Myclobutanil: Why are some licensed cannabis producers using this banned pesticide?

After a licensed producer in Ladysmith recalled some of its product last month, the use of banned pesticides in cannabis cultivation has been a hot topic in the media.

Drew Taylor / Unsplash

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After a licensed producer in Ladysmith recalled some of its product last month, the use of banned pesticides in cannabis cultivation has been a hot topic in the media.

Last week, staff at The Globe and Mail reported stories on two separate instances of product recall with two very different outcomes.

The latest producer found to be using banned pesticides is Broken Coast, which issued a voluntary recall on August 24 for three different batches of dried cannabis, all grown in the latter half of 2016.

Controversy also continues to swirl around Organigram, a Moncton, New Brunswick-based licensed producer that issued a recall for almost an entire year’s worth of its product in January, after tests conducted by Health Canada showed the presence of two banned pesticides. (Three additional banned substances were discovered by the newspaper after it used a patient’s unopened Organigram samples in its own investigation.)

In both cases, the pesticide myclobutanil was found and described by the producer as present in ‘trace’ amounts.

While Health Canada’s spot test at Broken Coast revealed a level of 0.017 parts per million (ppm)—consistent with the company’s word choice—Organigram used it to describe a detected level of up to 20 ppm.

Broken Coast patients have not come forward to say they’ve suffered adverse effects as a result of using the tainted cannabis, but Organigram patients intereviewed by the Globe said they lost weight, suffered severe aches and pains, developed strange itchy rashes, and coughed up wads of mucous after consuming product from the producer.

Even after recalling nearly a whole year’s worth of cannabis, Organigram vehemently denied the presence of banned pesticides, claiming that it was unable to locate the source of the chemical.

Given that this particular substance has been explicitly banned by Health Canada, I’m wondering why it, and others like it, are being used by producers in any amounts.

Typically, myclobutanil is a fungicide used to prevent the growth of powdery mildew, dollar spot, brown patch, and other fungal pathogens, and is used on a wide range of perennial and annual crops, as well as fruit trees, vines, and turf. One of its most common uses is on wine grapes.

In Canada, the pesticide is permitted and approved for human consumption in small amounts, but it becomes much more dangerous when smoked or inhaled. For these reasons, it’s also banned for the production of cannabis in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon.

When heated, myclobutanil produces toxic fumes like hydrogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, and nitrogen oxides.

Despite its being banned by Health Canada, the pesticide’s ability to target powdery mildew is what tempts growers to use it anyway.

If not immeadiately addressed, powdery mildew can spread from plant to plant quickly, resulting in lower yields of questionable quality.

Evidently, the threat to producers of losing multi-million dollar crops to an outbreak is far greater than the threat of having to face the music after publicly recalling a few products.

There are other ways for growers to eliminate the risk of mildew, like increasing space between plants, modulating humidity and temperature, and increasing airflow.

These are all costly measures, but is it too much to expect a federally licensed producer to have at least an interest in investing in such systems—not to mention a set of moral standards that considers the health risks the use of pesticides might create for patients who are already dealing with medical issues?

As we await the legalization of recreational cannabis, I wonder how licensed producers plan to prepare for what will surely be a massive increase in demand. If licensed producers are using banned pesticides on product deemed for patients, what will stop them from using them on cannabis intended for recreational use?

With Health Canada taking more steps to ensure that licensed producers are following the rules, hopefully this underhanded use of banned pesticides comes to an end.

While cannabis grown outside of the federal framework and sold at dispensaries is in an unregulated league of its own, a handful of local shops have taken it upon themselves to submit their product for testing.

This is by no means the industry standard, and it can be challenging given the legal grey area dispensaries operate in, but as consumers begin to ask more intelligent questions about their cannabis, I hope that dispensary operators make regular testing a reality sooner than later.

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