Who Wants to Smoke Pesticides? What Marijuana Legalization Means for Consumer Safety

Both good and bad things are coming out of the legalization and regulation push and conversation.
Publish date:
May 16, 2016
drugs, marijuana, marijuana growing

With a wave of state-by-state legalization sweeping the nation — California is likely next in line — and the DEA mulling a possible rescheduling of marijuana, prohibition may finally be drawing to a close. Which is an unmitigated good, given the trillions of dollars the United States wastes on the war on drugs — money which particularly disenfranchises young men of color, particularly Black men. Our prisons are filled primarily with people of color, and over half are there because of drug convictions.

It's also an issue that's complex and incredibly multifaceted. Both good and bad things are coming out of the legalization and regulation push and conversation.

In my adventures as an accidental weed journalist, I've been fascinated by the evolution of the conversation around marijuana. There's a growing interest, especially in California, in artisanal, organic, and specialty crops, as well as marijuana tech — and as Amanda Chicago Lewis pointed out at Buzzfeed, the weed boom is effectively whites only, and will continue to be so even after legalization, because to work in the industry, you need to pass a background check, and many people of color with experience in the industry now have criminal records, thanks to racial profiling.

This is a tremendous problem that must be addressed, because legalization should be coming with forgiveness and opportunities to immediately reenter society without criminal records, which can become huge stumbling blocks to career advancement. Dispensaries like iCANN Health Center, owned not just by a Black woman but by a senior, are very much the minority — in fact, Sue Taylor, the dispensary's owner, is believed to be the first Black senior running a dispensary.

California has struggled with the regulation of marijuana-related businesses, because it's challenging to figure out how to distribute permits and make zoning decisions for businesses that revolve around the packaging, manufacture, sale, and processing of an illegal product.

Recognizing that it was going to have a growing (haha) problem on its hands, the state passed the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act last year, taking the issue on with a package of bills designed to create a framework for successfully implementing controls on marijuana while trying to dance a delicate line between federal restrictions and pressure from within.

AB21, passed this year, provides further guidance. Cities and municipalities can choose to have no regulations in place, with people interested in starting marijuana-related businesses being required to go through the regular business permit process and then approach the state for licensure. Alternatively, they can draft their own regulations, in which case applicants will need to clear local controls before approaching the state.

These laws are incredibly complicated, but they're also extremely thorough, and they're creating protections at every stage of the way for growers, packagers, handlers, dispensaries, and, ultimately, consumers. They're also creating a framework for generating state taxes and revenues, which is critical for a state with known budget issues — and it doesn't escape notice that many counties with a high poverty rate have a high level of marijuana-related activity and they could really benefit from some local taxes.

There's a lot to explore with California's regulations, but what's really intriguing me at the moment is the drive for better quality control. California plans to implement what's known as a track and trace system — from seed to consumer, marijuana products can be traced all the way through the supply chain. They'll likely be taking on a system like BioTrackTHC, which is used by Washington State's Liquor and Cannabis Board.

From the state's perspective, it hopes to use track and trace to show the feds that it's taking monitoring and oversight seriously. But it also provides a level of supply chain assurance that's pretty excellent — very few commercial products reach us with this level of supply chain control, allowing consumers to make really informed, educated, and ethical choices about what they buy. Track and trace is going to be huge with the boutique/artisanal/fancy pot crowd who are trying to shake off the reputation of stoner culture, but it benefits everyone.

So does lab testing, which is also part of California's new regulatory framework. While people may think of marijuana as a nice wholesome natural herbal product (certainly it's packaged that way), it can actually be a horrific morass of contamination. Aside from the pesticides and fertilizers used on many crops, most of which aren't designed for human consumption, marijuana is also blessed with mildew, mold, rot, and bacteria. California's new regulations create strict accountability: No more shining it on, making claims that are hard to verify, or being vague about the source of products and level of quality control.

Track and trace and lab work are also, of course, helpful for dosage consistency, a particular concern for medical patients — especially for those who want to use nonpsychoactive varietals of marijuana. Like all plant-derived products, marijuana's chemical profile isn't necessarily consistent from plant to plant, grow to grow, season to season, although growers are consistently refining their crops to make them more predictable. Lab testing cuts to the heart of that problem — and will be especially useful for concentrates, tinctures, edibles, and other processed products.

One thing these laws don't do, no matter what anyone says, is allow growers to seek organic certification. This certification process occurs on the federal level through the USDA — and federal agencies don't offer organic certification to illegal crops. Movements like Clean Green are trying to change that with their own quasi-organic standards, drawing upon best practices, environmental concerns, and the expressed desires of customers; marijuana has gone bougie, and as a result, it's been caught up in the greenwashing wave alongside every other product imaginable.

The intention is good, though, given that marijuana has a notorious impact on local ecologies in part because of its legal status — illegal water diversions, clearcutting, slash and burn, growing in sensitive ecological areas and on public lands, and similar issues are rife in some areas of the state. As consumers create an incentive to behave more responsibly, producers are starting to realize that they need to meet that demand.

Clean Green, a third party organization, is with some respects more aggressive than the USDA — for example, it weighs labor practices in the certification process.

The state's package of laws creates more of a cooperative and less adversarial framework, encouraging people in the industry to come out of the shadows and become ethical participants in the local economy — if, of course, they don't have criminal records.

Within the industry, collaboration with municipalities, track and trace, and quality control are becoming big talking points, and they should be topics of discussion further abroad as well. Marijuana production has historically been a black box for many consumers thanks to its illegal nature, and dragging it out of the shadows changes the dynamic — imagine if prescription drugs were developed, produced, and sold with absolutely no oversight. In fact, you don't have to imagine, because that very problem, and the sale of "medicine" contaminated with poison and other adulterants, was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the FDA.

I stand firmly in support of full legalization and regulation for a wide host of reasons, but this is one more consumers should be thinking about: This isn't just about the fact that they no longer risk running afoul of the law for engaging in criminal activity, but that the products they are consuming will be safe for them to consume, and will be of higher quality.

Right now, that level of control and safety is only available to wealthier consumers who can afford to pay a premium for it — by normalizing it across the board, we create safe access for anyone who wants to use pot for any reason, which is as it should be not just with marijuana, but all drugs. Harm reduction, homechickens, is my jam.

Photo: Chuck Grimmett/Creative Commons