By Christen McCurdy
While a growing number of consumers and growers appreciate the concept of organically-produced cannabis, right now the legal industry occupies a gray area when it comes to verification. Because cannabis remains illegal federally, the United States Department of Agriculture has said it won’t certify operations as organic.
But two private companies — Clean Green Certified, and more recently, Certified Kind — have been created to offer their own inspection services and certify legal growers. Both use principles derived from existing USDA and other organic standards.
David Rice, proprietor of Sun Grown, the first state-licensed grow operation to receive Certified Kind certification in Washington, said he decided to use organic methods out of concern for “the triple bottom line” — that is, out of consideration for the social and environmental impacts, as well as the economic aspect. Rice said growing with organic methods offers growers the potential to increase their market value while also doing right by the environment, and — over time at least — reducing their own overhead.
“The very word sustainable cuts both ways,” Rice said. “It’s about the long term. You don’t have to repurchase new things all the time.”
Chris Van Hook, the founder of Clean Green Certified, said in 2003, when he was working as a USDA organic inspector for Globalculture, medical growers in California started approaching him about getting organic certification. Clean Green’s certification criteria are based primarily on the USDA organic standard, though some aspects are derived from international organic standards.
He noted that the USDA is not just refusing to certify cannabis, but is ignoring the industry in general. It hasn’t been fining producers — who, in the food world, can pay fines of up to $11,000 — for mislabeling a product with “organic” on the label.
“In this unregulated industry, anybody can say they’re anything,” Van Hook said.
In Washington, more than 60 of the businesses that applied for I-502 licenses used some variation of the word “organic” in their trade name.
Van Hook also suggested that even growers who don’t want to brand themselves as organic should pay attention to organic standards, as he believes some growers use pesticides that aren’t currently legal for food products.
“People have been using sprays that are not legal for cannabis and would absolutely not be using for any other agricultural crop. As it becomes federally legal that process will be done away with,” he said. Those growers who are using illegal sprays will have to race to keep up with regulations should the crop be federally legalized and regulated.
Andrew Black, the founder of Certified Kind, which started certifying cannabis operations in 2014, also has a background in certifying organic fruit and vegetable farms. He also works for Oregon Tilth, which has been certifying organic food growers since 1984.
Black has primarily worked with growers on the West Coast and has certified two farms, with another two in process.
Van Hook estimates he has certified an average of 70 operations per year in 10 years in California, Oregon and Washington.
Emerald Twist was the first grower, under Washington’s Initiative 502, to receive Clean Green Certification. Jerry Lapora, spokesman for Emerald Twist, said the process was relatively straight-forward, since the grow operation already placed a high emphasis on organic methods. But he cautioned growers to research some of the products they use carefully: some products commonly available in grow stores use words like “organic” and “natural” in their branding, but are actually synthetic. Growers should seek out products with USDA or Organic Materials Review Institute stamps on the label, he said.
Getting one of the existing certifications generally costs anywhere from $1,800 to $2,200. The timing from application to certification can take as little as a week and as much as six to eight weeks, depending on whether there are issues that need to be addressed.
In addition to making sure the grow operation uses organic processes, both Clean Green and Certified Kind check work areas to ensure they’re clean and sanitary, similar to protocols for a restaurant or food-handling facility, since the product may be ingested.
About 91% of grow operations pass their inspections right away, Van Hook said. The most common problems among those that don’t pass are failed soil tests or using mislabeled fertilizers or pesticides.
Certified Kind’s criteria also include a social justice component involving fair treatment of workers, including a clean, safe and pesticide-free production environment. Certified Kind growers must also allow workers to engage in collective bargaining.
“We don’t want to recreate a bad system,” Black said.
Organic fruits and vegetables fetch higher prices at grocery stores and farmers’ markets — but it’s hard to say whether that’s actually true for cannabis.
Maz Momeni, chief learning officer of the Cannabis Commodities Exchange, which tracks price fluctuations in the cannabis market, didn’t have data on how many legal cannabis products brand themselves as organic, but estimated they make up a tiny portion of the marketplace. Similarly, organic foods account for only about 4% of foods sold in the U.S. according to the U.S.D.A., although about 75% of grocery stores carry some organic food items.
Growers themselves differ about whether certification — or the presence of a label that claims the product inside is “organic” — can fetch a higher price or increase profit margins.
Jim Murphy, of TJ’s Gardens, a medical grow operation based in Washington, has been using organic methods since he started his operation. TJ’s Gardens was certified through Clean Green about a year ago.
“We’re making medicine. There’s no better way to make medicine than organically,” Murphy said. “Why would you bring chemicals into a sick person’s world? We’re not going to do it.”
Clark Tippin, executive director of the Organic Cannabis Growers Society, said there’s a higher learning curve to using organic gardening methods in general, and that the time, intuition and attention involved aren’t easy to package and sell. He also noted that conventional, non-organic methods, such as hydroponics, can be expensive as well. The society features about 280 members, whom Tippin advises on organic growing methods.
“I’m trying to find the easy way to be organic,” Tippin said. “I’m an intuitive gardener and that’s not necessarily the easy way.”
Lapora said growers who want to focus on organic methods should be prepared to spend more for organic fertilizers and pesticides, and expect a higher rate of crop loss, since organic growers use gentler methods to contain insect infestation.
Murphy added that traditional growers who want to shift to organic, or people who want to start grow operations and are interested in organic methods, should be prepared to spend more money up front.
“If money’s your only purpose then you should grow with chemicals,” Murphy said. “That’s without question.”