River Rock Cannabis COO Jim Elftmann strips excess leaves from some of the plants and checks for any signs of disease at his company's cultivation facility on Sept. 15, 2015. The company had formerly gone by the name of River Rock Organic Cannabis until the Colorado attorney general's office began investigating marijuana businesses' use of the word "organic" in their name. River Rock began removing the word organic on all of their labeling and signage at the end of June 2015. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

Colorado may create its own rules for organic marijuana; debate ahead

Colorado legislation would create state-sanctioned labels for organic marijuana, which is cheered by consumer advocates. Marijuana producers have questions about how much certification would cost

Marijuana has attracted many labels in its time. On Friday, Colorado lawmakers debate whether the state should give the drug one more often associated with purple carrots than purple haze — certified organic.

Colorado starts work Friday on becoming the first state to regulate organic labels in its pot industry, with other legal weed states watching to see whether they too should step in to help consumers wondering what’s on their weed. Organic standards are regulated federally, and pot remains illegal at the federal level, meaning there’s nothing stopping commercial pot growers from calling their wares organic.

“Consumers have a right to know what they’re putting in their body,” said Colorado Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Democrat sponsoring the bill to create the state-sanctioned labels. The bill has its first hearing Friday in the state House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee. The measure, HB16-1079, doesn’t specify what growers would have to do to get the certification, it instead directs the state’s agricultural department to get a third party to draft the regulations. The bill also doesn’t say which pesticides would be off-limits for organic growers.

Consumer confusion over organic marijuana in Colorado’s recreational sales era peaked when Denver health authorities seized thousands of marijuana plants from growers suspected of using off-limits chemicals on their plants.

Most of the plants were ultimately released, but some were sold with names that suggested the products were natural or organic.

“That misleads people,” said Larisa Bolivar, head of the Cannabis Consumers Coalition. “We don’t want to wait for someone to get sick. You need to know that when something says organic, it’s organic.”

Colorado is likely just the first state to tighten the rules for advertising marijuana products as organic, said Chris Lindsey, legislative analyst for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.

“This is not exactly a movement, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say we’re headed that way,” he said.

The only other pot state to even mention organic certification is California, which last year adopted a regulation requiring organic certification for marijuana products by 2020, if permitted under federal law.

So far federal authorities that have weighed in on state marijuana experiments haven’t mentioned accurate labeling standards, though a 2013 memo from the Department of Justice warned states that federal authorities want “strong and effective” regulations.

Colorado’s marijuana industry generally supports a state-level organic labeling bill.

“It’s something that we need,” said Meg Sanders, CEO of Mindful, a company that grows marijuana and produces marijuana concentrates. “Because of the federal illegality, to have a state standard would be incredibly helpful.”

Some pot producers are taking issue, though, with the fact that the industry would have to pay for the privilege of having regulators check to see if their plants are organic. Some organic marijuana producers said the cost burden would hurt small organic growers in the so-called “craft cannabis” niche.

“I would be proud to advertise that our cannabis is organic,” said Julie Berliner, CEO of Sweet Grass Kitchen, which makes marijuana-infused sweets. “My concern lies with the cost of this certification.”

A nonpartisan analysis prepared for lawmakers predicted that only about 5 percent of Colorado’s pot growers would apply for the certification, roughly the same percentage as food producers.

The analysis gave no estimate of how much pot growers would be charged for the certification, or what the organic labels might look like.

Still, just the prospect of one day having easy-to-understand organic labels for marijuana has consumer advocates cheering. States that allow commercial pot sales do require labels listing chemicals used on the plants, but they can be difficult to decipher.

A trustworthy symbol would be better, said Teri Robnett, head of the Cannabis Patients Alliance.

“That’s important to a lot of patients,” she said. “This is one reason some prefer marijuana rather than pharmaceuticals, because they want something organic. This will help patients know when that’s the case.”

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Kristen Wyatt can be reached on Twitter: @APkristenwyatt

River Rock Cannabis COO Jim Elftmann strips excess leaves from some of the plants and checks for any signs of disease at his company's cultivation facility on Sept. 15, 2015. The company had formerly gone by the name of River Rock Organic Cannabis until the Colorado attorney general's office began investigating marijuana businesses' use of the word "organic" in their name. River Rock began removing the word organic on all of their labeling and signage at the end of June 2015. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)
River Rock Cannabis COO Jim Elftmann strips excess leaves from some of the plants and checks for any signs of disease at his company’s cultivation facility on Sept. 15, 2015. The company had formerly gone by the name of River Rock Organic Cannabis until the Colorado attorney general’s office began investigating marijuana businesses’ use of the word “organic” in their name. River Rock began removing the word organic on all of their labeling and signage at the end of June 2015. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)