The debate between non-organic and organic cannabis enthusiasts has raged for many years.Proponents of the organic method hold that their products are safer
The debate between non-organic and organic enthusiasts has raged for many years, with the chemical camp firmly of the belief that their chosen method yields more, is faster and presents fewer potential problems to the grower. Proponents of the organic method hold that their products are safer, tastier and ultimately healthier for the end-user.
What is organic cannabis?
There is much confusion over what constitutes organically-grown cannabis: many still believe that any cannabis grown in soil is organic, but much soil-grown cannabis is grown with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. In order to be truly organic, all nutrients and pesticides used must be natural in origin. In fact, purists would argue that no pesticides or nutrients may be used at all.
In terms of nutrients, ‘natural’ products that will assist in the growth and flowering of cannabis plants include bat and bird guano, worm castings, manure, blood and bone meal, and compost. Natural pesticides include plant products such as pyrethrum, capsaicin, tobacco and neem oil. However, even though these substances are from organic sources, there is still uncertainty about their effect on human health.
As the medical cannabis industry has grown in recent years, the demand for high-quality, safe cannabis has grown with it. As a result, many are now requesting organic cannabis from their suppliers, and are becoming increasingly concerned about the possible presence of dangerous chemicals in ‘regular’, non-organic cannabis.
Maine pesticide controversy
In March this year, Maine’s largest medical cannabis dispensary was found to be selling products that tested positive for nine pesticides, leading the state regulators to demand a promise from the dispensary, Wellness Connection, that the pesticides would be discontinued. The dispensary must also provide weekly status reports with the Division of Licensing and Regulation for two years.
Disconcerted patients spoke out en masse against this alarming disregard for patient health, and many have since sought alternative suppliers in protest at the dispensary’s negligence. Furthermore, patients are increasingly questioning the safety of their medicine and demanding organic cannabis, not just from the Wellness Connection but from other dispensaries too.
In Maine, the state does not allow any pesticide use on cannabis as the effects on patient health are unknown. However, this stringent attention to the well-being of the average medical cannabis patient is not consistent throughout the eighteen states with a medical cannabis program.
California activist’s death attributed to spider mite pesticide
In California, the October 2005 death of ‘Sister’ Jane Weirick, an activist and buyer for The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, has been partly attributed to prolonged contact with a pesticide, Avid, which was used to control spider mites by several of the growers supplying the club.
The trimming and packing team that Weirick managed came into close contact with cannabis daily for several years, and it is postulated that her rapid and mysterious decline in health was caused by the pesticide penetrating her skin. This prolonged contact ultimately resulted in allergy-like symptoms and headaches, and when Weirick was eventually hospitalised in December 2004, she was unable to walk.
A month into her hospital stay, Weirick’s right side became paralysed, and she was unable to move or engage in speech. She later recovered sufficiently to be discharged from hospital. However, she remained in severe pain, and the very high doses of morphine used to control it were deemed officially responsible for her death several months later.
Lack of regulation leads to contaminated products
Despite the case of Sister Mary Weirick garnering substantial media attention, to date California has not implemented a set of guidelines for cannabis pesticide regulation. As a result, unscrupulous growers are producing cannabis which can, in some cases, contain levels of mould and pesticides up to sixty times higher than those allowed for edible produce such as spinach.
In 2011, Dan Tomalski of Michigan’s Northern Laboratory Services published test results collected from a range of local samples, both from licensed caregivers and street dealers, which demonstrated that several samples contained potentially-dangerous residual levels of three pyrethrins, permethrin, cypermethrin, and beta-cyfluthrin.
The dangers of pyrethrins
Synthetic pyrethrins, derived from the pyrethrum plant, can alter nerve function and potentially lead to neurotoxicity, can cause severe asthma-like symptoms, and may also be carcinogenic on long-term exposure. Inhalation of pyrethrins is not only dangerous when prolonged, but can also cause immediate irritation. Even more worryingly, pyrethrins can be highly toxic to honeybees, and have been implicated in colony collapse disorder. Despite this, many view pyrethrins as organic pesticides due to being derived from pyrethrum.
In these tests, the samples that exhibited traces of pesticides were all obtained in illegal street deals; many of the samples from licensed caregivers tested 100% free from pesticides. Michigan operates under a caregiver-only system, whereby small-scale, individual growers are responsible for supplying the needs of a maximum of five patients.
Small-scale grows place most emphasis on patient health
Maine, with its large dispensaries serving thousands of patients each, has a far bigger challenge ahead when attempting to keep licensed grow practices within legal limits. Caregivers often retain a strong sense of moral responsibility over the health of their few patients, while large dispensaries are often more impersonal, and may prioritise profits over patient health.
Until safe limits can be established for pesticides in medical cannabis, patients should be vocal in their demands for uncontaminated cannabis, as the long-term effects of pyrethrins and other pesticides have not been fully studied, alone or synergistically with the natural compounds found in the plant itself.