Organic is a term ascribed to many different products.
When it comes to food, the most common application, there is an official certification process.
For other products, like cannabis, the meaning is more ambiguous. Yet “organic” is often seen as a part of cannabis product names. So what does it mean?
The USDA certifies organic crops but because cannabis is illegal at the federal level, dispensaries and growers cannot acquire federal certifications. Even if they are using approved organic methodologies, the designation has no official meaning.
“It does not have anything to do with the products or the techniques we are using,” said Andy Weyers, the grow manager at Choice Organics. “The only reason we can’t technically call it organic right now is because of the laws federally.”
The future of federal cannabis law is unknown, so it could be some time before there are organic certifications for growers and dispensaries. Third-party companies have certified certain cannabis products that follow organic parameters. These third-party certifications are good as a guide, but do not carry the same weight as a USDA certification.
The perception of “organic” for most consumers is focused on the use of pesticides and herbicides. In other words, they are concerned primarily with chemical poisons sprayed on the plants to prevent disease and bugs. In reality, it could refer to a vast array of different products, and methods of growing.
While many pesticides can be used safely – per the USDA – on plants that will be eaten (usually after they have been washed), adding the component of combustion creates complications to this safety.
“I think cannabis needs a stricter guideline for organic products — it takes a little more finesse,” Weyer said. “Cannabis is generally consumed through smoking. When you ignite cannabis, the pesticides that were used, even if they were organic, change chemically.”
Organic methods and pesticides are generally safer because there are no “unknowns,” but it does not mean that there are no inherent risks associated with untested processes such as burning and inhaling organic pesticides. Just because a product is organic or natural does not mean that it can never hurt a consumer if used improperly.
“You might have sprayed something that is safe for consumption-grade food like tomatoes, but when you turn around and spray it on cannabis it turns into a whole different product because you are burning it at the end, which changes the chemical composition. This therefore makes some products that are organic and can be used on food products unsafe to use on cannabis,” Weyers said.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) maintains a list of products that meet requirements for cannabis use in commercial application, personal use, and in compliance with any additional requirements deemed necessary. There is also another list of banned chemicals for cannabis regulated by the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED), per the Retail and Medical Marijuana Code.
Traditionally, enforcement of pesticide use in cannabis production is regulated by the CDA. In 2015, Governor John Hickenlooper’s administration also released an executive order addressing the threat of pesticides to public safety, requiring the destruction of any product contaminated with an off-label pesticide. There is an ongoing debate over how best to define contamination because a zero-tolerance policy is almost impossible.
Companies that grow cannabis have to list any non-organic pesticides they use on the product label. Choice Organics chooses to list everything it uses to grow plants on the label to maintain transparency, though it is not mandated.
Some growers choose not to grow organically. Many at-home growers and even some commercial growers prefer to buy bottled nutrients from a grow store. These bottled nutrients start out with products like fishmeal, but are then synthetically changed into liquid to feed the plant, which is not an organic method.
“I don’t use any products that were synthetically derived,” Weyers said. “I don’t use bottles of any sort. I purely use amendments, which are fish bone, kelp, anything natural that hasn’t been synthetically turned into a liquid product.”
Organic soil-grown processes seek to minimize pesticides by mimicking natural process to the greatest extent possible.
“We layer [amendments] on top of our soil, mix it in and instead of watering nutrients in, the soil holds on to all the nutrients that the plant needs,” Weyers said. “We just water plain water. The microbes in the soil eat the amendments, which then in turn create the nutrients that my plants feed on. [Microbes] are the driving force of my system.”
So why do so many cannabis-related products and companies use organic in their name? For some, it is simply a marketing tactic. Because there is no official certification process, there is no legal reason that cannabis products can’t be labeled organic.
Others do follow organic methodologies strictly, creating the safest possible product for their consumers. And while there is no official certification currently, they use their names to signal to consumers that they follow these strict protocols.