An increasingly competitive market with slim profit margins means cannabis cultivators are always looking for ways to optimize output. But without hindsight, the line between streamlined success and an erroneous misstep can prove difficult to identify. Synthetic plant growth regulators (PGRs) are being marketed to growers as a simple way to maximize crop yield with the use of chemicals.
While this may help cultivation-focused companies reach their target quarterly profits, the financial achievement could come at great risk to consumers’ health, brand reputation, and the way the industry is regulated.
What is PGR weed?
Natural PGRs are plant hormones that influence the way plants grow. Synthetic PGRs are utilized in grow rooms around the world to seek out similar results. These man-made compounds are designed to control different aspects of the plant growth cycle, and have been a topic of study throughout the industry.
The food industry is notoriously strict on growth regulators—like the bovine growth synthetic hormone that poses a variety of risks for animal and human health—and the FDA’s stance on these PGRs is pretty clear-cut: you use them in food crops, you’re in big trouble.
However, the laws are a bit murky for cannabis operators: while some compounds have been banned entirely, others remain unlisted and unregistered—and therefore very much on the table for cannabis growing use.
In cannabis, PGRs are often used to increase yield, maximize nug size and density, or speed up the growth process—all of which sound ideal for growers and retailers with a high product demand. However, these synthetics are also known for negatively affecting cannabinoid and terpene development, compromising a cannabis plant’s sought-after taste and smell while potentially endangering consumer health through the residual chemicals.
Unfortunately, data on human consumption of cannabis grown with plant growth regulators is scarce at best. However, a few studies have been conducted to reveal some side effects that may come from PGR consumption.
Potential short-term effects
Potential long-term effects
Popular PGRs used in cannabis grow rooms
There are quite a few PGRs available for growers to use but in general, these three tend to be most commonly found in genetically modified grow spaces:
Chlormequat chloride is used to produce thicker and sturdier stalks. It often brings the flowering stage on earlier than usual. This PGR is widely known for skin and eye irritation, and excessive consumption can even lead to organ damage.
Daminozide or Alar helps cultivators stunt leaf and stem growth, which in turn results in larger buds. However, it also stunts terpene and cannabinoid development which can drastically reduce the presence of THCa and CBDa.
This PGR is also used for bud density, but to gain that benefit, a grower must sacrifice the plant’s THC development. Paclobutrazol is also the most toxic PGR for people to consume and it has the most significant impact on fertility and organ damage.
How to tell the difference between PGR and natural cannabis
PGR cannabis consumption is riddled with risk, but thankfully, the modified weed is pretty easy to spot. Retail buyers and distributors should keep an eye and nostril open if they think the product they’re seeing might have been grown with PGRs.
- Little to no scent
- Spongy buds and/or unusually dense or hard buds
- Dull, brownish buds with brown hairs
- Rounded buds with smooth edges
- Fewer trichomes than usual
- Drastically lower THC content
- Harsh taste
Reputation matters to everyone
Besides producing more cannabis in a shorter amount of time, there are very few benefits to using PGRs—and a whole lot of dangers.
Unsurprisingly, many growers are quick to speak out against the use of potentially toxic hormones and hope to dissuade the rest of the industry from falling for the short-term-success promise of PGR buds.
“With minimal regulations around PGRs and the industry’s ability to keep a lot of this information away from the public, cultivators might benefit from using PGRs to take advantage of short-term profits,” said Jesus Burrola, chief executive officer at POSIBL. “But I think in the future, regulations will be put in place that force brands to disclose any PGR information on their consumer packaged goods—just like the produce industry. And that will cause a large portion of the market to shift demand toward healthier cannabis products.”
A general lack of consumer education has been one of the industry’s most consistent struggles, but education is still our best method to remove stigmas built on outdated, false information. In the same vein, a widespread understanding of PGR dangers might keep people from defaulting back to cannabis fear-mongering days and instead empower confident differentiation between good and bad weed.
“Cannabis is unlike any other consumption industry,” said Hanna Brand, chief sales officer at Autumn Brands. “We don’t wash our weed at home like we wash our lettuce.”
Brand isn’t wrong: while pesticide residue is rumored to be easily banished by a thorough produce rinse, the same can’t be said for cannabis. And since many consumers are lighting the potential toxins on fire and inhaling them, it’s incredibly important that the product is always clean and reliable.
“I hope growers choose product quality over higher yields, and I also hope consumers continue to educate themselves on their brands of choice,” said Brand. “While there are banned pesticides and PGRs, there is still a lot on the allowed list, and we just don’t have any research supporting their safety to light and inhale.”