The Panic over ‘Organic’

Buzzwords like “artisanal,” “farm-to-table,” and “handcrafted” don’t actually mean anything. A restaurant could slap those words onto any old crappy hot dog or cronut and mark the price up by $5, and San Franciscans would probably line up around the block to buy it.

But the same does not go for organically grown cannabis, even if it is sustainably cultivated with the purest soil and nutrients. Though cannabis is fully legal in the state of California, it is illegal to use the word “organic” to describe any marijuana product.

“Cannabis is not currently recognized as an agricultural crop in the eyes of the U.S. and Californian governments,” says Tawnie Scarborough, director of farmer growth and development at the cannabis producer and distributor Flow Kana. “Therefore, cannabis cannot yet be referred to as organic, which requires farm certification.”

The word “organic” does actually mean something, and its use is strictly regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations,” the USDA says on its website. “Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.”

Because cannabis remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government, the USDA will not recognize the plant with any designations, and weed labeling cannot bear the USDA Organic seal that you may see at Whole Foods or other healthy produce stores.

Here in California, most cannabis matters are handled by the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC). But the rules and regulations relating to the cannabis plant itself are instead handled by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), because marijuana is an agricultural plant.

The CDFA is on the case, though, and trying to establish a different name with a similar set of standards for what they currently call “comparable-to-organic cannabis.” That term doesn’t exactly slip off the tongue, but an interdepartmental working group called OCal is working on developing terminology and standards that express the concept of organic without running afoul of federal law. (“OCal” might even be the word they settle upon.)

Several marijuana brands have already been stung by the word-police crackdown, and have had to reword their websites or even change their name. Emerald Triangle farm and preroll brand Brotherly Love Organics had to rebrand as just Brotherly Love.

“We haven’t really gotten much blowback,” Brotherly Love Chief Happiness Cultivator Steven Menken tells SF Weekly. “We also haven’t been too focused on it because we use cultivation techniques that are well beyond organic.
“It was frustrating initially for me because I called the CDFA early on vetting our brand name with them, and they didn’t want to address the issue. It wasn’t until six months ago that they said it wasn’t compliant. But before that, we had already decided to drop [the term ‘organic’] just because ‘Brotherly Love’ is just naturally what people were calling it in the retail space.”

Brotherly Love still has the word “organics” in the URL of their website, and the eradication of the term has not been terribly severe.

“I’ve heard of retailers being particular about it but, again, it’s a federally regulated word,” Menken says. “Any dispensary is committing multiple federal offenses at any given time. I think the least of the feds’ concerns would be the word ‘organic’.”

This being California, many growers have taken it upon themselves to self-adopt even higher standards than what the USDA requires for organic designation. These “beyond organic” certifications like Dem Pure and Sun+Earth establish standards not only for regenerative farming practices and soil fertility practices, but also for benefits and living wages for workers, and community engagement requirements for responsible marijuana brands.

The CDFA’s OCal working group does not expect to have their “comparable-to-organic” terminology and standards in place until Jan, 1, 2021, and even then they will only start accepting applications to use whatever term and label they come up with. In the meantime, cultivators will probably grow their own even stricter set of standards for sustainable marijuana. And they’ll do it using their own hand-crafted, artisanal, farm-to-table methods.