Hey USDA: We Can Grow Cannabis with “Organic” Methods, Too

“Who grew this cannabis, and how was it grown?”

The smart cannabis connoisseur knows to ask that question first before making a purchase. These facts can be more important than the actual strain of marijuana: a particular flower can get you extra high, sure, but if your weed is grown with chemicals, it can also make you very ill.

To guarantee that whatever cannabis products you’re imbibing are pure and clean, it’s key that they’ve been officially tested and certified by one of the programs now available in the adult-use market. At a time when there are horrific reports of growers irresponsibly using chemical fertilizers and pesticides — including Myclobutanil, a.k.a Eagle 20 pesticide, which becomes hydrogen cyanide when combusted in a smoking device of any kind — it’s good advice to know where and how the cannabis you’re consuming is cultivated. A year ago, NBC ran an investigative report alleging that pesticides were discovered in 41 out of 45 samples gathered from several Southern California dispensaries. With news like that, it should come as no surprise that more and more consumers are starting to ask for organic ganja.

But wait — we can’t use that word! The term “organic” is essentially owned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since cannabis remains federally illegal, these institutions will not authorize standardized testing regulations for the legal cannabis industry. In other words, even if your flower is 100% organic, it cannot be called “organic” when it comes to branding and packaging. The government’s excuse is since cannabis is still a Schedule I drug, it is not officially a “crop” and cannot be certified.

Chris van Hook examining the Swami Select garden, photo courtesy of Swami Select

“You must describe it as ‘grown with organic methods,'” explains Chris Van Hook, founder of Clean Green Certified, the country’s top certifier for cannabis cultivated using, well, “organic methods.” His company certifies cannabis in six states and has 225 clients — not just cultivators, but processors, handlers, and retailers, as well. In fact, his big break came in 2010, when Harborside Health Center contracted him to inspect and certify their operation. Subsequently, the dispensary began offering growers $100 more per pound if their product was “Clean Green” certified. Swami Select was already working with Harborside at the time, and this extra financial incentive was just another reason for us to become a part of the CG program.

After growing up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, Chris got a degree in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He moved west after that, and became a marine biologist and abalone farmer for three decades in Crescent City on the far Northern California coast. He readily admits that smoking cannabis helped him get through the tedium, aches, and pain back when he was still in the abalone trade. His background enabled him to see that cannabis farmers face similar challenges and problems as any other agricultural pursuit. When the abalone industry died out, Chris studied for his law degree online, and passed the bar on the first try.

The USDA started the National Organic Program in 2003, and Clean Green was accredited in 2004 to certify crops other than cannabis, or as Chris describes it, “from apples to zucchini, as well as all types of organic processed foods.” When the USDA refused to inspect or certify cannabis because of its Schedule I status, Van Hook saw a need to protect the cannabis consumer. His company Clean Green started certifying cannabis in 2004, and to this day is still the closest thing available to an organic (but not “organic” remember!) cannabis certification.

Chris has been doing an annual inspection on our farm in Mendocino since 2010. He’s like a trusted family doctor who always makes us feel better and wiser after a visit. He spends upwards of 270 days each year on the road in his “Sprinter van,” which doubles as a mobile law office and an RV; also equipped with a mountain bike, backpacking gear, and a surfboard. When he’s at our ranch, Chris wanders about the garden, checking the leaves for bugs. “That’s a good thing, seeing life on the leaves!” he’ll say as he peers through his camera lens at some insect damage. If the leaves have no damage, it most likely means a pesticide was employed. Then he puts on sterile gloves, digs up soil samples from several places in the garden, puts them in a plastic bag, and sends them off to an independent government-certified testing lab for pesticides and non-organic substances. Chris even inspects the lab tests, as he’s somewhat critical of some of the testing companies that have sprung up for the cannabis industry. He’s told us that many of these firms don’t even have a PhD scientist in the office, although that’s beginning to change as labs ramp up their staff qualifications.

Swami, Nikki, and Chris van Hook. Photo courtesy of Swami Select

We should clarify that there are different kinds of testing, as well as different times and sites for each individual test. Van Hook and the Clean Green staff insist on visiting the garden where the flowers are grown, looking at the plants on site, sampling the growing medium (i.e. soil) for testing, and verifying the water source — all in vivo. Every farmer submits an itemized list of all amendments, fertilizers, pesticides, compost, compost tea formulas, and anything else added to soil, water, or sprayed on the plant. Similarly, for certifying a processor or retailer, the site inspection is critical; operating procedures are reviewed and ingredients are itemized.

Cannabis labs that have opened in the last several years, like SC Labs, Steep Hill, and CW Analytical, all test the final flower product after harvest and processing, or before and after manufacturing for products like edibles or concentrates. This is the only kind of testing that the state requires; however, these companies don’t visit the farm or manufacturing site. They are testing for potency, pesticides, and pathogens, not for “organic” cultivation practices.

At first, these labs mostly tested for THC. This was done for marketing purposes, to put the highest price on the highest THC content. Soon, though, people found out about the beneficial medical properties of CBD, so it and other cannabinoids were added to the test results. Then terpene profiles became the rage, also for their “value-added” effect. The great benefit of all this detail was the rapid education of many of us on the mysteries of the “ensemble effect” (also known as the “entourage effect”), when all of these cannabinoids and terpenes combine to make inspirational and healing music together, which leads to a given cannabis strain’s psychoactive and medical properties.

