There’s a clean, natural weed movement, but it can’t call itself organic. Here’s why.

People Want Marijuana That’s “Natural” and “Organic.” And the Feds Are Harshing Their Mellow.

People Want Marijuana That’s “Natural” and “Organic.” And the Feds Are Harshing Their Mellow.

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
April 20 2016 11:54 AM

Why Is It So Hard to Get Clean Weed?

More marijuana growers—and more marijuana users—want pot that’s “organic.” Here’s what’s harshing their mellow.

marijuana.
Why don’t we have much data on how much pesticide weed smokers are being exposed to and what effects that exposure might be having on them?

OpenRangeStock/Thinkstock

In 2009, Matthew Cohen launched an unusual CSA out of Mendocino County, California. In addition to the local heirloom tomatoes and organic butter lettuce, Cohen tucked a little something extra into his weekly shipments: a fat bag of medicinal marijuana, also local, also touted as organic. Within a few months, Cohen realized that nobody cared about the vegetables; they just wanted the weed. So he pivoted his business, Northstone Organics, and began delivering high-quality cannabis directly to customers’ doorsteps. By 2011, he was selling weed to 1,700 patients in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County.

That’s when the feds showed up.

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At the time, California was a Wild West of weed laws: State voters had passed the use of medical cannabis in 1996, but the program was still in in its infancy, and the feds took a more hostile stance toward the drug than they do today. As the first licensed producer in the state and a key figure in helping the county draft its medical marijuana program, Cohen may have been an obvious target. In any case, early on the morning of Oct. 13, 2011, armed federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided Cohen’s farm. They arrested him and his wife and bulldozed nearly 100 marijuana plants. That was the end of Northstone Organics.

Cohen wasn’t wrong about the potential of “organic” pot. He was just ahead of his time. In 2016, purveyors of ostensibly healthier, more natural marijuana have converged on the legal weed market. Walk around Oakland, California, or Colorado Springs, Colorado, and you’ll encounter an array of high-class cannabis outlets, such as Oakland Organics or Maggie’s Farm, which advertises its bud as “seed-grown, 100% custom organic soil, Colorado sun-grown, pure spring-watered, slow-cured, and hand-trimmed.” In Washington state, you can buy premium weed boasting “exceptionally natural” growing techniques from agricultural collectives like Green Barn Farms. At Buds & Roses in Studio City, California, you can purchase the country’s “finest vegan-organic cannabis,” raised with neither synthetic pesticides nor animal products.

Like wine aficionados, certain weed smokers have always had a reputation for being connoisseurs—for knowing what’s dank and what’s not. Now, with the fast-growing U.S. legal weed industry expected to bring in nearly $7 billion this year, weed sellers are finding they can appeal to customers in the same way Whole Foods pitches chickpea salad and organic almond milk to its own health-conscious, upwardly mobile devotees. “Cannabis smokers are no longer stupid kids with their baseball caps on sideways,” says Chris Van Hook, the founder of Clean Green, a weed-certifying program. “These are sophisticated buyers, the same people who are buying organic food and organic coffee.”

This isn’t happening simply because potheads “have gotten fussy with their weed,” as Wil S. Hylton put it in a recent New York magazine article on Willie Nelson’s craft cannabis venture. The rise of “organic” pot also stems from the perception that the weed business is becoming more industrial and corporate. Specifically, it’s a reaction to the fear that industrial weed might be laced with dangerous pesticides. Now, partakers of a substance that’s always been known for its earthiness are looking for a specifically chemical-free weed option. “If you care enough to buy organic spinach, you should care enough to buy organic pot,” says Anthony Franciosi, founder of Honest Marijuana in Colorado, who grows his weed with freeze-dried coconut water, aloe vera, and an “aerated tea made of earthworm casting.” “And more so, because people are lighting this stuff on fire and inhaling it. For me, I don’t know why anyone would accept anything else.”

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These clean weed advocates have a point. Since the federal government has decided to tolerate marijuana in certain states but can’t regulate it, the weed industry has scant data on safest growing practices, and no national standards for pesticides. Unfortunately, that causes problems for the natural weed industry as well: Because weed is federally illegal, the people selling it can’t actually call it organic, because the term denotes a governmental guarantee that only applies to legal products like food and cosmetics. Out of that ambiguity has grown a movement involving state regulators, dispensaries, and voluntary certification programs to put health-concerned smokers of legal weed at ease.

Gnarly idea. Is it a pipe dream?

