April 28, 2015 – 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. Technically, the cannabis industry can’t lay claim to the organic label. That requires certification by the US Department of Agriculture, a federal agency, and at the federal level pot is still illegal.
According to research presented this January at the Emerald Scientific conference, which focuses on the science of cannabis, current screening methods can detect more than 200 types of pesticides in marijuana. Other common contaminants include mold, mildew, bacteria, fungus, chemicals, fungicides, solvents, toxins, and metals. The chemicals used to make plants grow faster can do environmental damage if leaked into streams and creeks, and toxins can accumulate in the body’s fat cells—a problem given marijuana’s use as medicine.
It’s also important to remember that the cannabis plant, whether it be hemp or marijuana is considered a bioaccumulator, meaning that the plant will draw toxins from the soil as it grows. As a result of this fact, it becomes of critical importance that growing and refining practices maintain the highest of standards if customers are to have trust in the final product.
Hydroponic cannabis cultivation has become quite popular among growers who have found that the technique can allow them to pull even more pounds of big buds from each plant or light. But unbeknownst to many cannabis consumers, these big buds often come with a hefty environmental price tag.
While at least some hydroponic growers use organic techniques, a large number of such cultivators apparently make use of a vast range of harmful chemicals, of which the most prevalent is Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, or EDTA. EDTA is a synthetic chelator that functions as a way for growers to force nutrient uptake through the plants’ root systems in an effort to produce larger crops. Unfortunately, while EDTA serves its purpose of force-feeding the plant, its inability to break down naturally can cause major environmental problems when it it washed down the drain. Once entered into our water system, it can continue binding to macro-nutrients in rivers and streams; this can lead to concentrated levels of bio-metals that kill native eco-systems. For evidence of what happens when this effect snowballs out of control look no further than the Mississippi River Delta, which now spews a torrent enriched with EDTA and other chemicals contributing to an annual “dead zone” which has been known to cover an area greater than the state of Connecticut.
Fortunately, consumers have the power to halt this destructive cycle. The State of Colorado, for example, requires all growers licensed under its Amendment 64 system to report each and every chemical they use on their plants. If you’re buying cannabis in Colorado, therefore, you have the right to ask to see the list of all chemicals used in producing the cannabis; if EDTA is listed, buy something else.
Consumers in other states will have to rely on organic standards instead. The State of Washington, for example, has its own organic standard for cannabis separate from the USDA standard. Even in unregulated states like California, voluntary organic certifications like Veganics and Clean Green Certified exist to help consumers make conscious choices. But beware: while these two standards have at least basic auditing and certification controls to make sure consumers know what they’re getting, many other dealers have been known to label their bud as “organic” without any verification at all.
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.
Chris Van Hook, the founder of Clean Green Certified, said when he was working as a USDA organic inspector for Globalculture in 2003, 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.
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.
However, not all operations that grow pot sustainably follow Clean Green Certify. It’s just one standard, and certainly not the gold standard of organic. In addition, it costs $2,000 to get certified. Citing these reasons, some growers forego the process, instead choosing to say they follow organic practices.
One such is a dispensary called the San Francisco Patient Resource Center, or Sparc. Located in the city’s Midmarket neighborhood, the dispensary—often hailed as the Apple Store of weed—is a hop and skip away from a plethora of tech companies, including Twitter. In 2014, it reported $16.8 million in revenue.
Last fall, it debuted a new line of weed grown outdoors using organic nutrients and no pesticides. Sparc markets Marigold only as “naturally grown.”
“There’s no question there will be a market for organic cannabis,” says Robert Jacob, Sparc’s executive director and former mayor of a small town in Sonoma County. But “there are no organic standards for organic cannabis.”
Unlike organic groceries, pesticide-free pot doesn’t necessarily cost more. Since most of today’s so-called organic marijuana is grown outdoors, it can actually be cheaper than weed grown in warehouses and basements. For an eighth of an ounce, Marigold sells for $25 to $40, versus $60-plus for top-shelf indoor marijuana.
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.
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.
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.”