Whatâ€™s organic? In the marijuana industry, thatâ€™s a hard question
September 25th, 2015
Earlier this year officials in Colorado cited a handful of commercial marijuana growers for misusing pesticides in indoor grow houses. Some of those businesses were also advertising their products as â€œchemical-freeâ€ and â€œorganic.â€ Because the drug is still illegal at the federal level, growers in states where the plant is legal can make all kinds of unchecked claims about their plants…for now.
Nilvio Aquino weaves through a tangled jungle of marijuana plants at an indoor grow facility in Denver.
â€œThrow your nose in there. Itâ€™s nice and pungent,â€ he said, pulling a seven-foot tall plant down to nose height at one of the companyâ€™s grow facilities.
Aquino, the lead grower for Sticky Buds, a chain of marijuana shops in Denver, is in his element among the plants. Heâ€™s like a proud gardener showing off blue ribbon varieties, bustling from plant to plant, picking out his favorites.
â€œIâ€™m all about quality. Iâ€™m back and forth with owners about yield, of course,â€ Aquino said.
His marijuana plants soak up nutrients commonly used on certified-organic farms like kelp meal and earthworm castings. Big bags of potting soil sit in the hallway. When a pest problem pops up, he avoids using synthetic pesticides.
â€œItâ€™s about finding your little foothold in the market and holding on to it with your life essentially, man,â€ Aquino says.
All that adds up to something that feels like an organic operation. But for now thatâ€™s about as official as itâ€™s going to get. Thereâ€™s no such thing as a government-sanctioned certification for organic marijuana — in large part, because growing or using marijuana is still a federal crime.
Until recently, growers throughout Colorado had free reign to use whatever pesticides they wanted in the growing process. That led to potentially dangerous experimentation inside grow facilities, and a crackdown from state agriculture officials.
â€œThe customer started asking, â€˜Well, wait a minute. What are you putting in our product?â€™â€ said Eric Eagon, Sticky Budsâ€™ general manager.
In early 2015, Denver officials cited a handful of commercial marijuana growers for misusing pesticides in indoor grow houses. Some of those businesses were also advertising their products as â€œchemical-freeâ€ and â€œorganic.â€
Dozens of Colorado marijuana dispensaries, both medical and recreational, tout their products as â€œorganic.â€ National organic standards for nearly every agricultural product in the country are set by the U.S. Department of Agricultureâ€™s National Organic Standards Board. Cannabis isnâ€™t currently on the NOSBâ€™s docket for the creation of organic standards.
Because the drug is still illegal at the federal level, and state regulators are still playing catch up, growers can make all kinds of unchecked claims about their plants, without drawing the ire of consumer fraud regulators. That could soon change.
â€œIs there a legal definition at this point in time? No there is not,â€ says Roger Hudson, spokesman for the Colorado Attorney Generalâ€™s Office. â€œBut there is a general idea of what â€˜organically grownâ€™ is.â€
Thanks to complaints from consumers, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has assigned fraud investigators to look into dispensaries making organic claims on products, Hudson said. But Hudson wouldnâ€™t comment on whether the office is exploring citing marijuana businesses for misleading advertising.
The lag in regulation from both state and federal officials for marijuana cultivation has also opened the door for trade associations to attempt to fill the gap. Enter the Organic Cannabis Association, based in Denver.
â€œWe need some standards in cannabis production,â€ said John Paul Maxfield, one of the associationâ€™s founding members.
Some opportunistic growers are taking advantage of the conflicts in law, Maxfield said, â€œbastardizingâ€ the term â€œorganic.â€
â€œPeople can grow in ways that arenâ€™t organic and receive a premium that should be going to the people that are doing it, what we call â€˜right,â€™â€ Maxfield says.
The Organic Cannabis Association is now offering to certify operations as â€œpesticide-free,â€ but Maxfield says theyâ€™re nowhere near being able to do a full organic certification. Other third-party groups are offering up auditing services too, like California-based Clean Green Certified, and Oregon-based Organic Cannabis Growers Society.
â€œIf weâ€™re able to be a placeholder until the USDA comes on board, thatâ€™s a great thing,â€ Maxfield says.
The discussion around organic cannabis brings up the amorphous definitions consumers impart on organic products. On one side exists a strict set of standards, set by the USDA with a sometimes expensive, lengthy certification process.
But at the same time, the word â€œorganicâ€ has become a brand itself, enjoying its own blend of consumer attitudes and feelings, which sometimes do not match up with the government standards, said Colorado State University economist Dawn Thilmany.
â€œProbably the most common confusion about â€˜organicâ€™ is exactly what it does and does not mean,â€ Thilmany said.
Whether youâ€™re talking about food or cannabis, she said few consumers know what the term organic is meant to convey. Definitions for the word and the cultivation methods behind it change depending on who you ask.
â€œIf you donâ€™t have economically literate consumers who will use a word to indicate whatever they want it to indicate, then thatâ€™s a problem,â€ Thilmany said.
Back at the Sticky Buds marijuana facility in Denver, grower Nilvio Aquino said the companyâ€™s focus on organic methods should pay off as the industry matures. Just like food, he said, thereâ€™s always going to be a group of consumers willing to pay a higher price for something they see as superior.
â€œItâ€™s a business. Your product speaks. Some people arenâ€™t connoisseurs, but weâ€™re trying to target connoisseurs,â€ Aquino said.
Itâ€™s about finding the right mix of regulation and marketing, he said, to assure consumers that when a grower says the marijuana is organic, theyâ€™re not just blowing smoke.
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