Pesticide scandal shakes confidence in California cannabis market

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Image of flower being tested at state-regulated cannabis lab

(Photo by Matthew Staver for MJBizDaily/Emerald)

California cannabis brands, retailers and testing labs are scrambling to regain the confidence of consumers in the wake of a pesticide scandal that has poisoned good will in the state’s regulated industry.

Some retailers, such as Long Beach-based Catalyst Cannabis Co., are running their own independent lab tests to sniff out potentially contaminated products and identify their source.

Meanwhile, the Department of Cannabis Control (DCC), the state’s chief marijuana regulator, is facing criticism from nearly every segment of the industry after a report by the Los Angeles Times and WeedWeek that highlighted the presence of pesticides in several regulated products.

Some products tested well beyond thresholds set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a single exposure, underscoring potential safety hazards for consumers and presenting a significant challenge to retailers and other license holders.

DIY testing

Image of Elliot Lewis of Catalyst with product he plans to have tested for pesticides.
Elliot Lewis, CEO of Catalyst Cannabis Co., said he pulled a selection of products from the company’s retail shelves to have them tested for pesticides. (Photo courtesy of Elliot Lewis.)

Catalyst Cannabis Co., one of California’s largest retail chains with 28 locations, is utilizing several state-licensed labs to test about 20 stock-keeping units (SKUs) from eight or nine marijuana brands it carries.

The tests are considered full-panel, akin to the standard test the DCC requires to gauge the presence of pesticides, mold, heavy metals, THC potency and other attributes.

Catalyst CEO Elliot Lewis plans to randomly test products from his store shelves on a rolling basis.

Testing his total retail inventory – 4,000 to 5,000 SKUs – is unrealistic and economically unviable, he said.

Testing priorities

Lewis said he plans to prioritize testing pre-rolls and vapes, which often are infused with THC distillate sourced from several vendors, making them more prone to contamination.

“There’s no way of knowing that that product you have didn’t get switched out – or that the lab didn’t cheat – unless you test it yourself,” Lewis told MJBizDaily in a phone interview.

“We’re moving as fast as we can on these issues.”

Lewis said if he finds that brands, manufacturers or distributors provided Catalyst with dirty products, he is ready to call them out on social media and might initiate retail bans.

“Our shelf will be safe, (come) hell or high water, and ultimately that responsibility lies with me and the folks at Catalyst – and any other resources we have at our disposal, including our power and voice in the industry – to make sure that we’re 100% clean,” the outspoken executive said.

Recalls and rebuttals

The recent publicity around products that failed testing and were for sale in regulated stores already has led to a product recall by state regulators.

The DCC on June 25 issued a mandatory recall for a 1-gram Curepen vape cartridge from West Coast Cure, one of the top-selling brands in California.

The product, which was sold at 169 stores as early as September 2023, was cited because of the presence of chlorfenapyr, a greenhouse pesticide typically sprayed directly on leaves to combat caterpillars, fungus gnats, mites and other pests.

Chlorfenapyr is banned in California.

‘Rely on labs’

West Coast Cure (WCC), which was linked to several contaminated products in the L.A. Times-WeedWeek report, told MJBizDaily that every product the company brings to market has passed lab testing.

Products that fail testing are destroyed, WCC said.

The Orange County-based company said it also runs quality-control tests on sourced materials, and if those materials fail testing, the product is returned to vendors.

“The Department of Cannabis Control oversees licensed labs. We rely on the labs to verify that the material we purchase meets state standards,” a WCC spokesperson told MJBizDaily via email.

“We advocate for a system that guarantees consistent, uniform and accurate testing by all labs.”

Consumer confidence shaken

Concerns about product contamination and composition are rattling consumer confidence in the world’s largest regulated market.

Industry executive Bradley “James” Gude has been a loyal WCC customer for nearly two years, preferring the brand’s line of sativa pre-rolls.

But since the DCC issued a voluntary recall on WCC’s Premium Cure Flower on June 12, Gude said he is weighing other options.

“I’m now open to another brand that (is) playing by the rules,” said Gude, the CEO of Blackleaf SMS Marketing, a Los Angeles-based provider of text-marketing services for retailers.

Catalyst’s Lewis said he has noticed a slight dip in business since the L.A. Times-WeedWeek report.

