Cannabis 101: Organic marijuana? How can you tell?
Most of the I-502 growers I’ve talked to say that their marijuana is grown using organic practices. But how do you know for sure?
That’s a more problematic issue than you might think.
Only the U.S. Department of Agriculture can certify produce as organic, and it’s part of the federal government, which doesn’t recognize marijuana as a viable product for consumption.
That means no legal recreational marijuana grower (or medical grower, for that matter) can get organic certification unless the federal laws change.
And in the meantime, there’s not much in the way of independent groups out there to verify company claims that they’re grown with organic practices, or using some sort of organic equivalent.
According to the USDA website, for crops: “The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides and genetically modified organisms were not used.”
There’s a list of many other requirements on the agency’s National Organic Products page.
So how do you know what you’re getting in one of the states with legal marijuana is safe?
I-502 in Washington requires a certain amount of testing, but it doesn’t cover many things – like pesticides – on the USDA list.
So if you want your marijuana independently certified, you have to do some hunting around.
Clean Green Certified in California verifies USDA standards for vegetable crops, and it also verifies medical and recreational marijuana growers, including, recently, its first two growers in Washington.
Those companies are Emerald Twist in Goldendale and TJ’s Gardens in Southwest Washington.
“Clean Green, they inspect 100 percent of their farms, USDA only does about 5 percent,” said Jerry Lapora, marketing director for the farm. “They do all sorts of things, fruit, nuts, vegetables, not just marijuana.”
The certification indicates the farm’s products use the organic methods approved by the feds, but the farm still can’t say that because of both federal and I-502 regulations.
It can label products as being “Clean Green Certified,” though, Lapora said.
“We’re the first one in Washington or Colorado to be certified,” Lapora said. “They’re very thorough. They go above and beyond, they also check out our drying and packaging facility to make sure it’s dust free.”
And if the feds allowed organic certification, those farms with Clean Green Certification could almost certainly roll into the program immediately, said Clean Green owner Chris VanHook.
“We could roll them right in, and we’ve gotten a lot of interest,” VanHook said.
Whether it’s Clean Green or another company, Brian Stroh, owner of Vancouver’s CannaMan Farms said there is a real need for some sort of certification. Customers really want to know what’s in the product they’re smoking or eating.
“I think it’s a business opportunity here, first and foremost,” Stroh said. “I think there’s an opportunity to certify locally, rather than having to look to a California company for that.”
It’s also important that the organization doing the certification understands the differences between marijuana and other crops, he said.
“Unlike a vegetable you’d eat, marijuana is a flower,” Stroh said. “The items you use in a vegetable aren’t the same as in marijuana. In marijuana, for instance, flushing is very important.”
Flushing is the final process growers use before harvest. In the last few weeks, growers stop using all nutrients and only irrigate their plants with pure water – which washes any impurities out of the buds.
CannaMan doesn’t use any pesticides, and it flushes its plants, but Stroh said the company does occasionally use some synthetic products to help foster growth of some more delicate strains.
Those products are flushed along with the nutrients in that final stage, he added.
“We use organic methods,” Stroh said. “And there are times when we’ll use some synthetics to get a plant to bulk more. But because we flush you really can’t tell what we used.”
Some companies just starting up in I-502 do spray pesticides on their crops, and some don’t flush their crops prior to harvest, Stroh said.
Clean Green Certification doesn’t apply to any farm that uses synthetics, because by using those products the company is by definition not organic, VanHook said.
“We don’t check because if somebody says they use synthetic fertilizer, they won’t call us,” VanHook said.
And there’s no certification or regulatory requirement that companies using synthetics flush their plants. Although for indoor growers, it’s almost impossible not to use some synthetics.
“I don’t think personally that indoor cannabis will be eligible for organic certification at all,” VanHook said. “Perhaps outdoor greenhouses that are light enhanced and light deprived will at some point, but indoor, no.”
So how do you tell if your marijuana from an indoor grower was properly flushed? They can self report it, but there’s no verification system out there to prove it.
And there’s another problem with marijuana growers saying they’re organic: It’s against the law.
“It’s actually an $11,000 per violation fine to say a product is organic without FDA approval,” VanHook said. “It’s a federal labeling infraction. It doesn’t get enforced often, but I think that’s going to change soon.”
That’s $11,000 per violation – meaning every bag with a label like that could be subject to the fine. And the liability for that could fall not just on growers, but on the store owners that carry their products, VanHook said.
Still, he thinks the federal government will eventually certify marijuana growers. Earlier this year, the FDA began allowing organic certification of industrial hemp.
So if marijuana becomes legal federally, the government is almost certain to begin certifying it as well, VanHook said.
Katey Cooper of Monkey Grass Farms in Wenatchee said her company, which also uses organic practices, would prefer to wait for the federal government to change its policy and approve farms according to national standards.
Otherwise, the approvals and standards won’t be streamlined and it will remain hard for the customer to know what they’re getting, she said.
“We were going to use organic methods, but you have to be FDA certified,” Cooper said. “We use all organic products, and everything’s certified by the Liquor Control Board, but I would like the next step to be FDA certification.”
Especially with Oregon, Alaska and Washington D.C. voting for legalization in the recent elections, it seems that the need for federal certification will only grow as more companies come online in even more states.
“We see this going national in the next 4, 5, 6 years,” Cooper said. “It’s not all that useful to have a company or several companies doing this in the interim.”
But unless the scheduling of the drug changes federally, there won’t be a national certification for some time.
P.S. Sorry I haven’t posted in a while, I’ve been out sick.