Fake organic marijuana is everywhere. This is partly because when you call it organic it sells better than the regular stuff, and partly because it’s a crop often grown by people with a hazy understanding of what farming is, let alone the organic kind.
Bill Eddie visits every farm that supplies Ruckus with weed. His off-the-cuff estimate is that about 80 percent of the weed that growers claim is organic isn’t, upon closer examination. “They’ll buy fertilizer with a picture of a flower on the bag and think that’s organic,” he says. “If there was an agency that I could report them to, I would.” Ruckus no longer uses the word “organic” to describe anything, period. The change came when some representatives of the Washington State Liquor Board showed up like they were dressed for a raid in flack jackets and bulletproof vests, and made them take down every sign that said “organic.”
“A lot of producers are making claims about how their products were grown that are outlandish and just not true,” says John Kagia, the director of industry analytics for New Frontier, a data analysis firm that caters to the professionalizing pot industry.
Just last month, for instance, Colorado issued a massive pot recall after a state investigation found high levels of insecticide in weed grown by an outfit called Kindman.
The little data that exist suggest this kind of thing may be rampant. Last year a marijuana-testing lab in Oregon found that 12 percent of the cannabis flowers and concentrates it tested showed pesticide levels way above the federal guidelines. That same year, an investigation by the Denver Post revealed that Colorado’s efforts to regulate pesticides on pot had failed in part because of pressure from already-powerful weed growers. Washington State’s King County even warned residents to “avoid smoking or ingesting marijuana” if they “are concerned about pesticide exposure.”
Kagia, the analyst, says the industry and government officials are working toward organic standards, but it will take a while. “We expect a contentious process,” he says. “But it will happen.”
In the meantime, organic weed fans have to rely on guys like Van Hook, whose Clean Green Certified Program functions something like a US Department of Agriculture for hire. Clean Green’s inspectors visit several dozen pot farms across six states. They walk the rows, looking for signs of pesticide use with a magnifying glass (if a plant looks too good, it’s probably been treated). They take soil samples and send them to a USDA-licensed lab. Testing the flowers and leaves would be better, but they can’t send weed across state lines, and there aren’t any local, in-state labs that can perform complicated pesticide residue tests.
Clean Green has certified pot since 2004, and is based in Crescent City, California. Its seven employees are careful never to describe weed as “organic” — that’s a very specific, legal term whose definition is set by the federal government. But Van Hook has inspected farms as a federal contractor for 14 years now, and there’s a lot of overlap between what the USDA considers an organic fruit or vegetable and what Van Hook’s “Clean Green Certified” program is willing to give its seal of approval.
Van Hook wouldn’t meet me on a farm — local growers were just too skittish to have a reporter around, he says — so I visit his office instead. That office is a white van parked in front of a Safeway in Pacifica, a coastal town 12 miles south of San Francisco. Paneled with mahogany-colored wood, the van serves as his sleeping quarters when he’s traveling from farm to farm, as well as his law office and storage spot for his surfboard.
When it comes to food, deciding what’s organic is tricky. There are plenty of fertilizers and pesticides that fit the technical definition of organic (naturally occurring, not made in a lab) but are hard on the environment, like copper sulfate. For the most part, Van Hook follows USDA organic standards when certifying pot. And when he encounters a new question, he improvises.