He’s also contemplating in-house certifications on products, based on full-panel testing results.

“The hope is that we can clean it up and reinstill consumer confidence,” he said.

Reviewing COAs

The Artist Tree, which operates eight stores in the state, has been receiving inquiries about the safety of its products from customers at several of its locations, according to founder and Chief Compliance Officer Lauren Fontein.

“We responded to customers letting them know that we are happy to provide certificates of analysis (COAs) upon request and that we carefully vet each product we sell to ensure it’s compliant,” Fontein told MJBizDaily via email.

“We also have test result information readily available for customers on many of our products, which customers can access by scanning QR codes.”

Increase in lab testing

Many licensed operators worry the saga has again cast a negative light on California testing labs while damaging the credibility of the regulated marijuana market.

But Nate Winokur, vice president of strategy and operations at BelCosta Labs in Long Beach, said he welcomes the scrutiny.

“The idea that there’s a sharper lens focused on safety and wellness in cannabis, we consider (that) a good thing,” he told MJBizDaily in a phone interview.

He said BelCosta Labs has benefited from the fallout, picking up new customers including large-scale operators as well as retailers with in-house brands.

A similar business bump occurred a few months ago, after the DCC suspended the license of Verity Analytics, a San Diego testing lab.

“A lot of people came over to us as Verity closed,” Winokur said.

“We saw an absolute uptick in our clients who were testing with pesticide issues because they were going to a lab that was this bad actor.

“They didn’t even know how contaminated their products were.”

Now, another challenge awaits: educating consumers and other stakeholders that a few bad apples haven’t spoiled the bunch.

“We have a lot of cleanup work to do,” Winokur said.

Blame game intensifies

The recent strife has fueled infighting among marijuana brands, retailers and testing labs.

In one example, Infinite Chemical Analysis in San Diego and Anresco Labs in San Francisco filed a lawsuit last week against 13 testing labs, claiming they inflated potency or disregarded the presence of certain contaminants in COAs.

The DCC also is facing widespread criticism for allowing the situation to fester for years without much action, industry sources said.

“A lack of oversight from the state, up until a certain point, has been an issue which has emboldened bad-actor labs,” Winokur added.

George Sadler, CEO and co-founder of the Gelato brand and a store located in Lake Elsinore, is frustrated by the lack of oversight, guidance and communication from regulators, particularly related to recalls.

The DCC in January issued a mandatory recall on Gelato Orangeade hybrid cannabis flower distributed by Urban Therapies Distribution because it contained aspergillus flavus, a soil fungus that can infect and contaminate seed crops before and after harvest.

When MJBizDaily visited the company’s headquarters in Chula Vista that month, officials said the recalled batch had received a clean COA from a licensed lab.

Sadler said in an email to MJBizDaily that all products entering its manufacturing facility received clean COAs, and materials were retested to verify results.

Once a product is packaged and transferred into distribution – a requirement in California – it’s tested again, according to Sadler.

“If the final product on the shelf is found to have pesticides or other harmful items, it is not the brand or the manufacturer that is at fault. We have done our due diligence,” he added.

“The DCC has made a practice of recalling products and publicly calling out the brand and not holding the lab responsible.”

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Regulator responds, operators do not

The DCC told MJBizDaily it’s focused on increasing enforcement actions across the supply chain.

The agency already has issued 23 product recalls this year, widely surpassing three recalls a year issued in 2023 and 2022.

So far in 2024, the DCC already has issued 158 license denials, citations, fines, suspensions and revocations, a 53% increase compared to 2023.

“The Department remains focused on increasing its capacity to enforce the regulatory framework set in California law by supporting licensees who adhere to some of the strictest regulatory standards in the nation while continuing to take aggressive enforcement actions across the supply chain on those who do not,” DCC spokesperson David Hafner told MJBizDaily.

Several brands and retailers with contaminated products – including some mentioned in the L.A. Times-WeedWeek report – declined to comment to MJBizDaily or didn’t respond.

“At this time, Stiiizy doesn’t have any updates to share on the pesticides story,” a company spokesperson told MJBizDaily.

The Los Angeles-based marijuana company dominates market share in California in vape sales and is the largest retail operator in the state.

Chris Casacchia can be reached at chris.casacchia@mjbizdaily.com.