Marijuana Plants Looking Up at Lights

Regulating the Unregulated: Cannabis, Sustainability and Quality Certification

Lack of a national regulatory agency for pot purity has led to local programs overseeing the quality and purity of cannabis products

Many in the legal marijuana industry want their consumers to feel reassured that they’re purchasing clean, good quality cannabis products. But given the nature of the pot’s sector’s outlaw past and its present murky legal status, those assurances can be hard to come by.

Due to federal laws, marijuana cannot be legally certified as “organic” even if it is grown using recognized organic and sustainable practices. But there are ways around this dilemma. The legal cannabis industry is creating its own regulatory groups and companies which offer third-party tests and certification of a cultivator’s cannabis; to determine if those marijuana products meet the required standards.

The federal government’s prohibition also means lack of a national oversight group for legal marijuana cultivation, which in turn is prompting these certification programs to spring up on a state-by-state basis.

In late 2016 the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) began a one-year trial program to certify that “cannabis (marijuana) grown for medical purposes meets a quality standard similar to organic.” It also noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) “does not allow the word ‘organic’ to be used with cannabis.”

MOFGA says the mission of its Certified Clean Cannabis or MC3 program is to verify that cannabis grown, processed and handled within these guidelines reaches the same standards of both the NOP and the American Herbal Products Association.

And Maine’s marijuana cultivators say such standards make good sense when it comes to their bottom line.

“From a business standpoint, I felt like putting a label on my product from a certifying agency would set me apart,” cannabis grower Erica Haywood told the New York Times.

California-based Clean Green, meanwhile, was established in 2004 and bills itself as the “number one certifier nation-wide for cannabis cultivated using sustainable, natural and organically-based practices.”

The organization requires on-site inspections and third-party lab tests for cannabis products that aim to be awarded its certification. And its founder says the need for certification is widespread.

“This is an industry where bullshit reigns,” Chris Van Hook, founder and director of the Clean Green certification program told last April.”In the unregulated world of cannabis, anyone can say they’re anything.”

In Colorado John-Paul Maxfield, founder and CEO of Waste Farmers, a sustainable agriculture company, also saw the obstacles facing legitimate cannabis certification in his state. He helped start the Organic Cannabis Association (OCA), which has established its own pesticide-free certification program, geared mainly at Colorado cannabis cultivators.

Maxfield says OCA has helped to start a dialogue on a natural certification process in the absence of USDA regulation.

Such programs, he tells the Blunt Network, “also forecast the maturity of the cannabis market. Organic (certification) created a niche market that small farmers could access, to ensure the viability of their farms.”

And as the legal cannabis industry grows and matures, he says, industry consolidation is sure to follow; which will mean more of a focus on issues like yield and efficiency; sometimes at the expense of overall product quality.

“That’s a market dynamic that we can’t shake,” says Maxfield, “but we want to create these market mechanisms to encourage people to seek out more sustainable growing methods.”

Last October OCA hosted a Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, with support from Denver’s Department of Environmental Health.

The event focused on the environmental and financial challenges faced by the legal cannabis industry, dealing with issues such as energy efficiency, clean water conservation and waste management.

For his part Maxfield expects a national organic certification program to come into effect in the near future as these regional programs gain strength and credibility. But he also notes that consumers, especially among the Millennial generation, are helping to drive the organic cannabis movement.

“Millennial consumers have just come to expect, and are seeking out, brands that are transparent and good– and brands that are organic,” he says.  “Over the long haul, that makes business sense. There will always be a market for mass produced products, and it’s not my intention to speak ill of it.”

“But in the long-term the most innovative brands in the food world, the brands that are most valued, are focused on the Millennial consumer’s need for real food. And I don’t think cannabis will be precluded from that discussion.”