As we move forward with cannabis legalization, there are many old habits that will die hard. Some, we will miss - like the quirk and community of the pre-prohibition industry. Others, we may be glad to see gone - like the non-uniformity of testing protocols and unjust laws keeping prisoners of the war on drugs behind bars.
Before the recreational market established in California, dispensaries were not required to test products before putting them in their shops. Cultivators were able to be more lenient with grow practices, and some would take this opportunity to use unsafe pest management systems to preserve their crops and grow beautiful buds - safe from disease or pests, but questionable for the health of the consumer. Years of relying on pesticides to protect crops lead to a crash towards the end of 2017. Sourcing plant material that was verified clean of pesticides became more and more difficult.
Since California has shifted into the recreational market, some cultivators have been rocked by the new regulations for contaminants in their flowers. Many products once on the shelves of dispensaries now do not make the cut, due to unsafe levels of pesticides present in flowers, extracts, and other consumables. Many popular strains were left off the shelves due to higher than passable pesticide content.
In 2018, the California state's Bureau of Cannabis Control surveyed 10,695 samples of cannabis products ranging from edibles and tinctures, to flowers and extracts. Based on the current regulations for testing, 1,904 samples failed, 403 of these failures were from pesticide contamination.
There is speculation that the statewide regulations are overly strict for testing requirements. Industry groups like the California Growers Association are among those concerned with the new policies not reflecting guidelines based on public health and safety. In outside industries there are more specified requirements for product safety and testing, meaning certain contaminant levels are deemed passable based on what is safe or unsafe to consume. However, the cannabis industry is a different beast - it is interlaced with many movements focused on innovation, sustainability, community, and social-equity. Perhaps these strict guidelines for testing will provide the landscape for innovation in quality control, even beyond cannabis. Ruling out safe to consume pesticides isn't the ideal scenario, but it is important to re-examine what is ethical or safe cultivation practice, as well as what is possible outside the box.
So what do we do: loose the strains that we know and love?
Not if science can help it!
As scientific techniques begin to fuse with the cannabis market, there is a light at the end of this pesticide-ridden tunnel. And that light is shining on micropropagation.
Micropropagation is exactly what it sounds like, a micro version of cultivation. You may have heard the term 'tissue culture' thrown around before; it's simply tiny plants grown inside a sterile environment. This growing practice has been around since the early 1920's and is used in agriculture for a number of benefits.
One major perk to growing cannabis in culture is that this process can help clean and restore vitality of the plant. When culturing a plant, you are reducing the plant size significantly which will also reduce any remaining contaminants in the plant. Depending on the concentration of the contaminant, you can eliminate any foreign material from the plant tissue in just a few generations in culture.
This process could be the key to the restoration and preservation of many beloved strains that may have been pulled off the shelves for failing test results. Currently, there are a number of cultivation companies in California that offer tissue culture services, but more and more growers are taking matters into their own hands.
Cultivators are now establishing their own in-house micropropagation laboratories to manage their own genetic stock. In these labs growers are able to preserve their own strains, while saving space and materials that would have once gone to mother plant stock. That means more room for delicious, healthy flowers! Despite how tiny these plantlets are, they are making a huge impact on the quality of cannabis.
Micropropagation may be one of many technologies to help end the use of dangerous pesticides. For now, we will have to work with the strict regulations on product testing, and keep an open mind when integrating tech into the cannabis industry. So when you see little plants in petri dishes, have no fear: it's just the future of clean cannabis.
All Images from The Clear Cultivation Laboratory