Inside The Weird And Wild Crusade For Clean Pot

Photo Credit: Alexandra Hootnick

Late last winter, I found myself barreling down the freeway at 80 mph with a man who goes by the name Ziggy. Ziggy has been growing weed for 43 years, since the tender age of 15. He may be a criminal, but in the context of California’s anarchic cannabis industry, he seems like a good egg, or at least smarter than most. Rain falls in great sheets all around us, but the pickup truck he calls the Beast hurtles onward, its monster-size tires swaying with the curves of the 101. He keeps a practiced hand on the steering wheel and brings a small shovel of cocaine to his nose, eyes never leaving the road.

“That’s Colombian supreme!” Ziggy roars, and with a jack-o’-lantern grin hands the spent spoon to his business partner in the back seat, a former alcohol-industry executive named Michael Harvey. Harvey is a quiet man with thin lips and an impish smile. I first met him in 2015, over beers at a dark bar near the state capitol, where he was meeting with a lobbyist in the lead-up to legalization. “I’m not here,” Harvey told me at the time, hoping his political string-pulling would remain invisible. “You didn’t see me.”

Over the course of the past month and a half, Ziggy and Harvey had driven more than 10,000 miles together, crisscrossing California in a mad dash to find uncontaminated pot. Legalization had finally passed a few months earlier, and regulations were still being worked out. Ziggy, the calculating criminal, and Harvey, the weed-loving corporate type, believed that when rules for pesticides went into effect, there would be an immediate shortage of clean product, and prices would skyrocket. They had seen what happened when Oregon implemented stringent standards for pesticides in legal pot: Hardly anyone was able to meet them. Within weeks, dispensary shelves in Portland were nearly empty.

Developing rules for pesticides has been one of the trickiest tasks for states undertaking legalization. And unfortunately, pretty much all of the marijuana in the United States is drenched in harmful chemicals. There’s no good way to quantify the problem, because the majority of weed is still sold by drug dealers, and no one has done studies on what smoking or vaping these substances can do to you. But let’s just say that if you like pot, you have absolutely exposed yourself to chemicals that can damage your central nervous system, mess with your hormones and give you cancer. There are toxicants in our vape pens, in our fancy prepackaged edibles and in the soil and water near many marijuana farms.

For legal crops, an agrochemical company will create a product to combat a bug or fungus, pay for research and then submit the results to the Environmental Protection Agency for review. But because the federal government is pretending the whole state-legal weed thing isn’t happening, the EPA won’t put money toward the approval of insecticides or fungicides for marijuana. Legalization has allowed pot to be grown at a larger scale than ever before, requiring far more pesticides, but without EPA guidance, state governments are stuck making educated guesses about what to ban.

Ziggy and Harvey figured that once the new rules kicked in, pot shops would be so desperate to keep their shelves stocked, they’d be willing to pay a premium. So they decided to start a distribution company that only dealt in clean marijuana.

The plan was to buy pot, edibles, vape pens and hash oil in bulk and then sell everything to dispensaries for slightly more than they’d paid. They assembled an Ocean’s Eleven-style team, including a high-end-dispensary manager, an early Facebook employee, and a guy they called Doctor Farmer Fucko, a grower with a medical degree who came from a Mafia family. The goal was to make $50 million their first year, $200 million their second and $750 million by year five. The biggest challenge would be finding growers who had either been doing it organically all along or were so committed to legalization that they were willing to take a hit on their bottom line to clean up their operation.

Ziggy is not exactly the person you would imagine volunteering to combat a potential public-health crisis. People refer to California’s pot industry as the Wild West, and, accordingly, Ziggy seems to have inherited the self-sufficient, nomadic toughness of a cowboy on the frontier – motivated by a quintessentially American desire for freedom and privacy, and operating according to his own moral code. He manages to tell me in a single breath that he is a man of honor, and that if someone stole from him he would wake them in the middle of the night and smash their hand with a ball-peen hammer “to where it’s a stump, and you can’t pick anything else up for the rest of your life.”

“Is that something you’ve done before,” I respond, “to a human being?” Yes, he says. More than 10 times, but fewer than 50.

Ziggy is tall, white and skinny, with long, graying hair and an unkempt mustache. He likes to say that when he’s outside of Northern California’s pot country, he looks homeless. And he does. In reality, he owns a Maserati, a BMW and a 1975 Scarab motorboat that can hold about $100,000 worth of cannabis.

