Confusion over pesticide rules presents conundrum for Colorado cannabis growers

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By John Schroyer

In March and early April, Denver officials ordered nine local cultivation companies to essentially quarantine tens of thousands of marijuana plants over fears of possible pesticide contamination.

The state Department of Agriculture was even brought in to conduct tests on the plants to ensure they didn’t pose a danger to consumers.

The situation sheds light on just one of numerous new issues cannabis businesses face as the industry matures, expands and garners a bigger share of the spotlight.

In this case, the question revolves around whether it’s legal or safe to use certain pesticides to grow marijuana – and whether cannabis companies are receiving adequate guidance on the rules. It’s a complex issue that involves the interplay between state and federal regulators, the illegal status of marijuana at the federal level, and a lack of guidance for cultivators on which chemicals are safe to use on cannabis.

Government agencies in Colorado and industry players are working to figure it out.

But the lack of clarity on which pesticides are deemed safe for growing cannabis has created a tricky situation for cultivation companies in Colorado. Some say they are forced to roll the dice with pesticides just to harvest their crops and stay in business, but that means running the now-obvious risk of an ordered quarantine, which can cost companies thousands of dollars.

“The peculiarity of this situation is in the absence of all direction on what’s legal and what’s not, everything was illegal, so people weren’t directed on what they could or couldn’t use,” said Whitney Cranshaw, a pest management expert from northern Colorado.

The problem at hand

The nine companies ordered to quarantine plants include some of the biggest names in the Colorado cannabis industry, along with some smaller players.

The full list: Mindful, The Green Solution, Altitude East, Evolutionary Holdings, Green Cross Colorado, MMJ America, Organic Greens, RINO Supply Company, and Sweet Leaf.

In letters to these companies, the Denver Department of Environmental Health (DEH) identified three pesticides of primary concern: Eagle 20, Mallet and Avid.

Though officials didn’t condemn any of the companies for using the pesticides, they justified the quarantine orders by saying that they weren’t certain whether or not the chemicals posed a public health risk. To determine that, the state’s agriculture department was asked to run tests on the quarantined plants.

So far, no citations or violations have been issued to any of the companies, said Danica Lee, environmental public health program manager for the DEH.

One cultivator – RINO Supply Company – took the voluntary step of destroying 1,548 plants that were identified as having been treated with Eagle 20 and/or Mallet, Lee said. MMJ America also voluntarily destroyed 122 plants just this week, said CEO Jake Salazar, because the plants had been treated with Eagle 20 by a grower who has since been fired for acting out of accordance with the company’s standard operating procedures.

As far as Lee knows, no other companies have taken that step.

As it stands, the other seven companies are still waiting to hear from back from officials, so they can either harvest the quarantined plants or change their practices accordingly to comply with regulations.

Most of the nine companies either declined to comment for this story or couldn’t be reached. But MMJ America’s Salazar, along with executives with both The Green Solution and Mindful, defended their companies, and said they believe the nine growers will ultimately be vindicated.

“We were fully aware of what the product’s risks were, and 100% back the fact that what we were using is used for fruits and vegetables,” said Eric Speidell, a co-owner of The Green Solution. “We’ve really proven that we have a safe product for the consumers.”

Erik Williams, spokesman for Mindful, said that the use of Eagle 20 at the company’s cultivation facility was a mistake, and was rectified even before DEH identified the problem in early April. He also said that the use of Eagle 20 affected less than 5% of the company’s crops, and so wasn’t a huge issue.

“As soon as we found out that it had been used, we took corrective action and removed it from the building,” Williams said. “We don’t use chemicals like this.”

No clear guidance

One problem is that arguably none of those nine companies knew before they used the pesticides that they could be running afoul of state or city rules.

The state’s agriculture department recently published a list on its website of specific pesticides that can be used for cannabis cultivation, as well as some – but not all – of those that can’t.

But even this is confusing. Eagle 20, Mallet and Avid aren’t included on the list at all, while a separate link on the site offering a “selected example of pesticides that cannot be used in marijuana production” mentions Mallet but not Eagle 20 and Avid.

It’s also not clear when the information was published. The site says that the main list is as of April 10, 2015, yet the orders from the health department to isolate cannabis plants were issued mostly in March, with three issued in early April.

Prior to that, there was no clear written guidance from the state or the city on which pesticides were either banned or permitted for use in growing cannabis.

Since cannabis is still federally illegal, that creates another barrier, because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not yet authorized any pesticides for use on marijuana. That inconsistency has led directly to the current situation, observers said.

Regardless, pest management expert Cranshaw said that while there was a clear lack of guidance previously, “there’s no way now that the list has come out that (the state is) going to allow” the use of Eagle 20, Mallet or Avid.

“It would be clearly illegal, from this point on,” Cranshaw said.

Given that the three pesticides aren’t specifically included in the agriculture agency’s main list, they are by default illegal for use in commercial marijuana grows, Cranshaw said. And that could create further confusion for growers, as many pesticides aren’t mentioned at all.

Standard procedure for agricultural businesses caught using prohibited pesticides is that the contaminated crops are seized and destroyed, usually by a federal agency, Cranshaw said.

“If (a pesticide) isn’t labeled for a crop, it’s subject to seizure and destruction. That’s it. That’s the way it’s always been,” Cranshaw said.

John Andrle, the owner of Denver rec shop L’Eagle Services, estimated that 95% of cultivators across the country use some form of pesticide, and that Eagle 20 is one of the most commonly used, because it’s fantastic for killing mildew on marijuana plants.

“Nothing else gets rid of powdery mildew…it’s a cure-all,” Andrle said. “This is an industry, plain and simple. The more corners you cut, the more money you make.”

John Schroyer can be reached at