Washington shuts down pot business due to dangerous pesticide contamination

SEATTLE (AP) — Cannabis regulators have halted operations at several outdoor pot farms and processing facilities in a stretch of former orchards in north-central Washington state after testing found high levels of chemicals linked to a dangerous pesticide used decades ago.

The sweeping crackdown announced Thursday night by the state Alcohol and Cannabis Board renewed concerns about pesticides in marijuana and put dozens of people out of work, at least temporarily, just as they were preparing for spring planting.

“We are very concerned about jobs and businesses, but we felt we needed to send a message to our licensees and take action for public safety,” board spokesman Brian Smith said.

Over the past few months, officials have collected samples from growing operations and processors along a nearly 5-mile (8-kilometer) stretch of the Okanogan River north of Brewster, an area of ​​former orchards where fruit growers used the cancer-causing pesticide DDT before the U.S. banned it. in 1972

Marijuana growers in the area are now dealing with the legacy of orchard soil contamination. Test results at seven licensees showed high levels of DDE, a chemical that remains when DDT breaks down. Regulators decided to issue “administrative holds” on 16 production licenses and two processing licenses in the area, forcing them to cease operations until further notice.

It is not clear how many businesses are affected, as each may hold multiple licenses.

One of the closed businesses, major grower Walden Cannabis, advertised its cannabis as “sustainably sun-grown” and “pesticide-free,” but its plants absorbed contaminants from the soil, which then ended up in its products.

“Orchards have been using DDT for a generation, and it’s caused widespread contamination in the Pacific Northwest and across the country, really,” said Walden CEO Anders Taylor. “I’m still trying to figure out what that means. Financially it’s just ruining me. Not only will I be out of a job—I’ll lose my house, my farm, and I’ll have to lay off my employees.

Taylor said there are seven licensed grow operations on his property, as well as processing operations, with a total of about 50 workers.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies show that women with high amounts of DDE in their blood are more likely to give birth prematurely or have a wheezing baby.

However, studies have focused on ingestion of the chemical, such as by eating fruit contaminated with pesticide residues; less is known about the effects of inhaling DDE.

Much of the marijuana grown in the area was wholesaled to other processors. The Liquor Control Board said it was working with manufacturers and processors to identify which products contained contaminated cannabis so they could be tested off the shelf. Officials also asked the affected companies to issue recalls.

Cannabis is known for its strong ability to remove pollutants from soil and has been researched for use in environmental cleanup. Contaminant levels can be particularly high in marijuana extracts and concentrates.

Because of marijuana’s illegal status under federal law, states have largely come up with their own pesticide testing rules for their cannabis markets, said Jillian Schauer, executive director of the Cannabis Regulators Association, which includes cannabis officials from 35 US states. and territories.

There is wide variation among states as to which pesticides are regulated and what their tolerance levels are; it was not known how many require testing for legacy pesticides or their components, such as DDE.

Regulators in Vermont earlier this year recalled pesticide-contaminated pot from five retail stores after a customer reported feeling ill, and Nevada officials issued an advisory about widely available produce possibly contaminated with an unapproved pesticide.

Over the years, Washington has shut down operations or destroyed the product in dozens of cases where cannabis tested above accepted levels for pesticides, but those include recent spraying with unapproved pesticides. It is believed to be the first time the Alcohol and Cannabis Board has issued an administrative hold related to legacy pesticide use, and it is the first time it has issued a hold covering an entire geographic area rather than an isolated business, the board said in an email.

Washington was one of the first two states, along with Colorado, to legalize the use and sale of cannabis by adults in 2012.

Washington’s Alcohol and Cannabis Board has long conducted random tests for pesticides on products, including DDE, but they didn’t require growers to send samples to state-certified labs for mandatory pesticide testing until last year. Washington was the only state with legal medical and recreational marijuana that had not yet done so.

Under Washington’s testing requirements, samples submitted by businesses are tested for 59 pesticides. So far, DDE is not one of them, but the board said it will quickly begin creating rules to require testing for DDE and a related compound, DDD, in cannabis products.

Washington has also never required soil testing for outdoor marijuana farms. Jeremy Moberg, a licensed marijuana grower who owns CannaSol Farms in Okanogan County, just north of the area targeted by regulators Thursday, said he nevertheless tested the soil on the former alfalfa farm he bought for his operation to make sure it’s clean.

“I did my due diligence because I knew there were a lot of toxic soils in this county because of the historical application of pesticides,” Moberg said. “People who did their due diligence didn’t buy land on old orchards.”

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