Plants in a RiverRock Cannabis facility grow in pots of peat moss, which is used as part of the organic growing process. Jim Elftmann, chief operating officer for RiverRock Cannabis, strips excess leaves from some of the plants and checks for any signs of disease. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

Organic issues: Marijuana industry explores legal alternatives for labeling

Any other operation that routinely labeled its products “organic” without certification to back up the claim would have been shut down and fined almost immediately, an expert in organic certification said.

Colorado’s cannabis industry, though, has benefited from the regulatory gray area where it resides, producing a product that is legal to consume and sell in Colorado but remains illegal under federal law.

“If those farmers were farming any other agricultural crop, they would be contacted within a month or two,” said Chris Van Hook, an accredited organic certifier for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and owner of Clean Green Certified, an organic-alternative program for cannabis. “It’s very clear in the organic regulations: It’s a $11,000-per-violation labeling infraction to call an uncertified product organic.”

Rather than just wait for the federal government to begin certifying, industry leaders are working to find their own way to legitimately market marijuana products as pesticide-free and environmentally friendly.

Van Hook has been giving out his “Clean Green” seal since 2004, and a Denver-based organization could begin certifying cannabis operations as pesticide-free later this fall.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, yeah, man, it’s organic,’ but that is a childish approach to a term that has gained global signification,” Van Hook said. “The quicker the cannabis industry can address the misrepresentation, the better it will be for consumers and the farmers.”

The Organic Cannabis Association in Denver is in the final stages of preparation to launch its pesticide-free certification program, co-founder Ben Gelt said.

Developed with help from experts in integrated pest management and organic farming, the program will include lab testing for “hundreds of different chemicals and products,” on-site inspections and required full disclosure from participating operations, he said.

“We feel like this initial certification will be a powerful thing for growers to have,” Gelt said. “It’s much more stringent than anything the city or the state is requiring.”

Pesticide use has been a source of growing controversy in the industry, with Denver officials quarantining more than 100,000 marijuana plants earlier this year over health concerns.

The Colorado attorney general’s office said last week it was also investigating a number of cannabis businesses that advertised their products as “organic” or “organically grown.”

Legally, marijuana cannot be called organic — no matter how environmentally friendly the cultivation practices used to grow it — because the term is federally regulated and the USDA does not recognize cannabis as a legitimate agricultural crop, Van Hook said.

“Because the USDA can’t get involved, we need a nonprofit to come in and be that voice, either in place or until that’s there,” said John-Paul Maxfield, co-founder of the cannabis association. “Starting with pesticides is a really important low-hanging fruit.”

The goal is to create a comprehensive, independently verified organic alternative, said Maxfield, who also is CEO of Waste Farmers, a public benefit corporation that sells bagged soil products for home gardeners and marijuana grows.

“When’s the last time you went into the grow and bought marijuana? You’re going to the dispensary. You can’t see how it’s grown and you’re not growing it yourself,” Maxfield said. “There needs to be a third party saying, ‘Yeah, I can verify these guys are doing what they said they’re doing and here are the standards.’ “

Based in Crescent City, Calif., Clean Green has certified more than 100 cannabis grow operations, processors and collectives in the western U.S. All active certifications are listed online.

The program has given its seal to one Colorado operator, Maggie’s Farm in El Paso County, and hopes to have others certified by the end of the year, Van Hook said.

Modeled on national and international organic and sustainable standards, the Clean Green program requires on-site inspections and third-party lab testing. Much like the USDA National Organic Program for traditional agricultural products, the whole life cycle of the plant is considered, from seed selection to harvesting and processing, as well as soil, nutrients, pesticide use, mold treatment and dust control.

Van Hook started the certification after being approached by California growers who wanted an above-board way to distinguish their products.

“There was a real industry need,” he said. “We just moved those (USDA) procedures and processes and training and inspector training into the cannabis industry, just as if you were contacting us to get your broccoli certified.”

Clean Green also goes further than the USDA in some areas, requiring every operator to undergo pesticide testing every year, rather than only a small percentage of farms, Van Hook said. Clean Green companies also must put into place a carbon footprint reduction plan, water conservation measures and fair labor practices.

The cannabis industry shouldn’t expect the USDA to change its stance on “organic” until marijuana is legalized nationwide, said Darrin Duber-Smith, a marketing professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver who specializes in natural, organic and sustainable products.

In the meantime, the key to not running afoul of the law is using terminology with similar meaning but without strict regulation, he said.

“What you’re trying to say is it’s unadulterated. You’re trying to get differentiation and say it’s pure. There are many, many ways to do that without violating the law,” Duber-Smith said.

“Saying it’s pesticide-free is a way of going around that ‘organic’ moniker. ‘Locally grown’ is actually a term that resonates with consumers better than organic.”

Emilie Rusch: 303-954-2457, or

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