Two recent developments illustrate the progress we have made towards ending marijuana prohibition, and the new challenges we face as we push forward into this Brave New World of legalized weed.
In a handful of states, instead of worrying about whether those who grow marijuana will be arrested and jailed, we have the luxury of worrying about such things as whether the marijuana was sprayed with unhealthy pesticides during the cultivation process, and how to minimize the impact the odor from marijuana cultivation sites may have on the neighbors.
Let’s start with the pesticide issue.
One of the principal public health advantages that legalization brings is the ability to require that marijuana be tested by a certified lab before it is sold, assuring the consumer that it is free from potentially harmful insecticides and pesticides. At NORML, as a consumer lobby, this is something we have always supported, but so long as marijuana remained illegal, those protections were impossible to implement. In fact, in states where marijuana prohibition remains intact, any laboratory that tested the product would be risking criminal prosecution for possession and conspiring to sell marijuana. And any elected official, when confronted with this suggestion, would have laughed us out of their office. There is simply no mechanism for assuring the safety or purity of illegal substances, so legalization is a necessary precursor.
But now that marijuana is fully legal in four states; fully decriminalized in Washington, DC; and legalized for some version of medical use in 37 states, this common-sense step to assure the product is safe is feasible.
Breaking with their traditional position that so long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, they would not provide guidance as to which pesticides and insecticides were safe for marijuana, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced they are offering a process under which certain pesticides could be approved for use on marijuana, in those states that now permit legal marijuana use for medical purposes, or for all adults.
This has already surfaced as an issue in Colorado, where the state has reportedly quarantined tens of thousands of marijuana plants because of concerns the crop was doused in harmful chemicals. Without some guidance from the EPA, the licensed growers are caught between their need to protect against infestations such as spider mites, powdery mildew and root rot, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost inventory; and the demands of state regulators and the public for a safe product. Concerned consumers have begun picketing certain retail outlets in CO, claiming they are putting their customers at risk because of their use of pesticides, and advocating for the use of organic pest controls.
This new process announced by the EPA appears to offer a relatively quick process for legal growers to learn which pesticides are safe for use on marijuana, and which are not. The director of the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Division of Plant Industry has called this regulatory shift “a huge step forward for the EPA, the industry and us. It allows us to move forward in a very normal manner on pesticides for marijuana, just like any other crop.” An important step towards NORMLization of marijuana.
Next, let’s consider the problem with marijuana odor potentially effecting the quality of life of the neighbors.
Some contentiousness between marijuana growers and their neighbors has been simmering for some time, even under prohibition, but with the advance of full legalization, those problems are gaining more attention. And different jurisdictions are dealing with this problem differently.
In Oregon, a state with a “right to farm” statute, farmers are protected from nuisance complaints that might arise because of “customary noises, smells, dust or other nuisances associated with farming.” But that has not kept some neighbors from complaining, and some are asking that growers be required to have a set-back from the adjacent property where marijuana cannot legally be grown, to protect neighbors from the strong odor of marijuana in the late growing cycle and the harvesting period, which some neighbors claim keeps them inside during those times.
And in Colorado, the small town of Basalt in Pitkin County, only a few miles outside of Aspen, is the site of High Valley Farms, a 25,000 square foot indoor cultivation center that supplies one of the 6 retail outlets (the Silverpeak Apothecary) in Aspen. Because of public complaints about the odor of marijuana, the Pitkin County Commissioners have issued a stern warning to High Valley Farms to eradicate the marijuana odor that has infuriated nearby neighbors, or face the termination of their agricultural license when it comes up for renewal in September. The license was granted with the condition that the farm would not emit any smells to the detriment of the lifestyle of nearby residents.
In addition to the complains about the impact on the quality of life, a number of Basalt property owners have also complained that their property values have declined and “what smells like money” to the cultivation center “smells like property devaluation” to the home owners. The CEO of High Valley Farms has acknowledged some technical problems with their smell-mitigation technology, but has promised the problem will be resolved within a few weeks. They obviously have a strong financial incentive to resolve the problem, and quickly.
So while these two new issues are real, there are solutions available and they must be quickly implemented by those in the industry. The pioneers who hold the licenses in this new industry must not be allowed to put the health of consumers at risk, or diminish the quality of life of their neighbors, in their rush to get rich. They must demonstrate they are responsible corporate citizens, or be replaced by others who will.