We only use 100 percent organic soil and nutrients.”
“Quality medication, which is … chemical free.”
“Consistently high-quality, organic medical marijuana.”
These are a few claims made by some of the 10 marijuana-growing companies that Colorado investigated for pesticide-related violations this spring on the Front Range. All these growers — Organic Greens, MMJ America, Altitude East Treatments, Evolutionary Holdings, Mindful, The Green Solution, Sweet Leaf, RINO Supply, Green Cross Colorado and Livwell — were cited for violations related to either the use of prohibited synthetic pesticides, or the improper use of approved synthetic pesticides. These are some of the largest and best-known growers in the state; at best, the crackdown points to systemic negligence in Colorado’s commercial cannabis cultivation.
Look at those claims again — organic, chemical free, all natural — and another glaring layer of neglect becomes apparent: companies claiming to use organic practices are using (and misusing) synthetic pesticides. And nearly 18 months into regulated marijuana retail sale, there is still no official mechanism for organic cannabis certification in Colorado. In the absence of such a mechanism, any company can claim to be organic — evidently even go so far as to include “organic” in its name — with no arbiter and no repercussions.
“If you want to say organic, you can say it — and that’s a problem,” says Ben Gelt, a consultant and cannabis policy expert. Cannabis consumers are vulnerable to blatantly false claims, which ultimately puts their health and safety at risk.
“The misuse of that word [organic] in this industry is pretty astounding,” says John Chandler, organic horticulturalist and director of cultivation at L’Eagle Services, a Denver facility committed to organic growing. Chandler is also the founder of Cannabis IPM consulting, which he thinks may be the only integrated pest-management consulting firm for cannabis in the state. “Consumers just don’t realize how much pesticide use there really is.”
“Buyer beware,” he adds — hard to do without a vetted, verified external source of organic certification.
But there soon may be one: The Denver-based Organic Cannabis Association (OCA) aims to launch its grower certification program as early as June.
John Paul Maxfield is the founder and visionary behind the Organic Cannabis Association; Gelt serves as an adviser and board member. Maxfield is also founder of Waste Farmers, an organic soil company devoted to sustainable agriculture, with a line of cannabis-specific organic soil, Batch:64. Part of the impetus to start OCA came from Waste Farmers’ struggle to obtain organic certification for Batch:64 for cannabis use. They couldn’t. Currently the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) has a running list of pesticides approved for cannabis use, based on the “label language” on each pesticide they vet through a formal review process. Anything not on that list is considered illegal for cannabis — like chemical pesticides Eagle 20, Mallet and Avid, found to be in use among the 10 companies cited for violations this past spring. The CDA has the authority to inspect for and regulate the use of pesticides in cannabis, and there’s a legal gray area that’s allowed the CDA to collaborate with both the federal and state office of the Environmental Protection Agency to develop the list criteria and apply it to their enforcement of Colorado’s Pesticide Applicator’s Act and the Federal Pesticide Worker Protection Standards in cannabis grows. It was the CDA that alerted the Marijuana Enforcement Division and the Department of Environmental Health to the potential grower violations this spring.
These are vital layers of protection for workers, consumers and the environment in the realm of cannabis cultivation. But that’s about the extent of it. Although it’s not only a pesticide-use regulator but an organic certifier for other crops besides cannabis, the CDA does not conduct organic certification for marijuana because of its status as a federally illegal Schedule 1 substance.
“There is no government agency, beyond telling you what the absolute worst [pesticide] you can’t use is, that’s regulating what’s going on,” Maxfield says, and it’s worth adding that none of these pesticides have actually been tested on marijuana. And when growers use “approved” synthetic pesticides but make organic claims, it incenses him.
“If you want to do the shit you’re doing, do it,” he says. “Just don’t do it and tell people that you’re organic, because you’re abusing public trust.”
Right now, growers can’t substantively differentiate themselves, and consumers can’t reliably tell the difference among them.
“Part of what needs to happen, and will happen, with the maturation of this industry, is that a broader spectrum of quality will come into the clear,” Gelt says.
That’s where the OCA comes in. Structured as a nonprofit trade association, the OCA is designed to allow marijuana businesses to differentiate, at least between organic (synthetic-pesticide-free) and traditional agriculture, and to foster the same public trust the organic movement has helped sow in the realm of food. With consumers more educated and empowered than ever to make food choices based on growing methods and inputs, the OCA believes it can quickly close that gap for cannabis.
The OCA won’t yet say exactly how the certification process will look, but broadly speaking, the initial six-week inspection process will lead to a one-year organic certification, including at least three random audits annually. It’s designed to mirror the standards, requirements and philosophy of USDA organics, while reducing paperwork, relative cost and the duration of the inspection/approval period. OCA’s lead technicians are experienced organic certifiers and former certified organic farmers themselves. Laboratories with LCMS — which stands for liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, an advanced technology able to pinpoint the presence of a vast range of chemicals — will partner with the OCA to test for pesticides, adulterants and chemical inputs. They’re cautious about revealing too many details until the launch is official.
Especially in the wake of the crackdown, many growers are anxious for a structure like OCA to emerge.
“The most important service an independent organization could provide to the cannabis industry is a pesticide free certification,” says Devin Liles, vice president of production at The Farm, where organic integrated pest and disease management is a core company value. “This is what the Organic Cannabis Association is setting out to do, and we’re interested in being a part of the process.”
John and Amy Andrle, founders of L’Eagle in Denver and outspoken proponents of organic cultivation, have supported the OCA since its inception.
“You can fog a room with pesticides and get done what takes me three full days of man-hours,” John says. “The safest, most wonderful thing about us is all of our [plant] food is pesticide-free, all of our products are pesticide-free.” The Andrles say they’d love to be able to have a third-party certification that recognizes their efforts.
On the medical side, the Denver Dispensary — also openly committed to organic growing — agrees.
“We would welcome organic certification 100 percent,” says co-owner Chris Gilbane. “Right now almost every single shop claims to be organic, yet they use pesticides that are not organic.”
“It would truly let the end-user know what they are really buying, and it would help create trust between the customer and the grower or seller,” he adds. “There’s no way to tell, from the patient’s perspective, if what they’re buying is true organic or just a bunch of bullshit.”