Pest Test

Pest Test

More cannabis means more users, more dispensaries, more growers and—last, but not least—more rules and regulations.

With the legalization of adult-use cannabis in New Mexico, state officials have adopted new guidelines and rules for testing, staggering their effective dates. It’s left hurdles for producers as they navigate through the industry and laboratories prepare for the influx of testing.

Some quality standards have yet to take effect. For example, had New Mexico’s Cannabis Control Division not delayed its requirements for pesticide testing, products from several area producers wouldn’t pass muster.

SFR conducted a spot check of cannabis strains for sale in area dispensaries to look for levels of pesticides. In randomized secret shopping, we bought 17 different strains from April 11-19 at nine dispensaries, Scepter Lab found six samples of cannabis that would fail the state’s pesticide requirements that take effect later this summer.

We shopped in places any adult customer could visit in the area and spent $226 on one-gram purchases of dried flower. SFR then prepared numbered samples for the lab, which donated analysis services valued at $2,805 and conducted the tests without being able to identify the samples’ origin.

Microbiologist Kathleen O’Dea, owner of Santa Fe-based Scepter, says she wants to work with growers to ensure cannabis is safe and that producers aren’t out of pocket for pesticide failures when the testing requirements kick in. State rules set limits for 15 pesticides that could be found on bud or in concentrates ready for sale. Products with pesticide residues that meet or are above the CCD’s threshold for inhalable substances must be tossed out.

Sophia Candelaria performs pesticide testing for cannabis samples at Scepter Lab in Santa Fe.
Sophia Candelaria performs pesticide testing for cannabis samples at Scepter Lab in Santa Fe. (Grant Crawford/)

The main culprit detected in the samples run through Scepter’s spectrometer was pyrethrin—a mixture of six chemicals that are toxic to insects, but considered organic when not combined with other synthetic materials. Among the dispensaries in SFR’s spot check, Keyway Marketplace, SWOP and Seven Point Farms all had at least one sample with levels of pyrethrin higher than what rules will allow.

“I’m wanting to help my customers produce a safe product for the benefit of the consumers,” O’Dea says. “I would say it’s good you’ve chosen [a pesticide] that’s minimally toxic, but you need to titrate your usage.”

In addition, one strain from CG Corrigan showed high levels of an insecticide called spinosyn, which is low in toxicity, but known to harm pollinators. For this reason, many growers tend to stay away from it, but it’s still considered a useful tool for modern pest control plans.

CG Corrigan - Girl Scout Yeti: failed total spinosyn; CG Corrigan - Banana Cake: passed; Fruit of the Earth Organics - Golden Lemons: passed; Fruit of the Earth Organics - Strawberry Fields: passed; High Desert Relief - Sour Diesel x Kush Mints Bud: passed; High Desert Relief - Skywalker OG Kush Bud: passed; Keyway Marketplace (formerly Shift New Mexico) - Forum GSC: failed total pyrethrins; Keyway Marketplace (formerly Shift New Mexico) - Cereal Milk: passed; R. Greenleaf - Garlic Breath 2.0: passed; R. Greenleaf - Cinderella 99: passed; Red Barn Growers - RGB Chile Verde: Passed; Red Barn Growers - RGB Durban Thai: Passed; Seven Point Farms - SPF NASA Bruce: failed total pyrethrins; Seven Point Farms - SPF Dogwalker x Black Dog: failed total pyrethrins; SWOP (Top Shelf) - Candy Cream: failed total pyrethrins; SWOP (Top Shelf) - Forbidden Fruit: failed total pyrethrins; Ultra Health - Electric Daydream: passed
SFR conducted a spot check of cannabis strains found in area dispensaries to look for levels of pesticides. In a randomized study testing 17 different strains purchased from April 11-19 at nine dispensaries, Scepter Lab found six samples of cannabis that would fail the state’s pesticide requirements that take effect later this summer.

Because none of the criteria for pesticide testing has been implemented, though, none of the producers violated any state rules. In fact, the rules weren’t even established when growers were cultivating these strains.

“So the stuff that you’re seeing, we had basically no time to respond on that side of it, where we’ve been making adjustments in our programs since then,” says Bob Johnson, general manager of Keyway, adding that while he thinks the state’s limits are more restrictive than others, Keyway plans to do testing of its own and comply with all of the new requirements.

“What we use are all naturally-occurring [and] organic. [Pyrethrin] is nature’s way of fighting off pests,” he said.

A January rules document said the CCD’s new testing requirements to uncover microbials, pesticides and other contaminants found in cannabis products were set to become effective March 1—a month before adult-use sales began. While a spokesperson said no one from the division would give an interview on the topic, the division provided an email explanation noting the “presence of these contaminants can result in injury to the public and particularly medical patients who may have weakened immune systems.”