* * *

Consider the gram of weed you can buy, right now, in the four states (Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska) and Washington, D.C., where recreational marijuana is legal (or the 24 states where it’s available for medical purposes). Before it was sealed in that baggie, it was a plant. That plant likely got sprayed with fungus-, insect-, and disease-killing chemicals. Before it was a plant, it was a seedling. That seedling may have sat in soil that had been fumigated with even more pesticides. And before that seedling got planted, the grow room that would one day be its home was probably bug-bombed and lined with pest strips, which are laced with chemicals that linger in enclosed spaces.

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All of those layers of pesticides may have ended up in the nug you can purchase and take home to smoke—which is a process that can transform pesticides into still worse chemicals, which you will then inhale directly into your lungs.

This is an issue that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of, thanks to a series of recalls, lawsuits, and front-page exposes that have highlighted the gravity of a growing pesticide problem in the pot world. In the past year, Colorado has made 19 recalls of pot products after quarantining more than 100,000 plants that regulators feared had been treated with unapproved pesticides. In June, the Oregonian found abnormally high levels of pesticides on nearly half of the pot products sold in state dispensaries. Those pesticides included a common roach killer, half a dozen human carcinogens, and a fungicide that allegedly turned into hydrogen cyanide when heated. This March, the Emerald Cup (an outdoor cannabis competition) announced that it would tighten its contamination rules after a large percentage of entrants failed pesticide tests.

None of this means that the pot in the plastic baggie you’re holding is toxic. As any toxicologist will tell you, when talking about pesticide dangers, the dose makes the poison. When the Environmental Protection Agency determines the risk of any one pesticide, it weighs both toxicity and dose—or expected exposure, in the case of inhaling pesticides that have been sprayed. In a small enough dose, even a toxic, illness-causing chemical like hydrogen cyanide could be completely harmless. That could well be the case with marijuana. We simply don’t know yet how much pesticide your body could be absorbing. “It’s troubling to me to think that’s it’s being produced at all, and that somebody’s inhaling hydrogen cyanide gas,” says Dave Stone, a toxicologist at Oregon State University who consulted with the Oregon Health Authority on its list of pesticides that labs should test for in cannabis.

So why don’t we have much data on how much pesticide weed smokers are being exposed to and what effects that exposure might be having on them? It all goes back to that central paradox at the heart of America’s weed industry: In nearly half the states, some form of weed is a booming legal enterprise. And yet in the eyes of the federal government, cannabis is still a Schedule I drug with “a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use.” This means the government can’t acknowledge that cannabis is already being legally farmed, sold, smoked, and otherwise ingested. And if it can’t acknowledge the existence of the weed industry, then it can’t regulate it. It’s a classic bureaucratic Catch-22.

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This regulatory gray area looms over every stage of the marijuana supply chain. Since the federal government is in charge of agricultural oversight, the EPA can’t register any pesticides for use on cannabis. It can’t even find out what the pesticides that are being used on weed do, because it can’t fund any research into their effects, as science writer Brooke Borel explained earlier this month in a story in Undark on one scientist pot farmer’s journey to figure out what pesticides would be safe for pot. So it’s been left up to the states to regulate those pesticides—which has led to a patchwork quilt of laws of varying degrees of effectiveness and uselessness.

That regulatory gap helps explain why there might be so many pesticides in your pot. It’s why we’ve seen all these weed-contamination exposes. And it’s why no one knows exactly what these chemicals could be doing to you.

* * *

Of course, everything you eat these days is treated with chemicals. So why should you be any more concerned about absorbing a few more via blunt, bong, or pipe? The problem here is a lack of data. The pesticides on your tomato have been vetted for use on tomatoes. For food crops, the EPA sets tolerances on what kinds of pesticides can be used, how they can be used, and in what quantities, all based on how toxic they are to humans. That’s not saying they’re perfect, or that everyone abides by the rules. But at least there’s a system. With weed there’s not.

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One reason studies haven’t been done on pesticides on weed is that the government’s moratorium makes it difficult to get ahold of weed to study. Right now the only source of marijuana available for scientists is the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has a contract with the University of Mississippi to produce marijuana for research purposes. Additionally, federal prohibition makes would-be weed researchers at universities or in the private sector wary. Washington State University’s extension program, which does agricultural research, has banned its employees from working with cannabis growers, reported Borel, the author of the Undark piece, in the Atlantic.

