Picture yourself in a farm by a river, where Tangerine Dream weed grows beyond your sight. Plants are enormous, the buds look luscious and the smell alone makes you feel high. Cannabis flowers tower over your head. And then suddenly, there comes the guy with the pressure sprayer…and the smell’s gone!
In a second, one of the best experiences of my life, touring a huge cannabis cultivation facility while listening to my favorite tunes (hope you got the music reference above) was ruined. Just like that, my bubble popped. This pristine place of present and future wellbeing, polluted, completely perverted by the search for additional economic profit.
“What’s that?” I asked the grower, disenchanted. “Imidacloprid,” he answered, although he maybe said “Myclobutanil.” I followed up, asking him if it was toxic. “Yeah, well, but it prevents pests,” he responded carelessly.
I could not help but wonder: Had this guy never heard about neem oil and soap? I know people around the globe growing great cannabis without using any chemicals at all, just garlic, onions and water. You know: regular, non-scary-sounding stuff.
With legal cannabis now available (in one way or another) in 28 states and the District of Columbia, more sophisticated consumers are entering the cannabis space. People are no longer condemned to buying their weed from a shady dealer in a dingy alley. Pretty much the opposite is the case: Purchasing cannabis at a dispensary is increasingly becoming a high-level, if not luxurious, experience.
Much like how high-end consumers hit up Whole Foods and Bristol Farms for their boogey organic produce, there’s a growing demand for organic grade cannabis.
“Now that cannabis is becoming legalized, consumers are able to influence the market with their decisions,” says Harrison Phillips, an analyst at Viridian Capital Advisors, one of the top financial and strategic advisory firms in the cannabis industry. “Their tastes are different; they demand a higher quality product and wider spectrum of choice. This is why we are seeing all these edibles come in, all these different ways you can now take the product. In this line, consumers are also demanding organic cannabis products in some shape or form.”
Google Trends also confirms there’s an interest for “organic cannabis,” and it’s on the rise. In fact, search volumes in 2016 were about four times higher than in the 2004-2010 period, and about double the median values of 2013 and 2014.
Unsurprisingly, trends also indicate that searches for clean weed have spiked every year around 4/20, at least since 2004. This suggests that right around 4/20, when a lot of non-regular consumers light up, they want to get clean, non-harmful weed in their bodies.
“As opposed to the unwinding of Prohibition in which five major breweries initially dominated the industry, cannabis legalization, which is evolving on a state-by-state basis, has seen smaller, regional brands emerge,” Scott Greiper, President and founder of Viridian noted. “This has spurned a ‘craft brewer’ approach and an increasing variety of product and style, including organic.”
The emergence of the organically grown cannabis trend has been, in a way, also a reaction against the use of pesticides and the controversy around it.
“My philosophy is that cannabis is a plant, and it should be grown like any other plant,” one of the founding partners at Canna Advisors added. The man had a point.
So who are these consumers willing to pay premium for organically grown cannabis, and what exactly makes a nug organic?
Phillips’ comments led me to assume that a sizable crew would rather consume organically grown cannabis, with no additives, pesticides and chemical fertilizers: just good old grass. It’s no longer just home growers who are interested in chemical-free cannabis; increasingly cultured, environmentally-and-health-conscious consumers are rapidly becoming aware of the difference as well.
As one might expect, this awareness by both medical and recreational users has generated an increase in supply.
“These are the same people that shop at Whole Foods. They are saying ‘we want higher-quality organic products,’ so companies are now having to adopt the technologies and brand imaging to reflect that,” Phillips said. “It’s the same reason organic products became popular in the U.S. overall. We are wealthier consumers who just demanded a different niche of food.”
But why do consumers perceive organically grown cannabis as better than non-organic pot?
Brian Zak of Denver, Colorado, is a regular user of both organic and non-organic cannabis. “It’s both in the taste and the chemicals you’re smoking,” he said when I asked about how the classifications differ for him. “Non-organic weed has Eagle30 and other pesticides sprayed during the grow process. Also, a lot of places spray their weed to make the nugs denser or to make it smell a certain way. A lot of ‘citrus’ strains are like that.”
Treyous Jarrells is another experienced organic user. You might know him from his time as a promising NCAA player: a running back for Colorado State. Or maybe, from the scandal and extensive media coverage that came after he quit football in order to continue to be able to treat his pain with cannabis.
Jarrells, also a knowledgeable grower, recently started an organic pesticides company called Real Lyfas, maker of Cin-Doctor™, an all organic foliage/root bound spray that focuses on the structural components of plants while also defending them against predators.
When talking about his products and the industry as a whole, Jarrels clearly knows the ins and outs of clean marijuana. “When it comes to organically grown cannabis, you’re only using organic products, natural products, not chemicals and compounds made by humans,” he said. “When you’re growing synthetically, your plants don’t get all the microbes they need, all the micro-and-macronutrients they need; they are only getting what people have put into that nutrient.”
