Many experts see parallels between the cannabis and natural foods industries, leading to visions of a future where marijuana is sold in grocery stores like Whole Foods.
When that day comes, an organic certification would carry a lot of weight in distinguishing one producer from the next.
But until major changes happen both within the retail industry and in regards to federal regulations, the debate over merits of quasi-organic cannabis and the various certification programs available will continue.
The Case for Organic
As marijuana moves out of the shadows of the black market and the gray area of poorly-regulated dispensaries, consumers are increasingly paying attention to how their cannabis is grown. Like with produce, many health-conscious people want to know exactly what they’re ingesting.
For those using cannabis for medical purposes, this is even more important — and unfortunately, much of the industry has done a poor job of self-regulating illegal pesticide use. In February, for example, an investigation conducted by NBC Los Angeles revealed high levels of pesticide residue on a range of cannabis products purchased from 15 different Southern California dispensaries.
The news organization purchased 44 cannabis products from dispensaries in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties and had the samples tested for 16 different pesticides by Steep Hill Labs in Berkeley.
According to the news report, almost every sales person at the dispensaries told the reporters that the products were pesticide-free.
The lab results would prove otherwise: An astounding 41 of 44 samples (93%) tested positive for pesticides “at levels high enough that those products would’ve been banned for sale in some other states that currently regulate the use of pesticides in marijuana products,” the report said.
The NBC Los Angeles report was published on the heels of dozens of entries being disqualified from the Emerald Cup in December 2016 for using banned pesticides. According to a story by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, about 25% of the 263 entries in the concentrates category and about 5% of the 735 flower entries were disqualified for banned pesticides.
“We were dumbfounded that we’d see this (pesticide use) at that level,” Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake told the Press Democrat. “We’re going to have to be very careful about that in the future.”
Aside from the health aspects of clean cannabis, organic proponents point to increasing sustainability and superior flavors as reasons to avoid conventional fertilizers and pesticides.
Jason Kallen, director of San Luis Obispo NORML, believes organic, sun-grown cannabis also yields better terpene profiles. Kallen currently operates a 20-acre artichoke farm that is certified USDA Organic. He hopes to turn it into an organic cannabis operation in the near future.
“People who are educated in organic will want it in cannabis too,” he says.
At this point, however, there’s no such thing as certified organic cannabis.
“Organic (cannabis) is for real only in terms of organic practices,” says Justin Beck, president Cultivation Technologies in Irvine, California. “Organic certification is not yet available from the USDA or any of their authorized certifying bodies.”
Although the USDA will not issue its organic stamp of approval for cannabis, there are a handful of third-party certifiers that mirror the National Organic Program. But for a variety of reasons, many growers using all-natural practices forgo any sort of third-party certification.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, hundreds of cultivators use “organic” in their marketing without any independent verification of their methods — blurring the lines between organic and conventional techniques.
“It really comes down to trust in the cultivator,” says Obie Strickler, CEO of Grown Rogue in Medford, Oregon.
Strickler, who uses predatory mites to control pests naturally, believes his company has earned the confidence of consumers, but he’s also considering Clean Green Certification to appease the general public and reassure any skeptics.
“We’re potentially more regimented than what Clean Green Certification requires,” he says. “I would say there is a high probability that we’re going to acquire their stamp. It gives the public assurance that we meet their standards.”
Any discussion of organic cannabis eventually leads back to Clean Green, an independent certification program based on the USDA Organic standards, and its director, Chris Van Hook.
There are more than 80 Clean Green Certified farms in California and a couple dozen in other states that have legalized cannabis. While indoor growers can qualify for Clean Green Certification, the vast majority of farms are outdoor and greenhouse operations.
Van Hook says indoor-grown cannabis will never be certified USDA Organic, due to a requirement that crops be grown in soil with natural sunlight. He maintains that indoor grows are perfect environments for pests that usually require the use of pesticides.
Van Hook believes Clean Green Certified farms will be ahead of the curve once California enacts regulatory measures in 2018. As California’s retail marijuana shops start opening, Van Hook expects more and more customers will be looking for organic cannabis — a trend that has emerged with legalization.
One organization that has embraced organic methods and products is Restore Collective, a Clean Green Certified producer and processor based in Frasier Park, California.
Co-founder Mina Carrillo came into the cannabis world as the result of personal tragedy. The former Bay Area engineer had three siblings lose their children to a rare disease and she feared her daughter might suffer the same fate.
When physicians from the University of California, San Francisco recommended cannabis to treat her daughter’s seizures, Carrillo was initially skeptical due to the stigma. But she eventually added some CBD to her daughter’s dinner one night and within three hours noticed a complete change. Most of the palsy-like symptoms disappeared and three years later, those symptoms remain under control with continued CBD treatments.
Because it focuses on medical patients like Carillo’s daughter, Restore Collective is extremely selective of the both the cannabis and the ingredients used to produce its edibles.
“We send all our ingredients to Clean Green and they double-check where we buy from and that they all fall under the National Organic Program (guidelines),” Carillo says.
The Flip Side
However, not all growers are sold on the concept of organic farming — partially because the word can be misleading and partially because they see other techniques as more effective.
Some growers are concerned that the public is being manipulated by the use of the word “organic” in conjunction with cannabis.
“Using the term ‘organic’ in cannabis masks poor-quality products,” says Graham Shaw, the proprietor of California-based Graham’s Brand.
For example, he says, organic growers often use OMRI Listed pesticides. They may be organic, but it doesn’t mean they’re harmless.
Rather than growing organically, Shaw’s Humboldt County grow utilizes a lab-quality hydroponic setup to avoid the need for pesticides altogether.
“Organic is not better,” Shaw says. “Pesticide- and mold-free is the best.”
At Grown Rogue, Strickler also opts to not use pesticides, instead promoting general plant health and stronger immune systems by maintaining a clean growing environment.
For him, it comes down to a simple question: “Would you want your grandmother to use your product?”
In general, the cannabis industry has been seeking mainstream acceptance for years. Whether right or wrong, the general public has been sold on the benefits of organically grown fruits and vegetables, so producing organically grown cannabis could go a long way toward the greater acceptance the industry wants.