By: Kerry Bazany

Whatever your personal opinion on the usage of marijuana, the need for some type of regulation is imperative since it is a substance that is ingested in various forms. Since the advent of the legalization of marijuana usage for medicinal purposes, it requires competent oversight. Unlike the food we eat, marijuana isn’t classified as an agricultural product, which means that regulatory agencies contribute a mostly advisory role in this regard.

The Legalization of Marijuana: A Timeline

In 1996, California was the first state to legalize the usage of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Twenty years later, 29 states and Washington, D.C. also came on board for marijuana’s medicinal usage. In 2017, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. legalized the recreational use of marijuana. However, recreational use has either broad or specific definitions from state to state. Generally, and I emphasize the use of the word generally, recreational use can best be understood as the usage of marijuana that is one ounce or less in weight. Also, be careful how you implement your marijuana. For example, you cannot legally smoke or vape outside in the state of Colorado and many hotels do not allow the same in your room. In another example, in Washington State, you can smoke in your car and in a park, but you can’t legally grow your own weed unless you have a medical card. Welcome to weed’s official “nanny” state, where restrictive marijuana laws allow you to have just one ounce in private, though state-controlled dispensaries are popping up everywhere. State regulations regarding both the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana are diverse and complicated.

The Black Market versus the Legal Cannabis Market

In Oregon as well as other states in which marijuana has been legalized for medicinal or recreational purposes, it has been difficult to compete with the illegal sale of cannabis. A company in Oregon, Alpine Extracts, had to obtain various licenses and undergo extensive lab testing in order to market their marijuana oils. It was also required to install security cameras in order to be in compliance with state regulations. Illicit suppliers do not have to compete with all these regulations. A representative of Alpine Extracts stated that “There are all these people who are trying to comply with the rules, but we’re struggling to compete with the black market”. Furthermore, the black market retailers do not have the same overhead: the hiring of employees, wages, and even worker’s compensation.

Marijuana Crop Contamination

Given the dichotomy between licit and illicit sales of marijuana, there is room for the contamination of the marijuana plants due to an absence of regulation as would normally occur with agricultural products. In Hawaii, Steep Hill, a lab that is responsible for checking the safety of medical marijuana, stated that over 50 percent of the product on the black market contained contaminants that included mold, yeast, and pesticides. Michael Covington of Steep Hill stated “I was personally shocked to find out how much stuff was in black market cannabis that you would never expect E. coli, which comes from fecal matter. Salmonella, which comes from raw egg and chicken. We found that on product we tested.” In the lab’s initial set up stages, Covington says they had to test a lot of homegrown cannabis in order to show the state Department of Health that their equipment was working properly.

“The dispensaries weren’t open so we had to go to the black market to try to find cannabis that was clean. In doing that, a lot of times we ran across contamination in people’s samples,” Covington said.

In a similar study, albeit with medicinal marijuana crops, Steep Hill researchers additionally found chemical residue belonging to myclobutanil, a key ingredient in pesticide Eagle 20, in more than 65 percent of samples tested during a 30-day period. Eagle 20 is commonly used by growers due to its effectiveness against powdery mildew and other pests. But when it’s burned, myclobutanil turns into hydrogen cyanide or prussic acid, a colorless and extremely poisonous compound that can be lethal in high doses. Hydrogen cyanide affects organs most sensitive to low oxygen levels, including the brain, cardiovascular system and lungs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has “a distinctive bitter almond odor,” but most people can’t detect it.

Eagle 20 is approved for use on certain crops and plants, including turf grass, ornamental flowers and fruit trees. Everything from Christmas trees to cherries might be treated by the pesticide. But unlike cannabis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture carefully tests each plant before issuing guidelines on when it is safe to use Eagle 20 and in what dosage. There is no such regulatory practice currently in place for marijuana.

A Final Word

 Regardless of your personal stance on marijuana, either for medicinal or recreational use, the reality is that its usage is firmly entrenched in our society and to ignore this fact comes at its own peril in terms of ignoring the widespread acceptance of marijuana usage. Because of this, a dialogue needs to occur in the USDA regarding the effective regulation of marijuana crops in order to protect the consumers of such product as it would with any other agricultural food sources.