Jarrels also notes that there are physical ways to tell whether or not what you’re smoking is clean. All you need to look at is apparently the ash. When you light up a joint and the ash is white, you know you’re dealing with a product that was grown organically, or they at least flushed out the chemicals at the end to ensure it was clean. For something that’s synthetically grown, you’ll get black ash.
But as you can expect, it really comes down to the actual taste.
“You can taste the actual plant, you know? Every strain has a distinct taste, a distinct smell,” Jarrells explained. “So, a connoisseur, an enthusiast who loves cannabis and its taste, knows when cannabis is grown organically, because he can taste the actual plant. In addition, sometimes when you’re inhaling, you hear a popping sound; that’s the chemicals reacting to the flame. So, those are things that I look for when I’m partaking in cannabis, especially when it’s something I didn’t grow.”
It’s important to understand what makes cannabis organic – and if such a thing even exists. In the U.S., marijuana cannot be legally called “organic,” because the USDA (the only federal agency authorized to deem a product 100 percent organic) will not certify cannabis due to the substance’s federal illegality.
In other markets, like Canada, licensed producers can get certified as “organic” by different provinces, provided certain extremely rigorous production standards were followed. And to no surprise, it is also said that Colorado could be working on its own state certification process.
Chris Van Hook, who has 15 years of experience managing a USDA organic certification company, now runs the Clean Green certification program, which defines itself as “the #1 certification nation-wide for organically-grown cannabis cultivated using sustainable, natural practices.” Third party certifiers, like Clean Green, have been offering customers similar assurances for more than a decade now.
Basically, the closest you can get to organic for a cannabis product.
It’s important to understand what makes cannabis organic – and if such a thing even exists.
“We are firmly entrenched in the existing USDA organic regulations. It’s not just about passing a pesticides test,” Van Hook explained. “Organic means that legally grown agricultural products [cannabis, in this case] are produced using naturally based fertilizers and pest control. However, the Clean Green certification also indicates producers are addressing issues of sustainability in their farming practices. This means they must have erosion control, water conservation and carbon footprint reduction practices in place, as well as a legal electric supply, a legal water supply and ethical workforce practices, which make for a reasonable labor component.”
It’s also about pesticides for Van Hook and other organic growers, too.
“There’s pesticide issues currently in the space, not only because it’s a new agricultural commodity, but also because the EPA, at a federal level, is the agency that sets appropriate pesticide regulations,“ he said. "So, we’ve seen a push toward organic products. Whether correct or not, [there’s a perception] that the products used in organic farming to control pests are better, and may be perceived to be safer.”
Beyond expert views, legal implications, biological explanations and third party testimonies, I wanted to go see how an organic cultivation facility is different from a regular one. Phillips had defined Whistler Medical as “one of the super-premium cannabis brands in Canada.”
In fact, Whistler is the only 100 percent certified organic licensed producer in the country.
This assurance is especially important for medical users; when your immune system or some other part of your body is not at its best, knowing there aren’t any harmful chemicals in your medicine is fundamental. In this line, Whistler only caters to medical customers right now. So, unless you have a prescription, you won’t be able to get all that goodness just yet.
“Whistler’s is a pretty unique process that is not going to be easy to replicate, as it takes a lot of time to dial in,” Cronos Group’s CEO Michael Gorenstein told me, who owns a 21 percent stake in Whistler. “Their method of growing is much different than anything we’ve seen elsewhere; I think it’s more of a craft, even an art. When you go there, there’s a real artist feel to what they are doing there, to what they are producing.”
Others echo that the company has a right to be proud of their process, considering how much patience and persistence it takes to establish an organic growth process."They’ve taken a lot of time to develop this proprietary methodology, and the lifestyle brand they’ve created permeates the entire company culture. They understand who their patients are and have created a loyal following with their organic products,” Eric Klein, head of marketing and communications said.
“Since the first day Whistler Medical opened, all of our products have always been certified organic, across the entire product line,” Whistler Medical founder Christopher Pelz said. “This is what makes us unique. It’s all about the details. We will never be a mega-producer.”
I needed to see it with my own eyes, so I asked Christopher to set up a tour around the Whistler, B.C. grow.
Once again, I was in an idyllic marijuana grow. This time, it was not a farm, but a super-clean warehouse tucked into a non-descript building, with so many plants of the most amazing B.C. bud growing in large pots. I watched as people in lab coats and other sterile apparel gave them some real love.
The plants looked even healthier and greener than the ones I’d seen in my previous visit to a production facility. They did have a few white and brown spots on their leaves, but nothing a regular plant shouldn’t exhibit. They also smelled considerably better; in fact, that inebriating skunk-like smell remained in the inside of my nose for days.
“I think you’ll be blown away when you see it. Everything is done by hand,” brand manager Sophie Rivers had anticipated before my visit. She was not exaggerating, not even a tiny bit.
How were these guys growing weed like that with no chemical pesticides or fertilizers? How come other growers need to contaminate both the plant and the planet to arrive to a comparable, yet worse, end product?