The paucity of studies is unfortunate, because using pesticides on weed poses a few unique challenges. Let’s start with the least scary: There are often more pesticides. Pot is high-price (worth up to $5,000 a plant) and high-risk (it’s prone to insects, disease, and fungi), which generally means more pesticides. The vast majority is also grown largely indoors, which means that pests and disease face no checks from predators or the frost of winter and can quickly decimate a lush weed crop. Again, that means more pesticides.

Second, the federal prohibition means growers are unsure about what pesticides they can use. The EPA doesn’t allow any pesticides on cannabis—which means no pesticides are technically disallowed, either. Lists created by states, meanwhile, are still evolving and can be out of step with growing techniques, says Cohen. So many growers are continuing to go with unapproved pesticides: “It’s easier. It’s less expensive. And frankly, they work,” says Tyson Haworth, an organic grower with the SoFresh Farms collective in Oregon, describing pesticide use by conventional growers. “But they’re not sustainable.”

The biggest problem, though, is the method of delivery: When you light your weed, all the existing safety data goes up in smoke.

When you eat food, your body provides a buffer: Before most harmful compounds enter your bloodstream, your liver has a chance to break them down. When you smoke, you’re inhaling vapors that travel through your lungs and straight into your bloodstream. A 2013 study in the Journal of Toxicology found that up to 69.5 percent of pesticide residues can remain in smoked marijuana. But any research “should be taken with a grain of salt” because no one has looked into inhalation risk, says Bethany Sherman, executive director of the Cannabis Safety Institute, an advisory group that provides research to the legal marijuana industry. “It’s bound to be more toxic.”

(Yes, there’s another agricultural crop you burn and inhale: tobacco. In fact, the EPA has not assessed the long-term risk of pesticides used on tobacco, because it has said the health risks of smoking cigarettes are so bad as to outweigh the pesticide risks. But the idea of smoking weed yet also worrying about pesticides isn’t quite so ironic; weed smokers have different smoking habits than cigarette smokers and don’t share the same lung cancer risks.)

There’s another risk with lighting up. Unfortunately, the same heating process that makes weed more psychologically potent (by turning nonpsychoactive compounds into THC) also turns pesticides into potentially more dangerous compounds. In Denver, officials realized this after firefighters were sent to weed farms where growers were burning sulfur to kill mites and mold. When it burned, the sulfur turned into sulfur dioxide, which can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate heart disease, according to the EPA. And the fungicide myclobutanil, which has been widely used on pot, can turn into hydrogen cyanide when vaporized.

What are these pesticides that we’re inhaling or ingesting, exactly? Some of the first data comes from a white paper produced by the Cannabis Safety Institute, which worked with the Oregonian for its exposé For that paper, chemists tested samples of pot products from across the state. One of the main culprits they found was myclobutanil, a fungicide and reproductive toxin used to combat powdery mildew and sold under the brand name Eagle 20. When used correctly, it has low toxicity, but it hasn’t been tested for smoking, and it isn’t approved for use on tobacco. The Cannabis Safety Institute found myclobutanil at “obscene levels” on pot products as compared with food, says lead chemist Rodger Voelker.

As they learn how little we truly know about pesticides on pot, some weed consumers are feeling a little unnerved. And since the feds aren’t doing anything about it, weed growers and sellers are now taking the problem into their own hands.

* * *

A few months into his new job as an organic inspector, Chris Van Hook got a stumper of a question. It was 2003, and he had just gotten a call from a “little old lady” in Pasadena, California, who wanted him to certify a pot farm. The woman wanted to make sure she was buying clean weed for her husband, who was seriously ill and a medical marijuana patient. Then as now, those who seek “organic” weed are often those in poor health. “This is coming from people who are sick,” I was told by the manager of a medical marijuana dispensary, who asked to be anonymous to avoid attracting attention from the Department of Agriculture. “They don’t want to be putting any more harmful things in their body when they’re already in a fragile state.”

But in 2003, Van Hook couldn’t fulfill the woman’s request. That’s because the National Organic Program didn’t certify weed farms. Van Hook could see that this was going to become a problem as demand for clean weed grew. As a California attorney, former abalone farmer, and a USDA organic inspector, he realized that he was in a unique position to launch a movement. So he started the program that would become Clean Green: a certifier of weed grown without synthetic chemical inputs. He just couldn’t call it organic.

