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How dirty is your weed? A joint investigation finds high levels of pesticides in products

A skull and crossbones formed by cannabis and two vape pens on a black background with marijuana plants.
(Photo illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times; photos via Getty Images)
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Good morning. It’s Monday, June 17. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

How dirty is your weed?

Weed is legal and subject to regulation in the Golden State. But as a joint investigation (it was right there) by The Times and cannabis industry newsletter WeedWeek found, that doesn’t mean it’s safe, as California regulators are often failing to get contaminated cannabis products off shelves.

The Times and WeedWeek purchased dozens of cannabis products from retail stores, then tested them at private labs. Out of 42 products tested, 25 had concentrations of pesticides above either state-allowed levels or current federal standards for tobacco.

“The contaminants include chemicals tied to cancer, liver failure, thyroid disease and genetic and neurologic harm to users and unborn children,” Times reporter Paige St. John and WeedWeek editor Alex Halperin wrote in a subscriber exclusive. “Most of the pesticides found were in low concentrations that risk long-term harm by repeated use, though the extent of the health threat may not be known for years.”

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However, the testing did show that vapes from five popular brands had levels of pesticides above federal risk thresholds for harm from a single exposure as set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are 66 pesticides California requires testing for, but it’s an outdated list, unchanged in roughly six years. There are many more not included on the state’s list that have been linked to liver cancer, reproductive disorders and more.

Cannabis vape cartridge boxes
Cannabis vape cartridge companies CUREpen, Flavored, Panda Pen, Phire and Dime Industries were tested for harmful chemicals on Jan. 30, 2024, in El Segundo.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

One piece of the problem: Major gaps in regulation “leave policing of the industry largely in the hands of labs financially beholden to the companies whose products they test,” Paige and Alex wrote. “Legislation to require independent fraud and accuracy checks has remained stalled in Sacramento for two years amid backroom negotiations between industry players and regulators.”

Where are state regulators in all this? Mostly silent.

California’s Department of Cannabis Control has yet to propose new regulations, despite years of requests to test for more pesticides.

The department’s director, Nicole Elliott, “declined to be interviewed on the extent of the pesticide threat,” Paige and Alex noted. Some members of her team did talk, though.

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“Employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, complained of a lack of willingness within the agency to take a hard line on pesticide contamination,” Paige and Alex wrote. “One said she was schooled on the importance of ‘not disrupting the market.’”

And that market is huge, as is the potential profit. With billions of consumer dollars out there, it’s not surprising corners were cut — or, more accurately, deadly poison sprayed, to grow more weed more quickly.

Compounding the problem is the lack of data on cannabis’ health effects. That’s due in large part to the federal government’s current classification of marijuana as among dangerous drugs including heroin and LSD, which limits its medical research. That could change soon, though, as the U.S Department of Justice recently proposed reclassifying marijuana.

The state of the industry is also hurting small growers. Paige and Alex spoke with Mary Gaterud, who has grown marijuana on her Humboldt County farm for decades.

“The people who are doing it right get crushed,” she told them. “The bad actors are encouraged and rewarded. And the consumers are poisoned while being told they are safe.”

You can read the in-depth reporting from Paige St. John and Alex Halperin in our subscriber exclusive here. And there’s more from this investigation below:

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Today’s top stories

Firefighters stand on a roadway as hot spots of flames are seen in the background among tree branches and a smoky sky.
Firefighters work against the advancing Post fire on June 16, 2024, in the community of Gorman.
(Eric Thayer / Associated Press)

Climate and environment

Power and politics

Education

More big stories


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Commentary and opinions

Today’s great reads

A man sits on a slab of concrete in a desert lot.
Alvin Taylor sits on a remaining foundation of a home in Section 14 of Palm Springs.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

People of color lost a haven in Palm Springs. A new play dramatizes their loss. Former resident Alvin Taylor “wants audiences to know that a whole world was destroyed when his home ... and dozens of others in Section 14 were either razed or burned to the ground between 1959 and 1968 in acts that the state attorney general’s office said amounted to ‘a city-engineered holocaust,’” Times reporter Tyrone Beason writes.

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How can we make this newsletter more useful? Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


For your downtime

Closeup of a sandwich with rice and a seaweed wrap.
The soft shell crab sandwich from Supamu in Koreatown.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Going out

Staying in

And finally ... a great photo

Show us your favorite place in California! We’re running low on submissions. Send us photos that scream California and we may feature them in an edition of Essential California.

Queen Wilhelmina Garden in Golden Gate Park, photographed in April 2024.
(David Hayashida)

Today’s photo comes from David Hayashida of Greenbrae, Calif.: San Francisco’s flowering Golden Gate Park.

David writes: “Spring in San Francisco is marked by the appearance of magnolia, rhododendron, cherry, tulip, wildflower and other brightly colored blossoms throughout Golden Gate Park. My favorite springtime spot in the park is the Queen Wilhelmina Garden.”

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Have a great day, from the Essential California team

Ryan Fonseca, reporter
Amy Hubbard, deputy editor, Fast Break

Check our top stories, topics and the latest articles on latimes.com.

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