How Clean is Your Weed? Medicating down South

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For those of us living in illegal states, the process of getting our medicine (cannabis) can be a tricky one. We have to navigate through fear of police, sketchy neighborhood dealers, and of course driving/traveling with an illegal substance. So, let’s say we successfully do all of that navigating and make it back to our safe place to smoke. We go through our pre-smoke ritual which (for me) consists of inspecting the flower, grinding the flower, adding water to the bong, packing the bowl and finally lighting it with a deep inhale to top it off. Now — through all of that navigating and ritual did you ever stop to think about where that flower came from? Who else’s hands have touched it before you? Where, when, and how was it grown? Well… if you haven’t had those thoughts before, you will after reading this!

The growth of the cannabis plant is just the start of a long journey that it will take before being crushed up and rolled into a joint at your discretion. That plant didn’t grow itself though, did it? Someone had to grow it. Was that grower thinking of the end user smoking their plant, or were they thinking about maximizing profits and moving onto the next buyer? We don’t know. Living in an illegal state with no sort of cannabis regulations, we have no knowledge or control over how the grower is taking care of their plant.

During all of the stages of cannabis plant life, one of the biggest potential causes of health issues for the end user is the use of harmful pesticides to combat insect infestation. There’s a long list of cannabis-hungry insects that growers must look out for including aphids, spider mites, and thrips to name a few. The easiest way to avoid infestation all together as a grower is to ensure (and maintain) a clean growing environment and adequate air movement/filtration. Should insects find their way into a grow, it’s almost guaranteed that some form of pesticide or insecticidal soap will be used to clean the plant. While those pesticides and insecticidal soaps would typically be cleared for safety and regulated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in most agricultural situations, because the federal government has cannabis classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic, it does not. The “EPA does not establish restrictions for pesticides used in cannabis production, or tolerances (or exemptions from tolerances) for allowable pesticide residues on cannabis” (Jay Feldman). That being said, in 2019 the EPA approved a few pesticides for use on hemp plants, but that means plants containing less than 0.3% THC.

“In California and elsewhere, cannabis has long been grown with the help of large quantities of pesticides, including some intended only for ornamental plants and many that are associated with cancer or other serious health effects. But cannabis yields are valuable, and losing a crop to mites or mold means forfeiting many thousands of dollars. Growing plants indoors to escape detection often increases the risk that insect infestations and harmful microbes will spread quickly. For illicit growers with little knowledge of other methods and no regulatory oversight, it is easier and cheaper just to spray.” (“Into the Weeds: Regulating Pesticides in Cannabis”, Nate Seltenrich)

Throughout a cannabis grow, not only do growers have to worry about infestation from insects, but it is also crucially important to stay attentive to humidity and moisture levels around their plants. If high humidity levels allow moisture to form and stay on a plant, it opens the door for mold growth on the buds. This mold growth is fairly common in the grow world, and is known as “bud rot”. According to Adrienne Santos-Longhurst of Healthline, “If you smoke moldy weed, you might experience symptoms like coughing, nausea, and vomiting, which are more unpleasant than dangerous. But if you’re allergic to mold, you could end up with inflammation of your sinuses or lungs…In people with weakened immune systems or lung conditions, inhaling smoke from weed that contains certain mold species can have serious health consequences.”

Example of bud rot

With this in mind, I reached out to a trusted grower friend of my mine to ask a couple of generic questions about the quality of product on the streets in illegal states. As an all-natural organic cannabis grower himself, he had lots to say on the subject of lazy and careless growers. Perhaps the most concerning thing I took from our conversation was his statement about west coast growers and their focus on profits over safety — “I have a few growers [on the] west coast in California and they told me that a lot of crops that get infested with bugs or mold they just send it to black market states to [hit] the streets. They can’t legally sell it if it hasn’t passed health inspection so they just [sell] it to people on the streets to get sick off it.”

One thing to note about cannabis plants is that they react to their environment as though they were a sponge. The plant roots will absorb and react to basically anything that they are exposed to during their life cycle. This includes things like metal contaminants in soil, synthetic additives in nutrients, and even stale air in a grow room or tent. Regulations created through various agencies have led to cannabis testing policies in legal states that place caps on natural and synthetic contaminants. These testing policies place limits and restrictions on pesticides, heavy metals, microbes, residual solvents, and mycotoxins. After products clear through official testing, a link to a certified lab test is placed visibly on the product for consumers to see and read prior to purchasing. While it is my understanding that there are a few sneaky ways for growers and companies to get “dirty product” through testing, it is still a massive safety advantage that legal state residents have over people living in illegal states.

Regulatory testing doesn’t just promote safety in the quality of the plant, it also increases safety in providing the appropriate dosage of medication. Without getting too far into the science of weed (we may do that in a later post) there are two main factors that determine the strength and potency of the product — cannabinoids and terpenes. The cannabinoid profile will tell you the percentage of active cannabinoids in the product (for example, a strain of weed that has 22% THC and 2% CBD). Those listed percentages, THC and CBD, are two of the main cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Without proper testing, there is no way to determine or calculate how much of a given cannabinoid you are getting when you use the product. For someone like myself with severe anxiety, it’s possible that a strain too high in THC could spike paranoia and induce an anxiety attack.

Image from Cannabis.net

Terpenes are naturally occurring molecules found in plants that provide smell and taste. Every cannabis strain (and specific phenotype to dive even deeper) has its own unique aroma because of it’s terpene profile. Furthermore, terpenes blend and combine with cannabinoids to produce an “entourage effect” which creates that intoxicating feeling we get from cannabis. Different terpenes are known for creating differing entourage effects when used. For example, the terpene limonene is known to produce anti-inflammatory and stress relieving effects. The terpene camphene has a profile that produces pain relieving and nausea reducing effects. Unfortunately for cannabis as medicine users in illegal states, your friendly neighborhood weed man is not very likely to know the cannabinoid nor terpene makeup of your medicine in order to help you dose properly.

I don’t mean to just throw fear and more anxiety your way by bringing up these safety concerns regarding our medicine. I do, however, want you to be as safe as possible both while getting your medicine and once you’re ready to use it. Take some pride in the medicine you’re about to consume and inspect it before using it. Make sure it looks, feels, and smells right! Bud rot can be fairly easily spotted with your eyes (or a magnifying glass if you want to be careful). A simple search on Google will show you the appearance of white fluff or brown coating commonly associated with bud rot. Unfortunately if you’re shopping from the friendly neighborhood weed man, there’s not going to be much of any way to verify the growing conditions and environmental contaminants that could found their way into your medicine. That being said, my recommendation is that you always try to buy from people that you trust and people that personally enjoy the product they sell. In my experience, the friendly neighborhood weed men that are proud of and smoke their own product are more likely to have good quality medicine.

Perhaps some day the prohibition and stigma against cannabis will subside, but until then I hope you stay safe!

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