When you go to the grocery store and pay double for organic strawberries, what you’re paying for is the government guarantee that they were grown (for the most part) without synthetic pesticides. But if you use the word organic to describe your cannabis, you’re inviting legal repercussions. According to the USDA, the fine for organic mislabeling can be up to $10,000. That hasn’t happened yet, but in Colorado, complaints about dispensaries using organic improperly have led to an attorney general investigation. That risk is enough to dissuade most from flat-out claiming that their bud is organic. Buds & Roses, for instance, refers to its Strawberry Cough strain not as organic, but as “veganic” (which means it was made with no animal-derived products). “We want to be compliant,” says collective president Aaron Justis. “We don’t need another problem, you know?”

That’s why so many growers are drawn to Van Hook’s Clean Green certification. Today, Clean Green has more than 100 customers, including Maggie’s Farm, Oakland Organics, and Buds & Roses; Clean Green–certified cannabis companies have been winning top prizes in the High Times Cannabis Cup—the industry’s foremost weed competition—since 2010. But not all growers understand why they can’t use the word organic, and many consumers don’t assign independent certification the same cachet that organic carries. As a result, many growers are still calling their bud organic. If you see a package with the words organic weed on it, that’s just an example of that seller’s ignorance, says Van Hook.

organic weed.
Chris Van Hook conducts a Clean Green inspection of Ruby Farms in Bend, Oregon, earlier this month.

Chris Van Hook

With food, the EPA determines what level of pesticides is benign on all your food, and if you want to avoid man-made chemicals completely, you can buy organic. With weed, there’s no way to know what’s pesticide-free and what isn’t. “This is an industry where bullshit reigns,” says Van Hook. “In the unregulated world of cannabis, anyone can say they’re anything.”

* * *

In many ways, California’s weed industry has come a long way since the days of Northstone Organics. Medical marijuana has been legal since 1996; a referendum to legalize recreational weed will be on the ballot this November. The industry is so established that state authorities are worried that its prodigious water usage is contributing to the state’s yearslong drought.

In other ways, not much has changed. Take a look at the one-page sheet of pesticide guidelines that the state put out last April, for instance, and you’d hardly realize how much more sanctioned and sophisticated the weed industry is today. That memo instructs growers to use only pesticides with a broad enough use to be allowed on “unspecified green plants,” and also suggests some interesting rodenticides, like chili peppers, garlic, and “putrescent whole egg solids.” But along the top of the sheet, in bold, italicized print, it reads:

The following is being provided for informational purposes only and does not authorize, permit, endorse, or in any way approve the use, sale, cultivation, or any other activity associated with marijuana. Any such activity is subject to prosecution under federal law.

Those two sentences pretty much sum up where we’re at with marijuana pesticide regulation: Even as states try to gather data and establish safe levels, they’re being thwarted by the fact that the federal government has to keep pretending that the fastest-growing industry in America doesn’t exist. The pesticide problem and the problems that the organic weed industry faces are all symptoms of this central paradox. In the words of the Cannabis Safety Institute: “The absence of federal approval is often less problematic than the complete absence of federal guidelines.”

Last year, the EPA announced that it would take applications for “special local needs” permits, a waiver process by which pesticides could be approved for cannabis in states where it is legal (it’s yet to receive any). But beyond that, its hands are tied. Sunny Jones, cannabis policy director for Oregon’s Department of Agriculture, says the EPA is finding itself “overwhelmed by the number of different ways that someone could be, let’s just say ‘exposed,’ to cannabis: eating it, smoking it, suppositories. It’s hard to determine how much of a pesticide might be used, and at what concentration. If you’re a medical user, you might be looking at 1,000 milligrams just to get up in the morning. If you’re a recreational user, that’ll knock you flat.”

So now, states are nevertheless forging ahead with their own regulatory regimes. And in lieu of federal guidelines, they’re opting to band together rather than go it alone.

In January, Oregon released its first list of 257 pesticides that were not explicitly outlawed by the EPA (that is, chemicals intended for general food products that are considered so low-risk that the EPA hasn’t set a maximum tolerance for them). Oregon is now working closely with Washington state and Colorado to coordinate which pesticides labs should test for in weed, says Jones. But to create meaningful regulations, they still need real data. As those states move forward, they need to rely not only on EPA lists to set standards for pesticide use—but to begin doing original research on the risks of inhaling pesticides and surveying growers on their actual practices. If they succeed, they may be able to supply a foundation of data to the federal government were marijuana ever to become legal on the national level.

With a little luck, the process could even be, well, organic.

Rachel E. Gross is the science web editor at Smithsonian.