Huge piles of moldy marijuana in Southern Oregon are going up in smoke this fall after record rains in October took a toll on many crops.
"At first I was freaking out about how much we are losing," said Brent Kenyon, a cannabis activist who helped craft the state's rules on pot. "But I've heard a lot of really sad stories from people who lost a majority of their crops."
Kenyon estimates about 20 percent or more of his crop will be burned at his farm near White City.
Overall, this will be a tough year for growers, who faced an onslaught of russet mites in the summer and then mold in the fall, Kenyon said. The mold destroys the marijuana flowers and spreads quickly, particularly after heavy rains.
Jackson County has one-third of all commercial marijuana grow sites in the state, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Kenyon has held several bonfires using moldy marijuana stacked about 10 feet high. He likens his losses to the pears that drop on the ground in orchards throughout the valley.
"We had an acceptable loss given the circumstances," he said.
To combat these problems, Kenyon said he expects many growers turned to pesticides or fungicides, but the amount being used could likely exceed the limits allowed under state testing rules.
"I'm expecting an 80-percent fail rate as they test for pesticides," he said.
Kenyon said the new testing requirements are so vigorous they're picking up on chemicals used to spray telephone poles that drift into nearby gardens.
Kenyon, who owns The Wharf restaurant in Medford and runs various marijuana-related businesses including a consulting firm, Kenyon and Associates, said he will be pushing for higher thresholds for pesticides at the state level. "You can buy table grapes in the store that have more pesticides than cannabis," he said.
Kenyon said the state should move quickly to allow marijuana to be sold with higher levels of pesticides but require a label that would alert the consumer until new limits can be established. He said Colorado took a similar approach.
If the state doesn't ease up on the testing requirements, Kenyon said he fears more marijuana will be sold on the black market.
The OLCC has had anecdotal information that mold has been a problem this year, but so far there is no clear answer as to how much of the retail marijuana crop was lost.
"I've heard lots of reports about mold and pot this year," said Rob Patridge, chairman of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Patridge said he's aware of a push in the marijuana industry to increase pesticide limits, but he said that will have to be worked out in the Legislature.
Anthony Smith, owner of Kenevir Research Lab in Central Point and the only licensed marijuana testing facility in Jackson County, said he's seen only about a 10 percent testing failure rate, or slightly more, as growers adjust to new requirements that test for 60 pesticide or fungicide substances in marijuana. Prior to Oct. 1, the state required testing for only a couple dozen substances.
However, when Smith begins testing oils extracted from cannabis in the near future, he's anticipating a higher failure rate of 60 to 80 percent. The same extraction process that concentrates the active ingredient in marijuana also concentrates the pesticides, he said.
"The biggest public health threat in cannabis right now is pesticides in concentrates," he said.
One substance in particular he's seeing a lot of is myclobutanil, a fungicide in a popular product known as Eagle 20, which is applied to edible agricultural products including grapes, apples and spinach.
Smith said growers are going through a period where they will have to adjust from an industry that had little regulation to one that is highly regulated.
At the same time, he said the state should remove some of the substances from the testing protocol because they are rarely found in the samples.
"It just makes the list more technical to accomplish," he said. "There are some pesticides on the list that we don't see, and it makes the testing more expensive and slower."
But Smith said he doesn't think his lab is backlogged considering the amount of work that goes into each sample.
"We've gone from an unregulated testing industry that was offering 24-hour turnaround and $100 testing," Smith said. "The growers are not super happy that the turnaround is three weeks, but I do not consider that a backlog."
Despite Kenyon's losses, he's still got a lot of marijuana that is being dried and manicured, while any marijuana with mold is culled.
"Our priority is to have the cleanest medicine," he said.
One of the workers, Andy Corda, 28, a migrant worker from Transylvania in Romania, said he enjoyed the work, while showing a marijuana flower with mold that he tossed into a plastic bin.
"To be honest, it is the dream," he said.