When legalization first began looming, Ziggy planned to move to Colombia and retire. Setting up a state-licensed marijuana farm seemed complicated, expensive and not worth the effort. Then he thought he might be bored: “What does somebody like me do next – go bass fishing?”

So he decided he would have one last adventure, and in the process give back to the idealistic, libertarian culture he’d been a part of for so long, by working primarily with smaller farmers and ignoring industrial grows funded by banker types. “It’s the small guy that has the ability and the husbandry skills to produce that clean product,” he says, explaining that he hoped to offer a fair price, so more farmers might survive legalization. “It’s fostering the moral compass of the industry as a whole.”

About 42 million Americans consume cannabis regularly, but it’s difficult to estimate how many people have become sick from marijuana pesticides. Common contaminants like myclobutanil and bifenazate might cause blistering rash, nausea, weight loss, vomiting – nebulous symptoms that most doctors wouldn’t associate with marijuana use. And, as was the case with cigarettes, the worst public-health consequences of cannabis pesticides are likely insidious – we won’t understand the full extent of what is happening for a few decades.

“Oftentimes, epidemiologists can’t really see a pattern until enough numbers accumulate,” says Frank Conrad, a chemist in Colorado who was one of the first to alert regulators to the potential dangers of pot pesticides. “I’m fairly certain that 10 years from now, we will get clusters of certain types of unusual illnesses in certain groups of people. And those may very well depend on who they are going to for their cannabis.”

Likely only seven percent of the weed sold in the United States is screened for toxic chemicals – and many of those screening systems have proved to be ineffective. Even in pot-legal states like Oregon, Colorado and Washington, at least a third of all cannabis ends up on the black market, where profits come before product safety. One common pesticide among illegal growers contains the chemical carbofuran, which has been banned in the U.S., Canada and the EU for years. It takes only a sixteenth of a teaspoon of carbofuran to kill a human being. A researcher in Northern California found carbofuran in six out of the 13 local watersheds he tested. Andrew Freedman, former director of marijuana coordination in Colorado, oversaw more than 60 pesticide-related pot recalls in the state’s fledgling legal market, calling it his “biggest fight” with the industry during his three-year tenure.

California, where legalization went into effect on January 1st, is set to be the front line in the battle over toxic pesticides. Lacking federal input, lawmakers did their best to write strict rules to keep legal pot uncontaminated, but those won’t be implemented until July. More important, no one knows how effectively the state will be able to enforce regulations. By its very nature, the weed industry attracts people willing to break the law. Many growers think of themselves as nonconformists and rebels – the kind of folks who hate the government and hate following rules. Not to mention the monetary incentive: What’s to stop growers from continuing to sell their product to unregulated markets in other states, where prices are higher? Because California is the source of most of the country’s cannabis, the government’s ability to convince illegal operators there to enter the new, regulated system will have significant implications for the health of millions of people. So as it stands now, our best hope for safely grown marijuana involves trusting a wayward population of charlatans, opportunists and outlaws, who have very little incentive to play nice.

When it comes to dodging the expensive and bureaucratic pitfalls of legalization, Ziggy and Harvey are in a better position than most. Both men were separately involved in conversations about California’s legal-marijuana framework as it took shape in Sacramento over the past few years – a key advantage at a time when consumers, law enforcement and businesses alike remain confused about what is and isn’t legal.

California State Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma, who helps oversee tax collection for the state, says Ziggy is one of her favorite people she’s met in the past three years. Ma has been a crucial voice in the process of legalization, and Ziggy’s radical honesty about what California’s weed barons are thinking helped her understand the business. “Whatever rumors I hear, I call Ziggy, and he either knows the answer or he gets right back to me,” Ma says.

Even with this advantage, getting the company off the ground would be a challenge. When I caught up with Ziggy and Harvey last winter, they were not only looking for farmers they could trust to grow without pesticides but a lab that could help them guarantee the clean-pot promise their business model depended on. They also needed to prove their value as middlemen, so growers and manufacturers would work with them rather than sell and transport their products to dispensaries themselves. All this in a market that has been operating for decades under no rules whatsoever.