SFR placed cannabis flower in vials with number identifiers and delivered them to Scepter Labs for testing.
SFR placed cannabis flower in vials with number identifiers and delivered them to Scepter Labs for testing. (Anson Stevens-Bollen/)

The pesticide requirements were in effect for eight days this spring when the division—citing “a large burden” that would be placed on the state’s two labs capable of testing for pesticides—decided to delay them until July 1.

The holdup has created some financial woes for Scepter, as the testing instrument—which must stay on at all times to continue functioning—has cost roughly half a million dollars that could have been paid for by using it.

Still, “that isn’t the point,” O’Dea says. “The point is if the state saw fit to roll the rules back, on what basis? A week before, they thought it was necessary for customer health and safety to do these tests. What changed? Why a week later did the balance tip in favor of not doing the tests?”

O’Dea has filed an appeal with the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe related to the pesticide testing delay, in addition to her request that the court order the division to immediately require homogeneity testing after it postponed that rule’s effective date to April 2024.

“No guarantees in litigation, but it doesn’t appear to me the department had good justification for either of those decisions,” says Jason Marks, O’Dea’s attorney.

Pesticide standards were not in place prior to recreational weed, even though medical cannabis has been legal in New Mexico since 2007. According to the CCD, adult-use states that have enacted such rules have had varying success with the initial rollout. The division also says the two testing labs available at the time the rules were first published “had not submitted their initial demonstration of capacity for the microbial and pesticide testing.”

Marks, though, says Scepter Lab had been in touch with the CCD for months about its ability to take on a new role before the division made its determination.

“They claim that the industry couldn’t handle it and that Scepter didn’t even have the capacity to do normal testing for half the industry, which is completely false,” he says.

Cannabis samples ready for analysis at the lab.
Cannabis samples ready for analysis at the lab. (Grant Crawford/)

Rio Grande Analytics in Albuquerque is the state’s other licensed cannabis lab. In April, medical industry giant TriCore Reference laboratories told SFR it planned to open a cannabis analysis spinoff, but the CCD had not received an application as of Tuesday.

For farmers to use a pesticide, it must be registered by the state Department of Agriculture. Twenty-seven fungicides, four herbicides, three plant-growth regulators and 39 insecticides are legal to apply to cannabis and hemp plants. That doesn’t mean processors and cannabis companies have to accept their use, though.

The agriculture department suggests growers check with their extractor or processor to see if they have any policies against using pesticides. Manufacturers could reject the crop if pesticide residues contaminate their solvent or equipment. Companies’ desire for quality buds helps the industry self-regulate, the department’s agriculture and environmental services director Brad Lewis says.

“I think, as a whole, the industry is pretty good, just because their buyers are very critical of what they use,” Lewis tells SFR. “The buyers and users are so interested in what’s going in their product.”

An instrument used to test cannabis for pesticide residue at Scepter Lab in Santa Fe awaits samples to process.
An instrument used to test cannabis for pesticide residue at Scepter Lab in Santa Fe awaits samples to process. (Grant Crawford/)

There appears to be a discrepancy, though, between testing the CCD will require and the list of pesticides registered with the agriculture department. Of the 15 pesticides with limits under the cannabis rules, administered by the state Regulation and Licensing Department, only one is approved for cannabis production by the agriculture department. The CCD says its list is made up of pesticides that have been found in cannabis and expects evolution over time. “These are compounds that the CCD feels should be looked at when the science and capacity exist to effectively do so,” reads a statement it provided.

Finding regulations compatible with health and safety precautions, while also allowing businesses the opportunity to flourish, takes time—part and parcel for developing industries that rake in millions of dollars (April sales alone in New Mexico came in at nearly $40 million).

Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, says the CCD has done well to develop guidelines on a quick turnaround, but “recognizes the fact that there needs to be a revisiting of basically all the rules and regs, but especially related to testing.” What have become best practices in states with more mature adult-use industries should become best practices in New Mexico, he tells SFR.

“In talking with other growers, I know there are lots of things that are used at scale to grow cannabis that either aren’t specifically permitted or are prohibited that are in wide use in other agricultural mediums, but also in wide use in cannabis in other states that have had legal adult use for longer than New Mexico has,” Lewinger says.

Fruit of the Earth Organics is one of several area producers whose products purchased in our secret shopping would pass the state’s pesticide testing requirements that go into effect in July.
Fruit of the Earth Organics is one of several area producers whose products purchased in our secret shopping would pass the state’s pesticide testing requirements that go into effect in July. (Kelli Johansen/)

Not all pesticides are made the same—a sentiment producers have harped on as they cross unchartered territory. Pyrethrin, in particular, is a “wonderfully organic way to manage pests,” says Robert Jackson, executive director of Seven Point Farms.

