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Investigation Finds Pesticides in California Licensed Vapes


An investigation into the safety of cannabis products for sale on the shelves of licensed California pot dispensaries has revealed unsafe levels of pesticides that exceed state limits for marijuana or federal standards for tobacco products. The investigation, which was carried out by the Los Angeles Times in collaboration with cannabis news outlet WeedWeek, found that vapes and pre-rolled joints from some of California’s most popular legal weed brands were contaminated with chemicals that could cause illness or injury.

Most of the pesticides found during the investigation were present in low concentrations that risk long-term harm with repeated use of the contaminated products. However, some products tested had levels of pesticides that can potentially cause harm with a single use, particularly among susceptible individuals. Some individual products contained as many as two dozen pesticides, the investigation revealed.

“Twenty-five of 42 legal cannabis products that The Times and WeedWeek purchased from retail stores and had tested at private labs showed concentrations of pesticides either above levels the state allows or at levels that exceed federal standards for tobacco,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in its report on the investigation. “The contaminants include chemicals tied to cancer, liver failure, thyroid disease and genetic and neurologic harm to users and unborn children.”

The investigation determined that vapes from five popular cannabis brands contained pesticide levels that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard for the risk of harm from a single exposure. Using such products could irritate the lungs, throat or eyes and cause other unwanted effects such as headaches, rashes, abdominal pain and diarrhea. 

The investigation’s findings are consistent with complaints filed by two independent cannabis testing laboratories over the last eight months to report contaminated products reported by other labs to be safe. According to the two labs, as many as 250,000 vapes and pre-rolls on cannabis dispensary shelves could be contaminated with pesticides.

The report notes that public records, lab testing results and interviews show that California regulators have largely failed to act on the reports of widespread contamination of cannabis products. After the complaints from the two independent labs, state regulators issued one product recall and removed three others from stores with an administrative order that remains confidential.

Josh Swider, the chief executive of Infinite Chemical Analysis Labs in San Diego, filed many of the complaints reporting the presence of pesticides in cannabis products that had been tested and certified as safe by other labs. After becoming frustrated that regulators were not doing more, he sent a summary of the complaints to California Governor Gavin Newsom and the state Department of Cannabis Control in December.

“Those failing products alone represented 150,000 packages of flower, vapes or pre-rolls for sale to unsuspecting consumers,” Swider wrote.

“The government’s responsibility does not end after writing regulation,” he added.

After Swider’s letter, regulators issued one additional product recall for pesticide contamination. The remaining products his lab identified as contaminated were allowed to remain on dispensary shelves.

None of California’s labs licensed to test cannabis products has been accredited to test for pesticides. The state also has no system in place for the routine testing of products on store shelves, despite a recommendation from the Cannabis Regulators Association for such testing.

“California is dropping the ball on enforcement where public health is concerned,” said cannabis researcher Cindy Orser, a former director of a private California cannabis testing lab.

California regulations require labs to test cannabis for 66 pesticides, a list that has not been updated since 2018 to reflect current practices in the cannabis industry. The investigation found seven pesticides not on the state list in cannabis products, despite information that the chemicals can cause harm including liver cancer and disruptions to the endocrine system. 

A vape from Stiiizy, California’s top-selling cannabis brand, contained more than 60 times the federal government’s maximum level set for cigarettes for the pesticide pymetrozine, a chemical banned by Canada, the United Kingdom and Norway. However, since the state does not require cannabis products to be tested for pymetrozine, the vape complies with California regulations.

“We adhere to all standards and limits set by the State of California, which has some of the strictest testing requirements and pesticide limits in the country,” Stiiizy President Tak Sato said in a statement emailed to the Los Angeles Times.

Regulators Decline To Respond To Investigation

The DCC declined to schedule an interview to respond to the investigation’s findings. The agency also refused to release records of internal and external communications or discussions of pesticide contamination. Additionally, the department declined to share information about its ability to test cannabis for contamination, citing the possibility that such information could be used by unscrupulous businesses determined to evade detection.

The agency refused to provide the results of pesticide tests performed by other state agencies and declined to provide safety certificates for cannabis products on dispensary shelves. The DCC also did not provide information on what action has been taken on the at least 85 complaints of contamination submitted to the agency or if any of the products had been removed from the market.

“When we receive complaints, we swiftly assess them, conduct appropriate investigations, and take appropriate action,” the agency’s press office said in an email to the Los Angeles Times.

The DCC is currently in the process of rolling out market tests for pesticides in California cannabis products. In a recent email to licensees, the agency warned cannabis companies that testing for pesticide contamination and enforcement of the state’s standards would be ramped up.

“In the coming weeks, the DCC is slated to bring additional testing capacity online to further bolster existing compliance actions and expand efforts to address pesticide contamination,” the agency wrote in its email.  These actions may include additional product embargos, voluntary and mandatory recalls, and disciplinary actions against licensees.”

Until the system is in place, however, there will still be no system for the routine safety testing of cannabis products once they make it to dispensary shelves.

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