“People who have been in this quasi-legitimate business, they’re comfortable being criminals, and that creates this untrustworthy element where you can’t keep anybody accountable for anything,” says Meital Manzuri, a Los Angeles attorney who represents cannabis businesses. “The trustworthiness of where the product is coming from is the worst part. I recently had a grower say to me something so horrific, which was, ‘Well, yeah, I know that there’s probably some really nasty shit in here, but I’ve gotta offload it, and nobody’s testing it anyway.’ ”

With so much uncertainty, many marijuana entrepreneurs in California still have one foot in the black market, or at least in a black-market mentality. This ambiguity was part of what drew Harvey and Ziggy together. Ziggy understands the illicit market; Harvey understands legal markets. Their partnership seems like a microcosm of legalization writ large: Could a person like Ziggy, a lifelong outlaw, truly change his ways? Was it even possible to establish a supply chain of clean weed in a market full of hustlers and snakes? Were we really just going to snap our fingers and turn the most valuable crop in the state from something produced illegally on backcountry hills into a normal, lab-tested commodity?

It’s already dark by the time Ziggy parks behind a generic commercial building in Santa Rosa, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. He and Harvey are three hours late to a meeting at Pure Analytics, a marijuana-testing lab.

The lab’s founder is an enterprising biochemist, product engineer and cannabis farmer named Samantha Miller. She and her husband warmly greet Ziggy and Harvey and lead them into a conference room, where Doctor Farmer Fucko is waiting. Ziggy takes the chair at the head of the table and Miller passes out samples of a high-end vape pen she helped develop. Each pen is meant to trigger a specific effect. Harvey takes a hit of Calm while Doctor Farmer Fucko tries Arouse.

“We have to be absolutely stellar on transparency,” Ziggy says. “Our business model is taking dope from point A to point B. But it has to be clean dope. And that’s where you come in.”

Miller tells them that she’s already been approached about doing testing for five other distribution companies. “Contamination was worse this past year than it’s ever been,” she says. It becomes clear, as they exchange information and opinions, that Miller, Ziggy and Harvey situated themselves similarly within the slipshod cannabis market of California. Instead of trying to get away with whatever would bring the most cash in the short term, they want to raise the bar and impose higher standards on themselves. After all, Miller was doing pesticide testing long before it was mainstream.

In California, as in every state with legal weed, there is a shortage of reliable testing labs. A 2015 investigation in The Oregonian found that many Oregon labs had been motivated by profit to rubber-stamp contaminated products, and everyone at the table knew things were the same in California. Some labs lack proper equipment and expertise, but others are simply lenient, in an effort to please customers.

“Oversight is necessary at all stages,” says Rodger Voelker, a chemist who worked at the Oregon Department of Agriculture and then ran a cannabis lab called OG Analytical. “Without labs being accredited, quite honestly, you can’t trust them.” Voelker’s whistle-blowing helped lead to changes in state law; Oregon labs are now subject to random audits and are required to be certified by the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program. Labs in California won’t need to be accredited for at least another year.

There is very little reliable data about marijuana in California, but last February, NBC Los Angeles found that more than 90 percent of pot products randomly purchased from 15 local dispensaries tested positive for pesticides known to cause health problems. In October 2016, the Berkeley-based Steep Hill Labs found that more than 83 percent of the products they were given over a 30-day period would have failed under Oregon’s new regulations. And pesticides aren’t the only problem. Last April, the journal Clinical Microbiology and Infection published a letter from scientists at the University of California Davis Medical Center who found that the 20 samples of medical marijuana they collected from California dispensaries all contained a variety of infection-causing fungi and bacteria – including E. coli.

Miller says she’s doing her best to help clients clean up their cannabis products, but it isn’t easy. Pesticide residue can linger, she says, in soil, in extraction equipment and in five generations of plants. This sounds similar to the findings of Mourad Gabriel, a research scientist who has been studying the environmental effects of illegal marijuana grows in Northern California. Gabriel has found chemical runoff as much as four years after a cultivation site was abandoned – killing protected species, seeping into other agricultural areas and making its way up the food chain.

The chief of California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, Lori Ajax, has said that out of the hundreds of pages of pot-related rules developed by state agencies, covering everything from edibles dosage to licensing costs, the regulations around pesticides and testing labs had been the hardest to develop. “There are no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides that have been approved for use [in marijuana farming] by the EPA, the agency that determines pesticide use by crop type,” Ajax says. “Additionally, there are no crops that are exactly like cannabis, which makes it difficult to utilize standards set for other agricultural products.”

Most of the information available on these chemicals has to do with inhalation in an industrial environment or eating them in food – not on how much might be too much to smoke or vape. Take myclobutanil, the active ingredient in a commonly- used fungicide called Eagle 20. The federal government allows small amounts of myclobutanil on produce like grapes, but when myclobutanil is heated to temperatures above 396 degrees – say, with a lighter – it produces hydrogen cyanide.

