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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pesticides in pot? Washington will test for it

Washington will spend about $1 million to set up a system to test marijuana samples for banned pesticides, officials from two state agencies said Thursday.

The Liquor and Cannabis Board, which regulates all legal marijuana grown in the state, is giving the state Agriculture Department the money to buy the sophisticated laboratory equipment needed to test for a long list of some 100 pesticides not allowed under state regulations, and two employees to operate it.

The department will do some random testing of licensed growers or processors, as well as tests based on complaints from consumers or employees of marijuana businesses. State officials estimate they will analyze an average of 75 samples a month.

That should help discourage growers who are willing to “roll the dice” and use illegal pesticides, betting that they won’t be detected, said Gordon Fagras, co-owner of Trace Analytics of Spokane, one of the few laboratories in the state that tests for pesticides in marijuana.

“The odds of getting caught are going to get higher,” Fagras said.

While awaiting test results, marijuana can continue to grow or be harvested, but it can’t be processed or sold. It would be kept in isolation, and if the sample tests positive for an unapproved chemical, the marijuana would be destroyed, the producer or processor fined and a license could be canceled.

By law, marijuana is tested for its potency, and labels report the level of the chemical compound THC. But retailers are not required to test for pesticides and labels don’t have to reveal if any were used in the production.

A customer can ask a store for that information for a particular product when purchasing it, but few do, Fagras said.

Determining what pesticides to allow or ban is difficult, because the main source of such information for products that are eaten or otherwise consumed is the federal government. But the federal government does not test marijuana products because they remain against federal law.

The state Agriculture Department regulates the use and distribution of pesticides in Washington, making them the best agency to monitor their use on marijuana, said Rick Garza, director of the Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Tracy Sarrine, of Patients for Patients Medical, said the agencies’ plans to test marijuana for pesticides was “great news.” The organization helps connect medical marijuana users with providers, and has had about a dozen complaints of patients in Eastern Washington who developed asthma symptoms, migraine headaches or digestive problems that could be the result of pesticides.

Testing for pesticides has been difficult, she said. Most labs in Washington state didn’t have the equipment, and the marijuana can’t be sent out of the state because of federal law.

Sarrine is skeptical about how effective the new state testing system will work. In the past, a farmer who was using an unapproved pesticide was fined, but the products from that marijuana were not removed from the shelf, she said.

Fagras said the state lab won’t compete with private labs but will add a new avenue to test whether growers and processors are complying with state restrictions. Tests are expensive and private labs only test the marijuana samples that are sent to them by a grower or processor. But the state lab will be able to test a product on the shelf in a marijuana store.

Because state law requires marijuana to be tracked from the plant to the product a consumer can buy, a random check that turns up a banned substance anywhere along that pathway can be traced back to the producer.

Pesticide testing is the latest challenge for the newly regulated recreational marijuana industry, which voters legalized in 2012.

Medical marijuana was legalized in 1998, but without a state agency to control it, those products were unregulated and untested until the Legislature combined the two systems last year.