As legalization of recreational and medical marijuana booms across the country, it comes with increased economic prospects and new sources of tax revenue. There’s still one major problem though-Cannabis remains a schedule I drug according to the federal government. We’ve all heard before how federal laws supersede local ones regarding use of marijuana. However, in this case it’s the lack of federal agricultural oversight that presents a problem.
Cannabis cultivation overlaps with other agricultural crops in that it is vulnerable to diseases and pests and this needs to be managed safely. Unfortunately, there are no federally defined guidelines pertaining to fertilizers and pesticides approved for growing Cannabis. The federal government oversees the regulation of agriculture and pesticides, such as which pesticides are acceptable and what concentrations are deemed safe. Pesticides can be naturally occurring or synthetic. They may break down over time or in some cases accumulate in plant tissues. The lack of regulation leaves consumers in the predicament of not knowing just how safe their medical marijuana is.
Of the two states that have legalized recreational marijuana, only Washington has established guidelines for agriculture standards and practices in Cannabis cultivation. Colorado’s state government has acknowledged that it has yet to create cultivation protocols. Other states such as Maine have banned the use of pesticides in the cultivation of medical marijuana. Research continues to link certain pesticides to the current epidemic of bee die-offs and they may be harmful to humans as well. With Cannabis becoming more profitable, there is the uncomfortable reality that some growers will exploit this lack of oversight in pursuit of maximizing yields.
Biological contaminants present yet another serious threat for which testing and quality control in cannabis is essential. As far back as 1981, there have been case reports in the medical literature detailing serious and sometimes fatal incidents of pulmonary infections due to Aspergillus, a fungus that can grow on Cannabis. This is especially critical in that the very patients who would seek out medical marijuana, i.e. those with HIV or who are undergoing chemotherapy, may be immunosuppressed and thus significantly more vulnerable to infection. Vaporization is not a safer method as it does not filter out toxins nor organisms, thus they can still be inhaled.
Other biological risks include the presence of aflatoxins, a class of mold-produced compounds that can damage the liver and act as cancer-causing agents. Regular screenings for aflatoxins in crops such as peanuts and corn are federally mandated. No such requirement exists for medical marijuana.
As Cannabis becomes more prevalent in mainstream medicine, it is important that we tread carefully and place safety firmly ahead of profit in this exciting new industry. A few states already have labs devoted to quality control parameters of Cannabis, including the detection of pesticide residues, biological contaminants and accumulated heavy metals. Unfortunately, at this point in time, the federal government is not likely to undertake a foray into the maelstrom that is the Cannabis industry. It is crucial therefore, that we oblige our local governments to establish a high standard of quality. We expect no less than having to consider if our seatbelts will click safely nor if our offices are asbestos-free. We just want to light up assured that we are safe for another day.
by Nicholas Rivera