The wild wild west of pot and pesticides: a Q&A with Erica Berry

A pot plant at Medicine Man, a marijuana dispensary and retailer, in Denver. (Joe Mahoney/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News)

Erica Berry first approached us with a story about the environmental problems with the cultivation of commercial marijuana. We felt that topic had been covered pretty well, and asked Berry to look into pesticide use in the legal-weed business instead. It seemed that, with federal regulators checked out because pot remains illegal under U.S. law, no one was minding the store. Berry, along with Katie Kuntz of Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, our partner on the piece, untangled the story of how the regulatory void around marijuana allows growers to pretty much spray whatever they want on their crops, creating a public-health hazard for both consumers and the people who tend to the plants. And as FERN’s Kristina Johnson learned when she spoke with Berry, it’s a multifaceted story that still has many unanswered questions.   

How did you find this story?
As I dug into the research, I realized that no one was talking about the safety of the workers at these operations and their exposure to toxic pesticides. There are tens of thousands of people employed by this industry, but most of them don’t know they’re at serious risk from the chemicals they use every day. Operators think that if they’re meeting baseline health codes, everyone is safe, which just isn’t true. The effects of these pesticides are long-term and chronic. You might not see the impact for years.

Who are the workers in these grow operations?
The industry has been so under the table that, for a long time, we didn’t have a lot of information about the people involved. But the kind of workers we write about in our story are getting around $15 an hour. They’re starting to get vacation, and to unionize. It’s not the same migrant-worker population that you see in the California strawberry fields, for instance. Many of the owners are old hippies. But there are also more and more young entrepreneurs who want to join an industry that promises a huge market. One grower even told me he would like to recruit workers from ag programs at universities in Colorado.

Is pesticide use on pot farms a social justice issue?
Definitely, in the sense that it’s a struggle to ensure that workers have a voice, especially when many don’t know that their health is endangered to begin with. There has been resistance in some cases when workers have tried to unionize. There was a case in Maine, where owners blocked workers from unionizing after employees complained about the pesticide use. Legalization should help make pot safer for both consumers and workers, but the public-safety aspect of growing pot is often lost in the push to get pot on the market.

Was it a challenge to get growers to talk to you?
There was a lot of wariness at first, because growers feel they need to use these chemicals. They feel stuck, because even though pesticides are dangerous, it’s also not healthy for people to smoke marijuana with fungal spores on it. Grow operators told me that they were trying to run a safe operation, but they don’t have nearly as much information or support as other farmers. As long as pot remains a Schedule 1 drug, and illegal at the federal level, many banks are refusing to give business loans or deposit funds from marijuana sales. Growers often can’t go to university ag extension agencies, because those departments are forbidden from talking to cannabis growers on university time. They would risk getting arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration. And more than anything, there just hasn’t been a lot of testing on which pesticides are safe to inhale long-term.

Shouldn’t the EPA be able to tell them which pesticides are safe?
Technically, no pesticides are legal on a federal level for use on pot, because the EPA hasn’t tested or approved any specifically for cannabis. Instead, the EPA is allowing states to decide which chemicals pot growers can use based on a list of general-purpose sprays. But each state has it’s own list, which adds to the confusion. For example, Washington’s is more stringent than Colorado’s. And many sprays that could be helpful or that growers are using anyway, aren’t included on that list. So it’s a bit of a Wild West situation. No one’s really in charge when it comes to regulation.

Why are these pesticides dangerous?
Studies show that 69.5% of pesticides on a marijuana leaf can be inhaled through a glass pipe. The Pesticide Action Network has a list of “Bad Actors,” which we used to design our infographic of the six chemicals that are continually found on marijuana, whether they are legal in Washington or Colorado or not. Some of the pesticides on that list are cholinesterase inhibitors, which are linked to impaired neurological development in fetuses and in infants, Parkinson’s Disease, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. You also have pesticides that are developmental and reproductive toxins or are endocrine disruptors, which can cause sterility and impaired fertility, as well as metabolic disorders. Others are known carcinogens.

Is there something growers could do to prevent fungi and pests without spraying?
Absolutely. When you have a monoculture indoors, you’re going to attract a lot of pests. But apart from moving operations outside and diversifying the crop, there’s a wide arsenal of natural oils and extracts that work well as pesticides, like thyme and neem oil, and essential oils from cinnamon, clove, and eucalyptus. Some growers even use certain bugs to prey on mites. A few organic advocates told me that this could actually be a really good opportunity to establish chemical-free practices in the industry, since so few pesticides are approved by states.

What’s the future look like for organic marijuana?
There are a few groups working to develop third-party, pesticide-free certification programs, like the Organic Cannabis Association in Denver or Clean Green Certified in California. Basically, you could pay around $2,000 for these groups to come to your farm and do on-site inspections, offering pest-management advice in return for a certification label. People in the industry know that there is a call for artisanal, Whole Foods-style, organic pot. And moving to an outdoor, chemical-free operation may even save growers money, since they aren’t spending so much on electricity. Organic could be especially attractive in the medical marijuana industry, where the buyers have every reason to be concerned about the health effects of what they’re smoking.