“Primarily we manage pests through predatory insects,” Jackson tells SFR. “This allows us to keep our commitments to safe, organic flower. I think the way we use pyrethrins for insect repellant and pest management is well within the law and it’s important to question the validity of unproven tests that put us over the limit.”

If growers want to use a pesticide that’s not registered with the state, Lewis says they may request a review.

“We keep getting more and more requests from companies for hemp and cannabis registrations,” Lewis says. “It’s a rather dynamic list that we’re constantly revamping on a monthly basis.”

According to CCD rules, passing grades on lab tests are required for every strain that hits the shelves for consumers. They must submit one sample for every 15 pounds of flower produced. If a sample fails a test, the cannabis establishment can request re-testing by the same laboratory or a different one.

Most states have an abundance of laboratories, which can lead to concerns of lab shopping—whereby growers seek a lab that produces what they consider more favorable test results. Maria McIntyre, head of cannabis safety operations for the multinational biotechnology company bioMeriéux, says some producers will aim for high potency results and for lax pesticide analysis, for example. With only two labs at present, New Mexico doesn’t have many options for that strategy.

Still, McIntyre says a vast majority of the cannabis industry doesn’t understand the implications of getting products to market that could be a risk to consumers—that companies could jeopardize their reputation and operations by having unsafe buds.

“You would think—to have that extra insurance—that you would want robust and reliable tests to ensure that your product is compliant and you won’t cause harm to public health and safety,” McIntyre tells SFR.

The health hazards associated with cannabis have long been debated and many have been debunked in favor of its medicinal value. The Reefer Madness theory of the 1930s is off the table and weed grown under the watchful eye of state governments is likely the safest it’s ever been. For instance, an illicit grower wanting to yield as much as possible—with no regulatory oversight to stop them—might have a tendency to over-apply pesticides and even use some that are meant only for decorative plants. Or, illegal weed may be transported in vessels contaminated with gasoline or other fumes in an attempt to avoid detection.

“The more regulations we implement and the more research we do in the cultivation aspect, the production aspect and the consumption aspect, the safer it will be,” says Brian Alfaro, a plant biologist who teaches a cannabis horticulture class for SeedCrest, which provides recruitment and training to the cannabis industry. “It’s just like any other plant that we consume, and we can draw from literature the safety issues.”

The state agriculture department will also conduct investigations when it receives a complaint of potential pesticide misuse. Lewis says the department has received no such complaints about cannabis to date.

The health hazards of direct exposure to various pesticides are well documented. Safety data sheets show many of the substances to be regulated are toxic, or fatal, when swallowed or directly inhaled. The potential for health issues when pesticides are applied on cannabis plants intended to be decarboxylated (heated for smoking or via some other manufacturing process) needs further research, though.

According to a 2019 review of literature on pesticide use for cannabis cultivation, compiled by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University, studies have shown that high levels of pesticides are transferred into cannabis smoke. However, the pesticide levels found in cannabis samples tested were generally low and don’t provide information on chronic, low-dose, adverse effects of pesticides in relation to cannabis consumption.

The correlation between pest control and a healthy plant is well founded. For growers looking to get the most out of their plant, controlling predation is key. Pests will eat leaves and dig through stems, which will send signals to the plant to produce different chemicals. It can impact cannabinoid levels, plant growth, quality control and harvest yields.

To combat the scourge, producers use a combination of different herbicides and insecticides. Some growers avoid synthetic pesticides altogether, instead opting for microorganisms and other insects to stave off unwanted critters.

“A lot of growers swear by biological control, using lacewings, lady bugs, parasite wasps that can attack these different insects,” Alfaro tells SFR. “Some do a one-two punch using chemical pesticides in combination with biological control.”

So some producers, perhaps naturally, tend to eschew the traditional term of pesticide. As the state has promulgated more rules, they’ve adapted their integrated pest management plans to come up with cleaner regimens.

“There’s a huge difference between pesticides and integrated pest management,” says Ryan Gomez, a lead grower at CG Corrigan. “IPM is how we keep the product safe for consumers. You hear the word pesticide and it hits. That’s the issue.”

Gomez says the producer has revamped its cultivation process, swapped out a few gardeners and now sticks to using more natural and biological measures, like beneficial nematodes, to combat the plant-killing pests. He reports the company has also thrown out products and pesticides that could be harmful. It’s part of working with the state to ensure cannabis users get the safest products.

“Now that it’s legalized with all the regulations and testing, it’s absolutely safer,” Gomez says. “It’s only going to get more intense as the game gets more fierce.”

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