After witnessing the amount of care that went into these plants, I could only imagine what it would cost a consumer to buy something like this.
Organically grown cannabis can be more expensive than regular weed, but this isn’t even always the case. “In an under-supplied market, organic produce gets a better price. In an over-supplied market, it might not get a higher retail price, but it will get sold first,” Van Hook explained. "I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference; the price of cannabis is already so high, sold by the gram, that the difference is negligible.”
Somewhat surprised by this, I went back and compared prices. Van Hook was not wrong. For instance, Whistler Medical’s buds go for $6.74 to $9.00 per gram. In the U.S., one of the Clean Green-certified retailers, C.R.A.F.T., sells clean weed for about $8.93 to $17.00 per gram, offering about 24 strains. This compares to an average price for high-quality, yet non-organically produced cannabis of $11.31 per gram ($320.65 per ounce) in the U.S., and about $7.63 per gram in Canada ($216.27 per ounce.)
“Organic cannabis can cost more to produce, but pricing is also a function of product quality,” Klein concluded.
Taking into account that Whistler sells 11 different dried cannabis strains, I wondered: Are there any particular strains used in organic marijuana production?
“To my knowledge any strain can be grown organically,” Klein responded. “But, yields and outcomes can fluctuate dramatically based on growing conditions; what is ideal for one strain might not be ideal for another.”
Consumers feel reassured when they know that there’s no possibility they’re putting something that’s detrimental to their health into their bodies.
Adding to the this, Van Hook assured any strain can be grown organically. “There is no strain that I have seen yet in 14 years of inspecting that cannot be grown organically,” he said. “The one thing these plants need is care. You can grow good cannabis relatively easily, but you can’t grow excellent cannabis without really loving and interacting with the plant. And I’m not saying that as a Rasta guy or a hippie, I’m saying that as a long-time conservative Republican.”
"Consuming organically grown cannabis is a way of using your consumer dollars to help clean up a mess that’s been 40 years in the making, and to support progressive, sustainable farming,” Van Hook said.
Whistler isn’t the only farm going clean. Other notable growers include California’s Santa Cruz Naturals, Montana’s Nugz and Kisses, B.C. Canada’s Island Harvest, Colorado’s Denver Bud Company and Crescent Valley Farms in Washington, just to name a few.
It should be noted that this does not mean that all non-organic weed is bad or has chemicals in it. The guys at Cronos, for instance, told me they have enacted pesticide testing across all of their products to ensure quality. Even though they are not legally obliged and use only Health Canada- approved products, they have decided to proactively test for pesticides to provide clean marijuana to their clients.
Similar to what happens with fruits and vegetables, or even with craft beer, organic cannabis is sometimes more expensive than non-organic weed, both due to the production scale and to the detail-oriented work needed to grow it. So why should you go green?
Many consumers are willing to pay a few extra bucks for chemical-free products. And, there are some valid reasons for it. Some preliminary studies suggest that concentrates, oils and hash (which are seeing demand skyrocket) retain much higher pesticide residues than smoking-buds. Another research note argues that “inhaled chemicals enter the bloodstream without first undergoing first-pass metabolism by the digestive and hepatic systems. As a result, inhaled chemicals are typically present at much higher levels in the body than those that are orally ingested.”
It’s always better to be sure you know exactly what’s in whatever you’re ingesting. Consumers feel reassured when they know that there’s no possibility they’re putting something that’s detrimental to their health into their bodies, Gorenstein supplemented. “People that might have real sensitivities, especially from a patient profile, might be ultra-conscious of using an organic product versus a non-organic product.”
Not to mention, it’s better for the planet: it does not spoil the soil, nor does it contaminate the water around grows.
Personally, I’d say the taste and smell are considerably better, even though the buds do not look as beautiful as chemical-filled ones. Gorenstein, however, pointed out that “it’s not necessarily something where you can always taste the difference. But, given that there’s so much sensitivity to strains and genetics in this industry, one could argue that these different grow techniques have an impact on particular strains, even though it’s hard to measure that objectively. Having said this, we know that the environmental factors dictate a lot about what happens in terms of the quality of your end product.”
Experienced consumers have argued that potency is also higher. “It takes so long to establish an organic cannabis growth process that works that, once you do get it right, there does seem to be some benefits in terms of the product quality,” Klein commented.
Confirming this, Van Hook said “When we started 14 years ago, people would say, you can’t grow good cannabis organically. But that has changed. When High Times moved its Cannabis Cup to San Francisco in 2010, it was a Clean Green certified grower that won. Since that time, a certified grower has won the San Francisco High Times Medical Cannabis Cup every year (…) This proves that, not only can you grow good cannabis organically, but you can grow the world’s finest cannabis organically.”
But in the end, as cannabis production operations expert Jay Cszarkowski had told me once, there really should not be anything fancy when it comes to growing cannabis, even though some think there’s some “special magic that is required.”
As I found out after touring an organic cannabis facility, there’s really no magic about it: It’s just 100 percent about the plant in its natural form.