“If you inhale hydrogen cyanide and it doesn’t kill you immediately by shutting down your respiration, your body will clear it and convert it to thiocyanate,” explains Conrad, the chemist in Colorado. “But if you’re continually getting exposed to hydrogen cyanide and making thiocyanate, it can lead to different types of symptoms, like headache, nausea and vomiting.” The best information he found about long-term exposure came from a study of Egyptian silver workers: “They had wasting away of organs, poor health and organ atrophy.”

The morning after visiting Pure Analytics, Ziggy and Harvey are back on the road. They head several hours north, starting on the freeway, but soon switch to local roads and then to a series of dirt paths. The Beast comes to a stop in a muddy clearing, next to a horse, some goats and a Ford Thunderbird. A bearded man comes out of a one-story house, wearing dirty boots and a camouflage-print jacket. He is a member of the self-described Nameless Posse, the group of High Times Cannabis Cup-winning growers behind a pot brand called Nameless Genetics.

As the farmer approaches, he sees his horse is nuzzling Harvey’s arm. “Her name is Miss Priss,” he says. “She’s kind of a cunt.” Harvey laughs nervously. He left the alcohol industry for weed a few years back, but there are still parts of this world that seem to catch him off guard.

Inside, the shades are drawn and jazz is playing softly. A two-inch-thick book about mushrooms sits on the coffee table, next to a half-trimmed marijuana branch, some nugs and an ashtray.

“What would you expect from us, as a distributor, to work with you?” Ziggy asks. “Proof of funds,” the Nameless farmer responds. “Show me the money. A lot of these distributors talk a lot of game, but if you pay . . .”

Most pot farmers, manufacturers and dispensaries initially hated the idea of distributors coming in to mediate sales and cut in on their profits. When the California Legislature began developing rules for the marijuana industry in 2015, requiring third-party distributors emerged as a compromise between unions, law enforcement, weed lobbyists and tax collectors. The choke point of distribution was meant to ensure taxes would be accurately collected and contaminated products would not end up in the marketplace.

But producers like the Nameless farmer are skeptical. He pummels Ziggy’s team with questions: How much would they be willing to spend per pound? How many dispensary relationships had they established? And, perhaps most important, would farmers get screwed so Ziggy and Harvey could increase their profit margins?

Part of the weed world’s reluctance to accept third-party distribution comes from the dislike some felt for a company that lobbied aggressively to make distributors mandatory – a firm called RVR (pronounced “river”). Started in 2015 by a retired executive from the country’s largest alcohol distributor, Southern Wine & Spirits, RVR made $26 million in 2016 and for a while seemed poised to take over California marijuana.

But the weed industry doesn’t work like other industries. Barging in with strong-arm corporate tactics, RVR rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and despite its massive lobbying effort, third-party distributors did not become mandatory, which meant people like Ziggy and Harvey still needed to prove their worth. They try to make it clear to the farmer that they understand the market – and the culture – far better than their well-known competitor (whom Harvey actually worked for before joining up with Ziggy). After a few hours of negotiations, the farmer seems sold. But when I check in several months later, Ziggy tells me the deal fell apart.

And as time goes by, Ziggy sounds more glum each time I call. “The weaselry and the tomfuckery is really starting to get out of control,” he says.

Legalization had become too difficult, too expensive, and a lot of his friends had gone back to doing things illegally. “The black-market infrastructure has been in place for eternity,” Ziggy tells me. “The supply chain is already entrenched.”

Then I call Harvey. He sighs. Growers had started complaining that they weren’t getting paid, he says. Ziggy denies he had anything to do with this. “He’s lucky they didn’t beat the crap out of him,” Harvey says.

The two are now speaking to each other through lawyers, the company on hold.

“Going through the compliance and dealing with the law enforcement, I think it was a little bit too much for him,” Harvey says. But the experience hasn’t soured his opinion of outlaws who are trying to go legal: “We need those people.”

That need, of course, is the entire problem. For legalization to work, and for consumers to have access to uncontaminated weed, people like Ziggy need to start following rules. But as long as there are places where marijuana is illicit, there is a financial incentive for drug dealers to stay underground and sell potentially toxic pot. And as long as federal agencies like the EPA decline to study cannabis, what we know about its impact on our health will remain largely theoretical. With illegality comes uncertainty. There’s no guarantee that the weed you’re buying is clean. There’s no way to know whether the small amounts of chemicals that you’ve been consuming for years are going to accumulate and make you sick.

It’s enough to leave any pothead, in any part of the country, feeling paranoid.