Plenty of people claim their weed is "all-natural," free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and watered by wizard tears straight from Gandalf's face. But no weed can be officially organically certified because the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule 1 drug.
In the absence of USDA organic certification, however, third-party organizations have stepped in to fill the void. There are currently two cannabis certification programs in Washington State, Certified Kind and Clean Green.
Chris Van Hook, who runs Clean Green, and Andrew Black, who runs Certified Kind, were both organic agriculture inspectors for the USDA. Though they discourage their participating growers from calling their weed "organic," they say their standards are definitely in line with the USDA's. "Technically, we can't say it's equivalent, and it's not equivalent, but it's definitely based on [USDA organic standards]," said Van Hook. "All we're really doing is bringing the existing agriculture and food-processing regulations into the cannabis industry."
In reality, Clean Green and Certified Kind's standards go even further than the USDA's. Like the USDA, both programs prohibit the use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but they also require growers to use sustainable growing methods and adhere to fair labor standards.
Also, Clean Green and Certified Kind both require all of their participants to submit samples for residue testing to check for banned pesticides or fertilizers. To put that in perspective, the USDA samples about 5 percent of its organic program participants each year, according to San Jones-Ellard, a spokesperson for the USDA. While the testing isn't random—growers schedule their on-site inspections after successfully completing their initial applications, and repeat these inspections annually—it does catch some violations.
"Even among people who get certified, we have a 7 to 9 percent fail rate," said Van Hook. "It's nearly always myclobutanil or synthetic pyrethrin. We've had people say they sprayed when plants were in one-gallon pots and then transplanted and still failed."
Despite the widespread awareness about the importance of organic food, organic weed is still a relatively obscure concept. Only a handful of growers pay for the certification. And those that do say it's more a matter of principle than revenue.
Jerry Lapora, co-owner of Emerald Twist, says he decided to pay for Clean Green's certification when he made the transition from the medical to the recreational market. "When you're growing medically, you have a personal relationship with the consumers. When you're growing recreationally, you have no idea who is gonna pick it up. That's why we have the label on there to describe it to them," he said. "We don't necessarily get any extra money and it's not super recognized, but it's a matter of principle. We're getting credit for the extra work we do."
"For growers that truly believe in organic farming, it's a way for them to walk the walk and not just talk the talk," said Black of Certified Kind. "It's a way for them to differentiate themselves from everyone else out there who claims to be an organic grower but really isn't."
The investment isn't cheap. Lapora estimates that his farm has spent around $10,000 on organic production in a one-year period. That includes $2,500 in certification costs, $2,000 on pest control, and $500 for Clean Green logo stickers, plus the cost of buying natural fertilizer. He also had reduced revenue from smaller yields.
"I don't think revenue is ever going to trump my principle of treading lightly on our environment and our health," said Lapora.
So far, however, consumers don't seem to be aware of organic pot. Bryson Chin, a budtender at Dockside in Sodo, said he's never heard of Clean Green or Certified Kind, and has never had a customer ask for their weed.
April Roth, store manager at Uncle Ike's, said that while the store doesn't carry any of Clean Green or Certified Kind's products, consumer awareness is growing. "At the beginning [of legalization], I don't think people paid much attention to these issues, and even today many consumers look at THC percentage first," she said. "But we do have a growing customer base that does care about pesticides and sustainable growing practices, and I try to stock products that appeal to them. Even though we don't have customers specifically asking for these certifications, I can definitely see them becoming more important if they gain traction with processors, and if processors include that certification on their packaging."
Actually, the first such partnership is under way: Emerald Twist supplies all the flower for SPOT chocolates, and SPOT has prominently included their commitment to Clean Green sourcing in their marketing efforts. But Lena Davidson, the marketing manager at botanicaSEATTLE, SPOT's parent company, said people tend to buy whatever's cheapest.
Still, it's hard to imagine that demand for certified pot won't grow, despite its slightly higher price tag. In the meantime, the early adopters are committing to certification because, as Davidson put it, "as an organization, we have the ability to say, 'This is what we believe and this is what we're gonna do, and we will serve the customers that value that."