Members of the Massachusetts medical marijuana industry are warning that a state crackdown on their use of pesticides — including natural compounds used widely on organic food — would cripple growing operations and threaten the supply of cannabis to patients who rely on the drug.
Regulators at the state Department of Public Health ordered Colorado-based medical marijuana company Good Chemistry to close its growing and processing operation in Bellingham and its dispensary in Worcester after a routine inspection earlier this month.
Inspectors for the department said in a cease -and-desist order that workers at the Bellingham facility had applied unapproved pesticides to its cannabis crop, and that marijuana flower and other products derived from the crop posed “an immediate or serious threat” to public health and safety. It referred the investigation to the state Department of Agricultural Resources, or MDAR, which regulates the use of pesticides on crops including, as of last year, marijuana.
Good Chemistry, however, insists there is no threat. The company — whose Worcester dispensary has since been allowed to reopen and sell marijuana from other suppliers — said it used three natural compounds approved by the federal government for use on organic food, two of which are also approved for use on tobacco. Regulators in Oregon, Colorado, Washington, and Nevada have approved all three for use on marijuana, according to public documents.
“These organic compounds are safe all over the country, and they’re safe in Massachusetts,” said Jim Smith, a lawyer for Good Chemistry. “For the state to single out Good Chemistry for using an industry-standard practice is absolutely wrong. It’s not acceptable — and we’re not going to destroy the crop, because it poses no risk to public safety whatsoever.”
Industry members say the Department of Public Health previously allowed the use of pesticides for marijuana that had been approved by the federal government for use on organic food.
But last year, the health department ceded oversight of pesticides to MDAR amid a broader set of regulatory adjustments.
MDAR has ruled that cannabis growers can only use pesticides approved for use on marijuana by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, a federal agency, has refused to approve pesticides for use on marijuana because the drug remains illegal under federal law. MDAR’s policy, therefore, amounts to a de facto ban on any pesticides.
Katie Gronendyke, an MDAR spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that her department “is committed to ensuring that all pesticides used in the Commonwealth undergo rigorous testing, and as a result requires that all pesticides be registered with the federal Environmental Protection Agency before being considered for approved use.”
DPH officials said the department had in fact never allowed the use of pesticides, natural or otherwise, and that its updated regulations make the rule clear.
“The use of pesticides of any kind by a Registered Marijuana Dispensary in the cultivation of medical marijuana is prohibited under both Department of Public Health and Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources regulations,” a DPH spokeswoman said in a statement. “DPH does not condone the use of pesticides of any kind, including organic pesticides, and continues to work with its partners at MDAR to educate the industry on meeting the regulatory requirements of both agencies.”
Before the department rewrote its rules last fall, its regulation stated that the “application of any non-organic pesticide in the cultivation of marijuana is prohibited. All cultivation must be consistent with US Department of Agriculture organic requirements.”
Jay Youmans, a lobbyist for Good Chemistry and other marijuana companies who previously worked at DPH and helped draft its regulations, disputed officials’ assertion that pesticides have never been allowed.
“DPH’s intention in drafting these regulations was absolutely to incentivize and allow for organic cultivation practices,” Youmans said.
According to publicly available records, Good Chemistry disclosed its intention to use the three organic pesticides before it opened — once in its license application to the health department, and again in later filings describing the details of its growing operation.
The pesticides used by Good Chemistry are two organic fungicides — sulfur and regalia, a natural compound found in giant knotweed — and pyrethrins, a class of insect-repelling chemicals derived from chrysanthemum flowers.
Public records show that several other dispensaries also told regulators they planned to use similar organic pesticides — yet only Good Chemistry has been shuttered by the state. Smith, the company’s lawyer, said Good Chemistry was punished because it studiously documented the chemicals applied to its plants on a checklist reviewed by inspectors, while other operators have worked to hide their use of pesticides during inspections.
“Being a transparent company, Good Chemistry kept a complete log of everything they do to every plant, and they showed the log to DPH,” Smith said. “It’s unfair and harmful to their reputation.”
However, Smith conceded that Good Chemistry should have separately applied to the state for permission to use the pesticides.
Two marijuana executives from other companies, including one at a marijuana testing lab, said DPH regulators earlier this year verbally reassured cannabis operators they could use organic pesticides — as long as the results from required lab tests showed the products didn’t contain any of the nine synthetic pesticides explicitly banned by the state for use on marijuana. The executives asked to remain anonymous because they feared retribution from regulators.
Officials did not respond to that assertion, or to questions about whether the health department was aware that Good Chemistry and other operators disclosed their intention to use pesticides in applications and other required submissions to the state.
Marijuana cultivation experts said that because of New England’s climate, it’s nearly impossible to grow cannabis without using pesticides and still meet tight state limits on the presence of microbes in marijuana.
Adam Gendreau, a growing and processing consultant who works with marijuana companies in Massachusetts and other states, said pesticides similar to those used by Good Chemistry are staples at cultivation operations here and across the country.
“They’re completely common,” Gendreau said. “Especially in Massachusetts — this is a very humid environment in which there is lots of ambient yeast mold in the air. You’re growing these very dense, heavy, moist flowers, and they tend to be strong breeding grounds for it to grow.”
The Good Chemistry flap is only the latest incident to shine a spotlight on the state’s troubled marijuana-testing regimen. The Globe reported last month that testing labs are divided over how to accurately test for microbes in marijuana, and that state regulators have done little to reconcile disparities in their results.
Steve Hoffman, chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission, said in a recent interview with WGBH that the commission was aware of the problems and would work to solve them.Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.