Image: Daniel Oberhaus

Why You Can’t Legally Call Organic Weed ‘Organic’

Daniel Oberhaus

Daniel Oberhaus

Medicinal and recreational users are demanding organic pot, but most states have next to no regulatory oversight when it comes to pesticide use on cannabis.

Image: Daniel Oberhaus

Last week, eight out of nine states with cannabis on the ballot voted yes on pot, which puts the total number of states with legal medicinal and/or recreational pot at 27. Yet as the newcomers to the world of legal ganja are about to find out, voting cannabis into a state's constitution is the easy part—the hard work starts the day after, as legislators race to hash out a regulatory framework before cannabusinesses begin to open their doors to the public in the coming months.

Whether it's figuring out dosing standards or banking solutions, there's a lot to be discussed when you're trying to move a product from the black market into the light. Of particular concern is regulating pesticide use for cultivators, a task that is generally handled by federal agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency for all agricultural products except cannabis.

Because cannabis is illegal on a federal level these agencies aren't able to prescribe safe growing standards the way they would for any other agricultural product being grown in the US. This puts the burden on state regulatory agencies to develop their own agricultural standards for cannabis—but until a few months ago these standards didn't exist anywhere. In most states with legal pot, they still don't.

Take California, for instance. Although it was the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana in 1996, California had no state-wide oversight bodies for cannabis production until last year. That means for almost two decades, growers could use whatever types of pesticide they wanted on their cannabis because there was nobody to tell them not to—which is especially troubling when the plant you're growing is being used as a medicine.

A grow room at Colorado Harvest Company. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

This lack of oversight and knowledge about what was going in their bud understandably made consumers nervous and cannabis cultivators took notice. In 2004, one California grower reached out to Chris van Hook, a veteran of the USDA-certified organics industry, to find out what it would take to get their buds registered as a USDA organic agricultural product to assuage consumer fears about tainted bud.

When van Hook reached out to the Department of Agriculture on the issue, he was told that it was impossible to certify cannabis as organic since it was a federally illegal substance. Moreover, if any of the cannabis cultivators so much as labeled their product as 'organic,' they would be in violation of federal law which gives a monopoly to the USDA on organic certification.

"There is no organic cannabis," van Hook told Motherboard. "People like being able to say that they're managing it organically, but prohibited materials are used in the cannabis industry regularly. The states are just now beginning to address this problem. It's a huge issue."

"Not only can you grow good cannabis, but you can grow the finest cannabis in the world using organic methods."

Even if cultivators were managing their crop organically, the fact that they couldn't advertise it as such put cannabis growers and consumers in a tough spot—neither could guarantee that their buds were as safe or organic as declared on the label. So in 2004, van Hook took matters into his own hands and founded Clean Green Certification as the first third-party organic certification program for cannabis.

Using his knowledge from decades in the federal organics industry, Clean Green follows USDA certification standards when evaluating the growing practices of cannabis cultivators who want to get certified as organic.

When a farmer expresses interest in certifying their product with Clean Green, van Hook or a member of his team heads to their grow op to evaluate their cultivation process and collect soil samples. These samples are then sent to a federally licensed USDA lab where their pesticide content is evaluated.

If the grower passes the evaluation, it means their product is up to USDA organic standards despite the fact that the USDA won't acknowledge it, and they can put the Clean Green stamp of approval on their products. Although Clean Green growers can't legally call their products "organic" when they pass van Hook's certification, he says the Clean Green still serves as a vote of confidence for the consumer that their bud is at least as organic as the organic vegetables sold in supermarkets.

"A Clean Green certified grower has won the High Times medical cannabis cup every year since 2010," van Hook said. "That proves that not only can you grow good cannabis, but you can grow the finest cannabis in the world using organic methods."

Other third party certification programs have cropped up around the country in the 12 years since van Hook started Clean Green, but CG remains the largest certification program in the cannabis industry with some 250 growers in its program. It's main competitors are state certification programs, but so far states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon have been struggling to put together their own cannabis pesticide regulatory frameworks.

A Colorado Harvest Company employee changes out the water in the grow room hydroponics system. Image: Daniel Oberhaus

One of the most difficult problem for cannabis cultivators is the strict federal laws overseeing pesticide use. The EPA labels on synthetic pesticides outline exactly which vegetables it is okay to use that particular pesticide on, and if you use the pesticide on tomatoes when it was only meant for lettuce, you're in violation of a firmly upheld federal law. Since cannabis isn't legal on a federal level that means there's not an EPA regulated pesticide in existence that explicitly states that it is okay to use that pesticide on cannabis.

Fortunately, the rules governing organic pesticide use are more relaxed. This is because these pesticides are mostly non-synthetic and Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), which means they can be used for pretty much any type of plant. In a way, even calling them pesticides is misleading when we're talking about substances like neem oil, garlic, and citric acid.

The result is that when legislators in places where cannabis is legal sit down and create lists of pesticides approved for cannabis, they must select almost solely from USDA-organic approved pesticides by default. This isn't always the case, however. According to van Hook, when Colorado released its first list of approved pesticides in 2015, some of the substances on the list wouldn't meet USDA organic criteria, meaning that a Clean Green certified product was still more organic than one that simply met the standards of the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Other states, like New Hampshire, only allow pesticides that would make the cut for USDA organic products.

Most states with legal medicinal and recreational cannabis still lack anything close to a pesticide regulation framework like those currently under development in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, which will eventually include not only a list of acceptable growing practices, but mandatory pesticide screening of all canna-products for pesticides before they go to market.

While a handful of states are actively attempting to get their pot pesticide problem under control, growers in states with the least regulated cannabis industries can kind of do whatever they want with their plants, so long as they keep it on the down low.

"The general level of sophistication, cleanliness and consumer awareness has certainly grown in the 12 years we've been certifying," said van Hook. "A lot of these issues were never issues before in the black market, but now they're becoming commonplace. I think that's cool and I think we've played a part in that."