A growing consumer segment in the United States is obsessed with all things organic. From food and drinks to sustainably-sourced clothing, there's a niche for nearly everything to go organic. So, what about cannabis? This versatile plant is often touted as an all-natural treatment. It would make sense to remove as many additives and leave it as untouched as possible. Is it actually possible to grow organic marijuana? The answer is a bit more complex than you might expect.
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Organic: A Working Definition
Most people define "organic" foods to be those grown without the use of harmful pesticides. That is the basic definition, confirmed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA webpage on organic standards goes a little further, stating businesses "must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances" in order to become licensed.
The rules of what's organic and what isn't are rather complex, as the hundreds of pages of regulations prove. Even the subsection containing general requirements for obtaining organic accreditation has 20 different clauses with further sub-clauses attached, explaining exactly what initial and ongoing actions (and fees) are required. Although the requirements are fairly clear, there's a major problem: The USDA has no jurisdiction over cannabis.
Once again, the Federal Government stands in the way of marijuana progress. There's clearly a market hungry for clean, organic green, but the USDA cannot legally oversee accreditation of producers that grow organic cannabis because marijuana is still illegal under Federal law. This means that even a grower who follows the USDA's guidelines to the letter still isn't producing "organic" cannabis from a legal standpoint.
This situation hamstrings growers who are committed to meeting the highest standards, it also means there's no oversight preventing shady growers from hawking their pesticide-laden product with organic labels.
There are third-party companies built to certify marijuana and marijuana by-products that meet the USDA's standards for organics, but they simply don't have the clout or national network to give real meaning to their certifications.
A Need for New Standards
Here's another wrinkle in the situation: Because it's a product intended largely for smoking, cannabis differs crucially from every other substance the USDA can certify organic. While the organic pesticides certified farmers can use on food are deemed safe to eat, there's little to no evidence on how they react to combustion.
Ever heard of Eagle20? It's a pesticide perfectly acceptable for use in non-organic farming. The California wine industry makes liberal use of it, and it happens to contain a fungicide compound called myclobutanil. This chemical's widespread use in food causes no undue ill effects, but once combusted its structure shifts – turning it into hydrogen cyanide. Yes, this resulting chemical is lethal in sufficient doses. When residually present on cannabis, it's "not immediately deadly", but exposes consumers to clinically relevant levels that in extreme cases result in serious problems with breathing, respiratory function, thyroid, and neurological dysfunction.
While the pesticides approved for USDA organic use (like the popular neem oil) are considered safer for human consumption, we just don't know exactly how they affect the cannabis they treat. Any forthcoming USDA attempts at forming a certification process for those who grow organic cannabis would have to account for the crucial difference of combustion.
Attempts at Oversight
With Oklahoma's recent induction into the ranks of medical marijuana states, the US now has 30 states with legal medical marijuana. This progress has been so recent and so momentous there's no little enforcement of state laws on what growers can and can't use on their plants.
Colorado has made the greatest strides in attempting to regulate organic cannabis. In 2015, multiple grows in the state came under intense scrutiny for their potentially-dangerous use of pesticides outside the state's approved marijuana pesticides list. Since then, a new organization has attempted to fill the void between regulations and enforcement. The Cannabis Certification Council (CCC) collaborates with other companies to scope out cannabis grows and independently verify the resulting products as organically grown. The CCC uses USDA guidelines in combination with stricter European requirements.
But there's only so much one organization can do, especially in a state with as many growers as Colorado. Some growers using harmful pesticides will always slip through the cracks.
How to Grow Organic
Luckily, it's very easy to grow organic if you're growing cannabis at home. It's simply a matter of treating soil as an essential tool, and sourcing a quality soil or creating your own with compost. Known as "super soil" by aficionados, high-quality organic soil includes natural, beneficial ingredients like blood meal, bat guano, and worm castings. If you don't feel like preparing all that wonderful stuff yourself, ready-made mixes are available from online retailers. Pests will happen, but in addition to spraying down plants to remove bugs, you can pick up some neem oil – one of the most popular organic pesticides among commercial growers.
Growing organic marijuana is undoubtedly pricier than using synthetic nutrients and pest control, but the trade-up in quality is worth it. Organic cannabis is smoother when smoking and tastes better since its surface doesn't have to deal with harsh chemicals and purging. Give it a try!