesticide residue found when cannabis was burned in a pipe and water pipe was "alarmingly high," suggesting substantial exposure for marijuana users that was "a serious concern."

And it's not just marijuana flower. Concentrates in some cases can show even higher amounts of pesticides.

But pesticides are regulated under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the federal agency doesn't consider any pesticide use on cannabis to be legal.

With no federal guidance, Oregon, Washington and Colorado have developed their own lists of allowable pesticides for recreational-use marijuana – in Washington, there are more than 300 such pesticides.

Alaska's DEC has also created what it calls a partial list of pesticides that can be used on marijuana crops.

Alaska's Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office does not plan to keep a similar product list updated, as it could prove to be an enormous amount of work, said Erika McConnell, director of the office.

"We're just not there yet," McConnell said.

CannTest scientific director Jonathan Rupp does a visual inspection for mold and mildew on cannabis on Oct. 24, 2016. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News file)

Mark Malagodi, CEO of CannTest, a cannabis testing facility in Anchorage, says he hasn't had many requests for pesticide testing.

"I really don't think that there's a big problem with pesticide use for the people who are growing right now," Malagodi said.

And even if a grower wanted to have their product tested, no commercial labs in Alaska do pesticide testing, according to DEC. They'd have to send samples out of state.

Some growers in the state say they aren't using pesticides; others say they are.

Dollynda Flecks-Phelps, co-owner of the Peace Frog Botanicals cultivation facility in Kenai, said they use a mite spray during the early stages of growth only, before marijuana buds form on the plants.

"I think everybody's using some," Flecks-Phelps said.

Some growers abuse pesticides, she said, using ones that are much stronger than what she chooses. She'd like to see rules and testing put in place.

Marijuana "does not have to be pesticide-free but has to be safe to consume," Flecks-Phelps said.

Other complications occur with testing, Malagodi said. With thousands of pesticides, fungicides and insecticides out there, which ones should be tested for?

Then, the cost of testing may cause additional strain for businesses that already face large startup costs.

In other states, pesticide testing costs vary, but an online search shows they tend to hover around $200. Two labs out of Portland, Oregon, Pixis Lab and Green Leaf Lab, charge $190 and $185, respectively. Confidence Analytics out of Washington charges $250 for pesticide testing.

Neal says those costs should be absorbed by the cultivators. Consumers choose to buy marijuana from the regulated market because it's safe, he said.

"I don't mind one bit paying for the extra testing," Flecks-Phillips said.

Alaska's growers are required to disclose the pesticides they use to retailers. But that information doesn't end up on consumer packaging.

At the same time, marijuana growers aren't allowed to call their products organic, which would signal that cannabis was grown without noxious chemicals.

If consumers want to know, they have to ask. And since it's all self-reported, they have no way to verify what they're told.

"Until you implement testing to prove cleanliness, how are you sure?" Neal said.

Market forces

Faced with consumer concerns and product recalls, other states where marijuana is legal have developed rules around pesticide usage and testing over the years.

In Colorado, regulators struggled with massive pushback from the cannabis industry about regulating pesticides in 2015, The Denver Post reported at the time.

In the state of Washington, businesses don't have to test for pesticides but regulators are doing their own testing for unapproved pesticides. The state is also working on a way to certify marijuana as organic – which, Reuters reported earlier this month, was a consumer-driven move to offer assurances that marijuana was free of fungicides and pesticides.

Oregon has the strictest laws so far, requiring businesses to test a percentage of their crop for pesticides. The state proposed relaxing its testing requirements earlier this year but backed off after overwhelming disapproval of the changes, the Oregon Cannabis Connection reported.

And as California develops its recreational framework, pesticide testing is among the proposed rules.

Neal believes that as Alaska's industry grows, rules around pesticides will become more important. Right now, so few growers are on the market that he knows exactly what he's getting when he buys from a cultivator.

"There's a way to do this; the industry information is already developed in emerged markets, just not here in Alaska," Neal said.

Meanwhile, Malagodi of CannTest says that he has no immediate plans to invest in pesticide-testing equipment.

"Not until the market is really there," Malagodi said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alaska has not created any list of approved pesticides; the Department of Environmental Conservation maintains a partial list of such pesticides.

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