Prior to a Clean Green inspection visit at Swami Select’s farm, we compile an exhaustive list of the products we are using. Generally, any product that is OMRI-certified is safe for our plants. Clean Green also examines our harvest drying areas for cleanliness, and the total fee is $2,500 per inspection. A few weeks later we get a packet in the mail with our Clean Green Certificate, along with a poster and a plaque for the garden. Best of all, Chris is always there for clarification on many issues: if a new product comes out that everyone is raving about, as happens every year, we can call him up and he will give his approval or not after appropriate research.

Clean Green also produces the California-Oregon Cannabis Exposition featuring CG’s growers, many of whom have won awards at various major cannabis competitions, demonstrating that the best cannabis is grown organically. All of us are proud to feature the Clean Green logo on our packaging because people can rely on it being a pure product. Chris has expanded over the years, and now certifies distributors, manufacturers, and retailers, as well as cultivators. He’s also begun Clean Green Real Property to help people with real estate transactions.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is another hot topic amongst growers these days. If you want a California cultivation license in the Golden State’s new market, you need to submit an pest management plan. Furthermore, every state-sanctioned farm will be required to have a trained “Pest Control Advisor,” who will then instruct other workers on the farm in best practices for insect containment. The reality is that an infestation of bugs or pathogens, threatening to attack the whole cannabis crop, can tempt a fearful grower to use harmful pesticides. IPM is all about both preventative and emergency care through the use of beneficial insects and biological predators. Using bugs to fight bugs may sound like something out of a horror movie, but it works. As Richard Nathanson of Santa Cruz Integrated Pest Management expressed, “walk your crop everyday and make notes of who is stressed, the water quality, is anyone root-bound, over-fertilized, etc. If we do preventative measures, we don’t need to spray pesticides.”

Not all farmers whose products test positive for pesticides are even aware of producing tainted bud — all the more reason for certification. At recent Emerald Cup and Golden Tarp cannabis competitions, a significant percentage of entries were rejected for pesticide content (especially Eagle 20) and extremely strict microbial limits. For the unwary cultivator, pests, pathogens, and pesticides, as well an non-organic amendments, can come into a garden via store-bought soil, compost, clones, or other ways, even random visitors. Always read the entire label of gardening products carefully!

Since the USDA and FDA refuse to classify cannabis as a crop, and the state says it’s not even a food, the result is that no pesticides (that is: none) are legal to use on cannabis, even if they are legal for other crops. Crops and products must test clean, or they will fail and be destroyed. In California, this is the responsibility of the distributor, who collects the material from the grower or manufacturer, sends a small sample to the lab, and, if it passes, then ships the product to the retailer — at the same time collecting the $9.25 per ounce cultivation tax from the farmer, as well as the distribution fee. Some distributors are even differentiating themselves by working exclusively with organically-minded farmers and cultivators.

The word is starting to spread about the benefits of Clean Green cannabis. Having passed the CG inspection and testing, the farmer can be relatively confident they will pass the state-mandated tests, although CG certification will not exempt one from state-required testing. “Consumers who know about CG want it and are serious about it,” said Blake Johansson of Pacific Wholesale Network, a distribution company in L.A. “People are seeing the bifurcation now between a Clean Green product and not. People want it — clean is worth more…”

Other companies that certify cannabis products are sprouting up everywhere, too. Certified Kind, based primarily in Oregon, is an organization with an Earth-friendly philosophy: “Kind to Life and Kind to Earth.” They base their rules on the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, as well as USDA and international organic standards. In Washington State, the governor recently signed legislation for an organic certification program. In Colorado, the Cannabis Certification Council (CCC) has been working on legislation to create a state organic certification program.

In the Emerald Triangle, other certification programs are in the works via several distributors and agricultural cooperatives. But these might not be independent third-party programs and would be more like a pre-test for growers and manufacturers.

With all of these labs popping up the question arises: who tests the testers? Once again, marijuana’s federally prohibited status is the source of the problem. The result is that no federally certified lab will certify cannabis. Additionally, there are no enforceable nationwide standards or calibrations for the expensive testing equipment, leaving every lab to develop its own methods and protocols for testing cannabis. This lack of standards and government oversight means that testing for THC and CBD is notoriously unreliable. Another reason is that the lab has an incentive to inflate such numbers, because higher test scores for cannabinoids mean more profit for the grower, and greater likelihood they will return to that lab for more testing.

There are other problems with testing we should mention. If the lab technician picks just three or four grams of bud out of a pound, is that truly representative of the whole pound? Farmers have told me they have taken three buds off the same stem and sent two samples to one lab with different strain names and the third to a different lab. All three test results came out different. Testing for mold and other pathogens is also hit or miss — more so with larger batches.

As it stands now, California is in the midst of finalizing its testing requirements. The state will inevitably mandate tests for pesticides, pathogens, microbes, and cannabinoid content. Terpene profile testing remains optional. Predicted costs are hovering around $1000 per batch of up to 50 pounds of product. The state is also establishing precise regulations for the testing labs themselves, requiring, for instance, specific PhDs for the chief scientists.

When it all gets sorted out, regulated testing and laboratory inspections will help guarantee safe medicine. And getting Clean Green or other “grown using organic methods” certification will enable both farmers and processors to send their products to the lab with confidence that they will pass. And the consumer can be sure they’re purchasing the cleanest, best cannabis available. At a recent Clean Green meeting, gesturing in his sincere and paternal way, Chris simply stated, “I just want to take care of all my farmers.” Turns out he’s taking care of the average marijuana enthusiast, too.

For more on Nikki & Swami, visit www.swamiselect.com

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