EPA Blocks Cannabis Pesticides

By David Heldreth

     Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt don’t appear to like government oversight, unless you ask them about cannabis.
     Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Trump administration, sent letters to four states in June to inform them that the EPA intended to disapprove their registrations for four cannabis pesticides. In stark contrast, Pruitt and the EPA have attempted to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Clean Water rule and methane-leak protections. It seems that Pruitt finds more to fear from the cannabis plant than from pollution. This should be no surprise coming from a former Oklahoma Attorney General who attempted to challenge the legality of Colorado’s marijuana laws and their impact on other states.
     General Hydroponics, a Scotts Miracle-Gro subsidiary, along with the states of California, Nevada, Vermont and Washington filed the first-ever applications to register pesticide use on cannabis with the EPA in April. The EPA works with state agricultural departments for unique crop and pest issues under what’s commonly known as “Special Local Needs” (SLN) registrations. The four states submitted SLN registrations for Azamax, Defguard, Exile and Prevasyn products that contain azadirachtin; Bacillus amyloliquefaciens strain D747; potassium salts of fatty acids; and capsicum oleoresin extract, garlic oil, and soybean oil.
     All four pesticides filed for registration by General Hydroponics are organic-based products and all except Prevasyn have already received certification from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). Pruitt’s letter stated that the EPA had found no risks with the four pesticides. However, he cited a perceived different pattern of use under the SLN registrations as a reason to deny the registrations. An EPA spokesperson clarified Pruitt’s ruling in an email in June.
     “While EPA has not identified any significant risks to human health or the environment from these pesticides, the Agency is notifying states that it intends to disapprove state registrations of pesticides for the purpose of growing a crop that is generally illegal under federal law,” an EPA spokesperson said.
     Local hydroponics stores and farmers seem to agree with the EPA that the products are safe for people and the environment. Thanh Nguyen, of Hydro 4 Less in Tukwila, Washington, said his customers have asked for the products by name and that they’ve sold well.
     “My dad even uses this (Azamax) on our squash and tomatoes in the garden at home,” Nguyen said. “I’m sure some of our customers are using these for medical cannabis, but it’s kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell ... situation. You don’t want to pry, especially with the political environment.”
     Now organic pesticides that the EPA deems safe for the environment and the public cannot be used to protect the cannabis plant. This leaves growers to make their own decisions or follow local and state guidelines on safety. Under the former presidential administration, the EPA sent a letter to the Colorado Department of Agriculture establishing guidelines for obtaining SLN registrations for cannabis pesticides in 2015. The guidelines centered on safety profiles that mirror those for tobacco and food crops. This pathway to protect consumers has now, at least temporarily, become a dead end.
     Pruitt didn’t disapprove or deny the SLN registrations; he merely submitted an intent to disapprove in his letters to the states. Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) Communications Director Hector Castro confirmed that the EPA hadn’t officially disapproved them yet. Castro said that Washington had withdrawn the SLN registrations to avoid official disapproval, after consulting with the EPA. Castro said he was unable to further discuss the state and EPA discussions or logic for the decision.
     The lack of an official disapproval, which seems small on the surface, reveals much more. EPA guidelines located on their website state that if a disapproval is issued, sale and distribution by the registrant or other persons would be in violation of §12(a)(1)(A), beginning on the date of disapproval. The subsection mentioned states that the use or advertisement of a pesticide for a use beyond its EPA-registered label is against the law. The withdrawal of the SLN registrations seems to circumvents this regulation.
     This is important because the four pesticide products are still for sale and are listed on Colorado, Nevada and Washington’s lists of pesticides approved for cannabis, despite the EPA and Pruitt’s notice of intent to disapprove.
     I attempted to confirm these details with the EPA following their initial response, but my questions were left unanswered after three weeks of back-and-forth responses. Typically, a journalist would write something such as: The EPA refused to comment before deadline. However, after having the EPA ask for my deadline for publication—only to miss it three weeks in row—I believe it is appropriate to disclose my attempt to clarify these facts and the EPA staff’s resistance so readers get the entire story. In a final attempt to get a response I sent an email in which I said that if they failed to respond to my questions before a deadline of August 4, I would be forced to disclose their continued negligence—as it appeared either to be from incompetence or malicious attempt to stifle the freedom of press.
     It appears that the Trump administration may not be in favor of improving cannabis access and regulation. Pruitt and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are trying to take their departments back in time. Sessions has reinstituted property seizures prior to convictions for drug crimes, sent letters to congressmen and -women, pressing them to remove medical marijuana protections, and recently released a letter to Washington Governor Jay Inslee that appears to portend a coming federal law enforcement action against his state. Only time will tell whether we are on the edge of a green rush or a tidal wave of law enforcement.