The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) sent a memo to all cannabis licensees on April 6 notifying them that the agency’s enforcement staff had found an alarming pattern of pesticide testing failures from a single region in Okanogan County.
Tests found DDE, a remnant chemical of the pesticide DDT, which was the subject of one of the most important early works of environmental journalism, the book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson.
Prenatal exposure to the substance has been linked to increased incidences of wheezing and asthma in infants, and other studies have found heightened risks of breast cancer, obesity and early menstruation in the daughters and granddaughters of women exposed to DDT. It was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1972, 10 years after Carson’s book came out.
While that might raise some questions about how exactly DDT got into legal cannabis products in 2023, it makes a lot more sense when you realize that the string of properties affected, in a tiny town called Brewster, all sit on former orchards. DDT was most famous for fighting malaria by killing mosquitoes. It was also extremely effective against a whole array of small insects, including the types that plague apple growers.
In total, the WSLCB placed an administrative hold on 18 licensees, 16 of whom are producers — people who grow actual cannabis plants — and two of whom are processors, who package or refine harvested cannabis.
According to WSLCB spokesperson Brian Smith, the agency’s investigation into the issue should take about two weeks. The WSLCB’s website currently lists voluntary recalls for four licensees in the area: Walden, Bodie Mine, Okanogan Gold and Kibble Junction. All the licensees in the identified area of contamination have been placed under administrative hold, which means they can’t buy, sell or otherwise transact cannabis. Until the WSLCB has the results of the full investigation, there’s no way of knowing where the product sold by 18 licensees ended up in the supply chain. Sounds like anyone who smokes pot in this state should be freaking out, right?
Enter Kelsey Taylor, co-founder of Walden, one of the largest growers in the affected area. As a grower dedicated to clean cannabis and proper pest management — it does all the all-natural stuff, from beneficial insects (ladybugs) to co-planting (chrysanthemums) to crop rotation — learning that its cannabis contained something like DDE was a shock. The person they bought the farm from, she added, did not mention its past life as an orchard. When she learned of the hold, she immediately set out to find out just how bad this news was.
First, she tried to see if there was guidance on how much DDE was safe for human consumption. The WSLCB doesn’t actually require testing for DDE, DDD or DDT as part of the regular testing requirements, and no state-licensed labs are equipped to test for it. However, it runs a joint laboratory with the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) that is able to conduct such tests and uses that lab to perform random compliance checks on cannabis products. For pesticides that are not allowed on cannabis but aren’t part of the regular testing panel, the state does not set individual tolerance levels — the amount of a pesticide allowed to be in a product for it to be considered safe for consumption — but instead flags anything the WSDA finds that is over 0.1 parts per million (ppm).
Per state test results Taylor shared with Real Change, three samples from Walden came in at 0.14 ppm, 0.079 ppm and 0.14 ppm, respectively. She said the highest result for any of their products was 0.23 ppm. The EPA’s tolerance level for tobacco — which, because they are prohibited from regulating or researching cannabis, is the closest analog to inhaled cannabis products — is 0.4 ppm. That’s the standard Taylor hopes that the board will eventually adopt.
“To be clear, the tobacco industry is not who we want to follow,” Taylor said. “We want to follow EPA guidance for inhalable products. Tobacco is the only [inhalable] plant product [that the EPA regulates] that I am aware of.”
Taylor is desperate to save her business, but she has a point: We need more research on how pesticides interact with cannabis and its various end uses. Taylor, who is getting a graduate degree in psychoactive pharmaceuticals at University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted products that are ingested go through very different processes of absorption than products that are inhaled. The state’s toxicology report, which she also shared with Real Change, specifically deals with ingestion.
“Cannabis products are both inhaled and ingested. So it’s important that we understand the method of delivery that is happening, which is why it’s also important to test end products, right?”
She’s not wrong. As this journalist reported in The Stranger in 2015, myclobutanil — a common pesticide found on black-market, gray-market and eventually state-licensed cannabis — is relatively harmless when ingested but breaks down into hydrogen cyanide when heated over 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
We should wait, Taylor argued, to find out what happens to DDE, DDD and DDT when they’re combusted and inhaled before forcing her to destroy her entire inventory of cannabis flower. The board might, out of an overabundance of caution, be tanking her business — along with the livelihoods of its 50 employees — over what is essentially nothing.
“I have blasted this [information] out to everyone that I can and begged them to talk to me because my business is at risk of failing. And I absolutely care about public health, but I also want to make sure that we are making science-based decisions around it,” she said.
The WSLCB agrees with her, so far. At an emergency meeting held April 12 to, per the WSLCB’s initial email, “require a result of 50% of the actionable level of DDE for any plants grown in the soil from this geographical region” and “initiate long-term rulemaking requiring DDD and DDE testing,” the board surprised everyone, including its staff, by deciding to hold off, according to Taylor.
As the Cannabis Observer blog put it, it “postponed emergency rulemaking for refinement,” which tracks with the fact Taylor said commissioners and WSLCB staff she’d spoken to that day were receptive to her arguments. For now, however, her business is stuck at the intersection of our current federal prohibition on cannabis, which prevents the EPA from stepping in to regulate, and our country’s long, messy relationship with chemical pesticides. Until further action from the board, set for Friday, Apr. 14, the administrative hold on Walden will remain in place.
During a phone interview on the afternoon of Apr. 12, she said, “If this doesn’t get resolved by Friday, I think that my business will be gone.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Kelsey Taylor was a co-founder of Walden and is not currently a co-owner, as well as the fact that the graduate degree she is pursuing is in psychoactive pharmaceuticals, not pharmacokinetics.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Apr. 19-25, 2023 issue.