By Keith Mansur
Oregon Cannabis Connection
The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) is considering a revision to the cannabis testing rules in Oregon and they are taking public comment until the end of April. These proposed changes were being driven by a supposed backlog in the testing system and a perceived unreasonably high cost for processors and growers.
Proponents of the changes decry foul play by laboratories for overcharging and fixing the rules. They point to the shortage of concentrates and edibles on dispensary shelves as the reason these changes are needed, but after delving deeper into the issue, it appears the current shortage is being driven by pesticide contaminated cannabis, not high prices and a long wait for test results.
There are two major provisions of the new rules that are in dispute. One would be to change testing on concentrates from the current levels down to only a single annual random sample from cannabis processors. Concentrates are the most contaminated of all the cannabis products in Oregon. Another rule would dial back the current requirement for at least 33% of the flower batches be tested for pesticides to only 20%. These apply to recreational cannabis only.
The current contamination rates are at 10% failure for flower and 26% for concentrates, according to the OHA..
Oregonlive covered on the proposed changes March 3rd when the OHA, in cooperation with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) which has the authority to change the rules, proposed changing the current testing standards to help alleviate the shortages. Oregonlive reported:
Andre Ourso, manager of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, said industry complaints about the cost of testing and delays faced by concentrate and extract makers getting their products to stores drove the proposals.
Also, more testing means more expense for the consumer, he said. By law, the state is supposed to consider consumer cost, as well as public safety, in drafting its rules.
He said the public may comment on the rules between March 15 through April 30. New rules are expected to go into place June 1.
“The agency will evaluate the public comment,” he said. “If it comes out that this is not something the public wants, the agency won’t adopt” the changes.
The Rules Committee Practically Excluded
The proposed changes were not properly considered or vetted by the Rules Advisory Committee (RAC) and were proposed and adopted at a single meeting, without proper input or consideration from the entire committee. According to Roger Voelker, head chemist of OG Analytical and who is a member of the current RAC, the changes caught most of the people at the committee meeting off guard.
“These changes were introduced at the RAC,” Voelker explained. “We thought we were going to be talking about some of the problems concerning edibles and batch sizes and addressing a wider scope of issues but they brought these changes, to our surprise.”
The changes are now open for public comment after having basically avoided serious discussion by the RAC. It’s not typical to as k for public input for a public safety issue like pesticide contamination. The information is complex and the safety issues serious. The vast majority of individuals do not even begin to understand the complexities and realities involved. The need for public safety overrides the majority opinion of an uneducated public.
“The constant rule changing has been a problem,” Voelker said. “We have to be really careful about some of these changes.”
Joint Committee Testimony
Some valid concerns about the proposed changes were brought up by committee members during the presentation. Concerns about the disregard for public safety were brought up.
Rep. Carl Wilson (R) asked “I guess a question that I would have is: given the responsibility that we have here, how do we vouch for walking back on safety standards,” Rep. Wilson asked. “You know…I could look at the good representative (Wilson turns to Rep. Lininger to his right) and say, ‘you know you look pretty healthy maybe you could take a little more pesticide than those other guys’…I’m just kind of wondering how do we make that case.”
“As we go along were having to talk to toxicologists and learn what is and what isn’t toxic and what can and cannot be used on these products,” explained Jeff Rhoades, Senior Policy Advisor for the Governor. “You don’t have studies that deal with what happens when these things are ingested by inhaling rather than…just eating it instead.”
“We are still testing more than any other food safety arena and we want to maintain that level of public safety, that’s an important piece for us,” Explained Rhoades further. “But we also want to be mindful of our statutory obligations to make certain that we are not making this overly burdensome or that were costing Oregonians good jobs, as well.”
Ourso added later, “The action levels that we set are higher than action levels and tolerance levels that would be set on conventional foods.”
Rep. Julie Fahey (D) asked, “Right now there is a relatively high percentage of concentrates and extracts that are failing and yet we seem to have set up what seems to be a ‘safe harbor’ where if your usable marijuana is tested to use concentrates, we are rolling back the requirements there in allowing this random sampling.”
Her line of questioning compelled Sen. Ginny Burdick to cut her off and mention the Joint Committee was only taking testimony and not voting on the issue, indicating such probing questions are unwarranted.
Backlog of Testing No Longer Exists
Green leaf lab recently announced their testing turn around time is 7-10 days. They have not had a backlog to speak of for over a month.
Pixis labs is between 3 to 5 days according to Derrick Tanner, the labs general manager. Tanner told Oregon Cannabis Connection, “We have added many instruments and people in the last couple of months and can now handle up to 140 full compliance tests per day.”
Synergistic Pesticide Lab in Portland only does pesticide tests and is the “go-to” place for labs that do not have ORELAP certification for pesticide testing. They are around a week for testing according to Camille Holladay, the lab owner.
“We can do rush work, for an up-charge…this is commonplace in the lab industry,” explained Holladay. “Blueberry growers looking to export fresh product during the busy season understand that paying for the rush is the cost of doing business.”
Testing Cost Facts and Figures
The cost for a “full compliance screening”, which includes all the required tests, is between $350 and $400 dollars at most labs. Those prices are way up from previous levels due to the new standards that the labs must follow. The testing prices are not a result of “price collusion” by labs, as some industry people have said.
