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2016 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Pesticides in Pot

 

About the Project

While meeting with an Oregon chemist in his laboratory, reporter Noelle Crombie noticed samples of medical marijuana in a bin. All of it had tested high for pesticides.

Crombie, the marijuana beat reporter for The Oregonian/OregonLive, was determined to find out if the problem was widespread. With most lab owners reluctant to talk and with state oversight in Oregon nearly nonexistent, it wouldn’t be easy – unless we tested marijuana ourselves.

And that’s what we did. Crombie’s groundbreaking special report would prove to be a game-changer, profoundly impacting state policy and consumer safety in Oregon.

The Oregonian/OregonLive bought cannabis that had purportedly passed pesticide tests and sent the samples to two independent labs for analysis.

The results were shocking: Nearly all of the marijuana purchased at Portland dispensaries was loaded with chemicals – including the active compound in Raid and other household roach killers.

Crombie knew she had a story. Using dogged and meticulous investigative reporting techniques, she showed that lax state rules, inconsistent lab practices and inaccurate test results had enabled pesticide-laced products to reach consumers.

A cottage industry of laboratories had sprouted up in Oregon – some based in garages or basements and run by entrepreneurs with no scientific background. Their lab results were next to worthless. Medical marijuana products were making it onto the market – complete with labels and detailed lab documents certifying that they had met the state’s safety standards when in fact they had not.

Crombie also identified lab owners who had stopped testing for pesticides because they didn’t want results to scare away growers hoping for clean results. Positive pesticide tests were bad for business, one lab owner acknowledged. And growers had begun to shop their product around to find “friendly” labs that would provide a passing result. Crombie had stumbled upon a corrupt culture inside these basement laboratories. And no one was being held accountable.

This would be a big deal in any state – but especially in Oregon. Nearly 70,000 Oregonians rely on medical cannabis to treat everything from cancer to seizure disorders. Our stories published at a time when thousands of additional consumers were poised to enter the state’s voter-approved recreational marijuana market. Oregon, like other states with legal marijuana, is only beginning to grapple with the implications of pesticide use on worker safety and public health. Crombie’s reporting placed the issue front and center.

The digital and video teams at The Oregonian/OregonLive made sure that Crombie’s findings reached a massive digital and mobile audience: Teresa Mahoney boiled down the complex story into a fun and easy-to-follow explainer video that gave readers a Cliff Notes version of the story.

Posted to Facebook and other social media, this highly shareable video reached 60,000 people on Facebook alone, and helped draw readers into the investigation.

The OregonLive social media team aggressively shared the story and follow-ups on Facebook and other platforms: The pesticides in pot stories had a reach of 300,000 on Facebook alone, easily more than tripling the reach of the story had it been posted only to OregonLive.

We created an OregonLive index page to make it easy for highly engaged users to check in for the latest twists and turns in the story, and the larger story of pot legalization in Oregon. We created a newsletter as well, so people could sign up to automatically get updates sent to them.

And, for those deeply concerned about our findings, we launched a video series by Teresa Mahoney on how to take control of pesticides in pot — by growing your own.

Noelle created a discussion forum where readers could interact with her, and get their questions about the story answered. The discussion got more than 200 comments and 1,000 viewers.

This series prompted change before a word was published. After Noelle notified growers of positive test results, they began to pull their products off the market. Her stories also launched an outcry for better regulations to protect consumers. And by year’s end, health officials in Oregon had cracked down, adopting a series of concrete reforms.

Starting in 2016, labs must endure a rigorous accreditation process. They will be required to use appropriate testing equipment and scientific methods. Growers and dispensaries also will have to certify that their products are free of 60 dangerous pesticides before marketing their cannabis to recreational users or to medical marijuana patients.

None of the reform measures were in the works until Crombie’s stories came along.

“Not a single discussion of pesticides occurs without either your name being directly mentioned or your articles,” one Oregon chemist and cannabis consultant noted in an email to Crombie this past fall.