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SoCal Connected Investigation Finds Deadly Pesticides in Marijuana Products in Illegal Los Angeles Stores

Marijuana being processed at lab by technician | Still from SoCal Connected's "Cannabis Country"
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Cannabis products from joints to vape cartridges purchased from 11 illegal marijuana dispensaries and delivery services across the Los Angeles area failed safety testing that revealed they contained varying amounts of pesticides so deadly some have been banned around the world, a SoCal Connected investigation found.

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The investigation, reported in the Dec. 17 program, tested 36 products, finding evidence of the pesticides Fipronil, Carbofuran, Chlorfenapyr, Dichlorvos, and Paclobutrazol, which the California Department of Pesticide Regulation lists as pesticides that should never be used in cannabis farming.

More than 3,000 times the legal amount of the fungicide Myclobutanil allowed was found on a pre-rolled joint handed out free to customers at Culver City Healing. When heated, the chemical can produce toxic fumes including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen chloride and hydrogen cyanide, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. 

“I mean, there was so much Myclobutanil on this particular sample, you would think that it was accidentally poured into it,” Keledjian said. “This is a lot.”

Carbofuran, a pesticide banned in Canada and the European Union, and prohibited from use with food crops in the United States, was found in a sample of Dank Gummies purchased at Beverly Medical Collective in Koreatown. A vape cartridge called Asian Fantasy purchased from another business failed for the element mercury, which can cause serious damage to the body.

“These are failing miserably,” Keledjian said.

SoCal Connected reached out to nearly all the businesses that sold the failed products for comment. All of them said they were surprised by the results. One of unlicensed businesses, Save Greens, insisted they were licensed. The Bureau of Cannabis Control confirmed that Save Greens and the rest of the businesses SoCal Connected purchased products from were not licenced by the state.

Although marijuana became legal for sale at licensed shops in California three years ago, the black market is still thriving, SoCal Connected found. Legal growers might spend six-figure amounts while wading through bureaucratic red tape to become legal.

So some growers, including criminal Mexican drug organizations, chose to go underground. Their products make their way to the illegal shops, police and experts said.

“We’ve seen an increase in what we have determined are cartel grows,” Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon told SoCal Connected. “We also know there’s human trafficking going on related to the cartels…They are in essence bringing slave labor from other parts of the world.”

The illegal operations have resulted in the poisonous pot pipeline, operating in the darkness of millions of acres of dense forest in Trinity, Humboldt and Shasta counties. Law enforcement officers and environmentalists say the illegal grows have resulted in a serious impact on public lands, where farmers leave trash, cut down trees, and spread toxic pesticides that kill wildlife.

Greta Wengert and Mourad Gabriel, directors of the non-profit Integral Ecology Research Center in Blue Lake, told SoCal Connected they hope to reclaim 170 illegal grow sites in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest before 2019 ends.

Investigating in steep terrain inaccessible for cars, sometimes miles deep into the forest, Wengert and Gabriel have found remnants of the illegal farms, including hundreds of feet of rubber piping used in makeshift irrigation systems from nearby streams and creeks. Growers have often ransacked the land.

“It’s free land,” said Sgt. Nate Trujillo of the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office.. “There’s no water bill. There’s no power bill. There’s no trash bill. And once they use what they want, and they get their product out, all this is left behind for the public to come clean up.”

SoCal Connected joined Gabriel on a recent journey into the forest where he found a bottle of Carbofuran, the banned deadly pesticide. The bottle was made in Mexico. Once in the soil, Carbofuran can remain for months, sickening humans who find it and killing wildlife that eats it. Authorities have blamed pesticides for killing the forest-dwelling Pacific Fisher, a mammal similar to the honey badger.

“We test for 73 different pesticides across four different chemical families,” Gabriel said. “And we found upwards of 100 different chemicals on site.”

As the SoCal Connected investigation discovered, those chemicals used at the illegal farms are often found in products for sale in Southern California. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office began testing products at an illegal shop, finding a chemical that is used to thicken the turf at golf courses.

“There is no reason why in California today anybody should be risking their health by buying product from a location that isn’t properly licensed….because only the licensed locations are required to test their product,” City Attorney Mike Feuer said.

State investigators also are cracking down. During three days last week, state Bureau of Cannabis Control agents and investigators from the state Consumer Affairs department’s Cannabis Enforcement Unit served search warrants at 22 unlicensed marijuana businesses in the Los Angeles area. Agents seized $8.8 million in cannabis and cannabis products, confiscated 9,885 illegal vape pens and $128,742 in cash, the bureau said. 

Bureau Chief Lori Ajax called the action a “huge success.”

“We look forward to working with local jurisdictions and law enforcement as we continue to shut down unlicensed operators in the illicit cannabis market,” Ajax said in a statement.

Five of the businesses KCET Socal Connected visited to purchase products were among those raided: 

Culver Healing Center; Save Greens, also in Culver City, which was searched twice; Westside Meds in Los Angeles; Burdank 25 Cap and Green Door in North Hollywood.

Feuer said his office has closed 150 illegal shops and has cases against hundreds of others. Meanwhile, hundreds more legal shops are waiting for approval.

“This is like any criminal enterprise,” Feuer said. “You know, it doesn’t matter what the nature of the crime is, if you shut it down in one location, it is possible it might emerge someplace else. But we’re taking every step we can to diminish the likelihood that that happens.”

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