“One thing that bothers me about the idea that labs ‘colluded’ to make a bunch of money—other than it is clearly not true—is that people have no idea how expensive it is to open and operate a lab,” explained Holladay. “Beyond the standard costs of rent, insurance, labor, utilities, marketing that most businesses have, there are instrumentation/equipment purchase and ongoing costs, specialized labor costs, accreditation related costs, calibrations, consumables, solvents, chemicals, gases, hazardous waste costs – I could go on”.
“This is why the extremely low pricing prior to October was unsustainable and proved that labs charging that were either loosing tons of money or not actually doing the work at all,” she explained further.
Just as a comparison, Holladay shared with Oregon Cannabis Connection the cost for pesticide screening on fruit is $240.00 compared to $175 on cannabis. The reason for the additional charge is the increased number of compounds they screen for in fruit.
A ‘Control Study’ is an effective tool any reputable processor of concentrates or edibles manufacturer would employ. With a few passing tests in a control study from a processors batches, they are allowed to test only two samples from a batch of up to 4,000 grams of concentrate. With a batch test cost of $400.00 the cost per gram to test a batch drops to $.20 cents.
An even more cost effective method the rules allow is ‘Process Validation’. This takes more samples to achieve, but once a processor does they can then process 28,000 gram batches for the same two tests. This results in a cost per gram of .07 cents.
Pesticide Failures Very Common in Concentrates
Although the OHA identified a 26% failure rate on medical marijuana concentrate samples, most labs had a failure rate much higher. Some labs estimated between 50 and 70% of the concentrates they tested failed the screening. One problem may have been that the OHA only saw results of the “reported” failures. Many tests were done as a pre-screen and never were reported to OHA.
What have the labs been finding? We asked a few what they were seeing.
Pixis Labs found these pesticides most often: Bifenthrin, Chlorfenapyr, Metalaxyl, Piperonyl Butoxide, Spinosad and Spiromesifen.
Carbaryl was a common one found by OG Analytical and is the active ingredient in the pesticide Sevin.
Synergistic Pesticide Laboratory did some data collection of their cannabis tests for us. They examined all their failed tests for pesticides, over 580 ppm (parts per million) in some cases. Figure A is testing done after the October lab certification deadline and Figure B is their tests from before the deadline.
Figure A (after Oct lab deadline)
Figure B (Before Oct lab deadline)
High end of detection on 8 most common pesticides found by Synergistic Pesticide Laboratory (in figure B), trade names and fact sheets:
Azoxystrobin, 12.6ppm, Amistar (Syngenta) Pesticide Facts
Bifenazate, 17.3ppm, Floramite (Uniroyal) Pesticide Facts
Myclobutanil, 82.9ppm, Eagle 20EW (Dow) Pesticide Facts
Trifloxystrobin, 108ppm, Flint, Compass (Novartis) Pesticide Facts
Imidacloprid, 45.3ppm, Merit and Mallet (Bayer) Pesticide Facts
Metalaxyl, 54ppm, Apron XL (Syngenta) Pesticide Facts
Piperonyl Butoxide, 99.8ppm, Prozap and Sentry Pesticide Facts
Spirotetramat, 30.5ppm, Movento (Bayer) Pesticide Facts
Pesticide Use Education
There is apparently a lack of knowledge on how to properly use pesticides in the cannabis industry. The wide variety of failures is one indicator, but another more important one is the failure of tests on allowable pesticides, like pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide, which have been used improperly. Even allowable pesticides must be used right to avoid contamination of the crop.
“The question is are they following the label. My experience in the cannabis industry is the people are not educated properly on how to read a label and how to use pesticides,” explained Holladay. “Really I want to address the root cause of the whole problem of why we are seeing pesticides in cannabis products. They need the tools and resources to know what to do about it and how to prevent it in the first place.”
Holladay wants to do an education campaign this spring to help growers understand what they have to do. She hope to impart much need education to growers that need help and has spoken with the Oregon Department of Agriculture about workshops. They can explain how to correctly identify pests, how to monitor them, trap them and determine thresholds and what are options to deal with their issues.
“I have been speaking with folks at the ODA and I would like to get something together in the next couple of months, before this season,” explained Holladay.
Other Changes To The Testing Program
There are other provisions in the changes beyond pesticide testing. Some changes include remediation of products that tested positive for solvents, R&D testing on extracts, the control study becomes a permanent option with reduced sampling sizes, and more. They also added the ability to add heavy metals in the future.
Many of these changes are needed to help with shortages, but the pesticide testing standards should not be compromised when a obvious problem exists. Dr. Jeremy Riggle PhD, a professor at Eastern Oregon University, cannabis researcher, and head chemist at Eastern Oregon Analytical, thinks there needs to be some considerations given when appropriate, but the pesticide levels should be taken seriously.
“They want to protect the consumer without completely handcuffing the consumer,” he said. “But I don’t know another way around it because you do need to do more testing that what they are proposing.”
They OHA will take comments until April 30th, in written format preferably. Visit firstname.lastname@example.org . The public is encouraged to respond. They will have a couple of public comment sessions, one in Eugene on April 27th and one in Portland on April 28th.
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