Medical Marijuana’s Shifting Regulatory Landscape and Safety Issues

In April, there was a recall for medical marijuana in Colorado. As part of the recall, 92 lots (which could include up to 1,000 plants) tested positive for abamectin, an insecticide that is not permitted for the use of marijuana. The company that issued the recall, Life Flower, sold products in Boulder and Glendale. Another recall had previously been issued in March for the same problem, plants sold that were contaminated with abamectin as an insecticide. The Farm, based in Boulder, recalled 16 lots (as many as 200 plants).

How Medical Marijuana Became Contaminated

The primary culprit seems to be the use of the pesticide Guardian. Marketed as a natural insecticide, the manufacturer did not disclose the abamectin present, according to the Cannabist. The marijuana industry was shocked, given Guardian’s extensive use in the industry and the brand’s relatively positive reputation. As a result of this faux pas, the Colorado Department of Agriculture removed Guardian from the list of approved pesticides for marijuana in January. (The recalled plants were treated with Guardian before the product was removed from the list of pesticides.)

Abamectin is a widely used insecticide in the agricultural industry. Varieties are often used to treat produce and livestock, and the World Health Organization (WHO) even uses it to treat some patients. It is produced from naturally occurring Streptomyces bacterium and works to kill insects by disrupting the neural pathways. While it is very toxic to insects, it has limited ability to pass through the blood-brain barrier in mammals, making it relatively safe in normal doses; however, very high doses can still cause death in people. This is the reason it is banned for use in the growth of marijuana in Oregon, Colorado, and other states that allow medical marijuana.

One big issue when it comes to the regulation of medical marijuana for safety purposes is the patchwork of regulation between state and federal governments. Because both medical and recreational marijuana industries are new, the regulations have not undergone a sufficient level of testing – both scientifically and legally – to fully understand the safety impacts to humans.  The Colorado Pesticide Applicator Act has published a list of the insecticides that are acceptable for use in the production of marijuana, but this list is constantly changing. As of the writing of this article, it was most recently updated on June 29, 2016.

The issues behind medical marijuana safety further clouded by the federal government’s classification of marijuana a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substance Act.  This means that the federal government considers marijuana to be a highly addictive drug with no medical benefit. Doctors cannot write prescriptions for it, even though medical marijuana is legal to some extent in 25 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam. In 2013, the United States Department of Justice issued a statement saying it expected the states to have strong enforcement efforts concerning legitimate and illegitimate use of marijuana. It also reserved the right to challenge the states on their enforcement.

You Can Buy Organic Apples, but Not Organic Weed

The National Organic Program is run by the United States Department of Agriculture, and because the federal government does not recognize the marijuana industry, crops of marijuana cannot be approved for the organic program. This doesn’t mean it can’t be grown organically, only that it can’t be certified and marketed as such.

With all of this confusion on the federal level, it’s no wonder that the states are struggling too.  States all have different regulations for the use of medical marijuana and restrictions on how to obtain it. Most states have a patient registry or an approved ID card. Some states have only approved marijuana to treat certain conditions, like seizures. In some states, home growth marijuana is permitted for medical use, while in other states a patient must visit a dispensary.  On the other hand, some states don’t allow dispensaries at all, and patients can get medical marijuana only from a doctor or pharmacist approved to dispense experimental drugs.

Given the disparity in regulation and production of medical marijuana, companies are scrambling to get certified or approved as official vendors or growers, trying to beat not only the competition, but the likely increase in regulation as more problems like these pesticide contaminations occur.

The medical marijuana industry faces ever-changing regulations on top of additional regulations between states and total lack of acknowledgement from the federal government. The medical marijuana program is still in its infancy, and until more research offers information about what is effective and what is not, we are likely to see more confusion, and more recalls are likely to happen.