After The Oregonian uncovered widespread inconsistencies in statewide testing of medical marijuana that led to the discovery of potent pesticide use, the state issued its first “health alert” tied to marijuana. As part of the investigation, reporters tested various samples of marijuana purchased at several Oregon dispensaries. Results were shocking. Samples that had passed state-mandated pesticide tests contained sky-high levels of pesticides such as spinosad. The samples were tested by OG Analytical and Pacific Agricultural Laboratory.

Eight of ten samples of marijuana concentrates, extracts made from marijuana leaves and flowers, tested contained 14 chemicals, of which 6 the federal government has linked to cancer. Of the spinosad found by a Portland lab, results showed levels of 22 to 42 parts per million (ppm) for a substance that is acceptable at just 0.2 ppm. The marijuana for the spinosad-tainted samples came from a medical dispensary in McMinnville.

The special report cited “lax state rules, inconsistent lab practices, and inaccurate test results” as reasons the pesticide-tainted cannabis was able to pass required tests and hit the shelves. One lab claimed that it had not tested a tainted product that was sold as clean, despite the product being marked with a batch number corresponding to that lab. Another lab noticed its logo on labels for products it claimed it never tested. In addition, some labs simply failed to test for specific chemicals because it would be bad for business.

This became a troubling concern for the over 70,000 consumers of medical cannabis in the state just one year before Oregon legalized the use of recreational marijuana.

Changes in the law

The investigation pressured the state to enact stricter regulations for marijuana pesticide use and testing. As of 2016, the Oregon Health Authority requires labs testing marijuana to be state authorized. These labs must now alert OHA when products fail to meet pesticide standards.

In addition, the state has established permissible residual amounts of pesticides, something that has for long baffled growers. Cannabis growers often turn to internet forums and chance to grow pot safely in the absence of effective guidance. Pesticides contain guidelines for how much can be used on different plants, but since marijuana has been illegal it was never among those listed.

Have these laws been effective?

It’s been almost a year since these laws were put into place and yet a followup report shows that contaminated pot is still getting into the hands of consumers. The state’s $320 million marijuana industry has expressed frustration with the laws, citing expensive, inefficient requirements and inconsistencies in test results.

Reporters tested more marijuana samples from Portland retailers to have them tested following the implementation of these laws as a followup to their original story. Mixed results reflect the frustration shared by regulators, state testing labs, and producers alike. When marijuana is tested by a state-authorized lab, it is checked for 59 pesticides to ensure specific standards are met before it can be sold to the state’s nearly 500 marijuana shops. These products may fail an initial test to be found free of contamination upon retesting, and vice-versa.

Another ten samples of cannabis extracts were tested, of which three failed to meet the pesticide standards. Yet, when retested, only one failed. While the scope of these tests was limited, it shows how the industry and state struggle to monitor pesticide use to ensure a safe product reaches consumers.

Regardless of the state’s current standards, labs are still discovering the presence of pesticides that have not been approved for use on marijuana products. Labs and marijuana suppliers are investing thousands of dollars to ensure products are safe for consumption. OG Analytical’s lab director believes the fundamental issue lies in lack of producer accountability.

If you are a consumer of recreational or medical cannabis in Oregon, the “buyer beware” model still stands. While the new rules should lead to a greater quantity of clean products on the shelves, unless you can test what you buy yourself you will never really know what pesticides have been used — if any — during the product’s lifecycle.

One way consumers are pressuring the industry for cleaner cannabis is by demanding to know how their marijuana was grown, if it is organic, and related quality-control questions. Of Portland’s cannabis dispensary budtenders, 28% have reported that consumers regularly ask about the availability of responsibly-grown marijuana.

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