Since I started writing about cannabis four years ago, I’ve seen a lot of grow operations. And I’ve gotten a variety of answers when I ask the question, “Is this organic?”, but there’s one that I never get: “No.”

Some growers have told me, “Pretty much. Unless we have an issue that you can’t solve using organic pesticides.” Some say, “As much as we possibly can.”

I even had one grower (who had the saddest plants I’ve ever seen) swear that his cannabis was organic. When we entered his shed, there were empty bottles of a notoriously banned product called Gravity stuffed under some shelves along with some other dubious chemical fertilizers. This particular grower went on to talk about how great the value of organic cannabis was and said he sold it at a premium.

A large portion of cannabis users consume marijuana medicinally to treat conditions like epilepsy, cancer, and chronic pain, which makes the conversation about organic cannabis paradoxical.

If your medicine contains toxic chemicals that can negatively affect your immune response, create or enhance neurological dysfunction, and add a carcinogenic burden to your system, is it really medicine anymore?

What Does “Organic” Mean in the Cannabis Industry?

There are no current regulations that determine how you can use the terms “natural” and “organic”. It seems that “organic” has become a misnomer when used in the cannabis industry. Either growers don’t know what it is exactly, or they want to use the term even though they know it isn’t true. So what makes cannabis organic?

According to The REV, author of True Living Organics and the organic cultivation writer for Skunk Magazine, “It’s pretty basic […] no super-poisons like neurotoxins or synthetic killing compounds, and of course, no synthetic delivered fertilizer. Everything used must be organic or all natural in nature.”

Surprisingly, there’s little to no oversight in the legal cannabis market when it comes to following these admittedly simple rules. Growers continue to use the label “organic” while using synthetics and even state-banned pesticides.

Last May, when ten Colorado cannabis growers were cited and fined for using banned synthetic pesticides, many made organic claims prior to being caught. One of the growers audaciously called themselves “Organic Greens” and one claimed, “We only use 100 percent organic soil and nutrients.”

Keep in mind that the pesticides in question weren’t just non-organic pesticides; they are universally banned for use on all plants meant for human consumption.

Reading Cannabis Labels

Thankfully, many states have labeling laws requiring all growers to disclose all inputs used during the entire grow cycle. Unfortunately, without a system in place to regulate what growers use while calling their product “natural” or “organic”, you have to read the labels closely and do your research.

One dispensary in Southwestern Colorado labeled their product “all natural” and listed the fungicide Eagle 20 in their “ingredients list”, which turns into the highly toxic hydrogen cyanide when combusted.

When asked what consumers should look out for on cannabis labels, The REV said, “Avid, Floramite, and Guardian Mite Spray should all be avoided, to name a few, but there are many more. You have to do a little research, read labels carefully before you use anything. Labels are far from foolproof, but it’s a great start. Some peeps don’t know they are using poisons and poisoning the public, others are ignorant to how bad they can be, especially when smoked, and so they just don’t care.”

And that’s just pesticides, Plant Growth Regulators (or PGRs) are illegal for use on plants you intend to ingest or sell for consumption because they have been linked to severe liver damage and are believed by the EPA to be carcinogenic. PGRs are commonly included in chemical nutrient blends marketed to cannabis growers, formulated to regulate plant height and bud development. Bushload, Gravity, Flower Dragon, and Phosphoload have all tested positive for the popular PGR, Paclobutrizol.

Why Going Organic Makes Sense

But why do growers choose to use synthetic nutrients and pesticides in the first place? Do you need all of these synthetic chemicals to get high yields of quality cannabis? According to one organic grower (who chose to remain anonymous for this story) these methods are unnecessary:

“These are all attempts to achieve what you would get with a deep understanding of plants and their interaction with the environment. Without an understanding of how everything in the soil and environment works together, it’s difficult to grow quality cannabis, no matter what you’re using.

To achieve truly high quality cannabis, takes time, patience and observation. Most people just go by the schedule a [synthetic] nutrient company provides. But there’s no easy thing, because if someone measures something wrong just one time it can end your whole grow. In living soil, you have to know what’s happening and adjust your timing accordingly. There’s more room for a margin of error, but you have to understand how everything works together and observe what’s happening in order to respond.”

But is that kind of oversight possible when it comes to growing quality organic cannabis in large warehouses? Wouldn’t it be too expensive? According to The REV, there’s a misconception about cost and scalability:

I find growing organically far less expensive than using synthetics, in the bigger picture. It’s true that your initial expenses setting up to grow organically are pretty hefty, but from then on it’s very inexpensive; especially if you recycle your soil-mix that I also recommend in my book: True Living Organics.

I don’t believe you can match the large yields from a good hydro setup running in very warm ambient temps using synthetic fertilizers. You can get close organically, but using hydro and synthetics, you are able to swell the flowers forcibly beyond their genetic potential.

But, to anyone who knows the actual difference between synthetic grown and organically grown cannabis, there is no comparison as far as quality goes. Any cannabis grown with synthetic fertilizer sucks huge, period, no hyperbole. I won’t even smoke synthetically grown cannabis. It’s nasty.

So, as far as yields go, synthetic hydro wins. As far as expenses go, synthetic is more expensive over the course of a year than growing organically, as long as you can source most of your organic supplies locally. If I have to get something online I just get it in bulk and bite the bullet for shipping once. There are a few things I source online myself.  

You just have to have an actual skilled grower, and there aren’t as many of those as you might think out there. Everybody’s an ‘expert grower’, that’s the glitter. Hardly anyone actually is an expert grower, indoors especially, but they are out there for sure. That’s the reality.

I (or any actually skilled indoor organic/all natural grower) could take any size warehouse, reliable power, good water, good lights, some environmental control, and BOOM […] It’s not hard at all with a small crew. It is spendy for the lighting, and power, but well worth it; in my experience.

New Organic Cannabis Certifications

Thankfully, several organizations are attempting to close the gap and offer a label that would mean the cannabis you’re purchasing has been grown using strict guidelines.

Cannabis companies like Maggie’s Farm in Colorado and C.R.A.F.T. in California have opted in to the certification program offered by Clean Green Certified. Clean Green has a mission to step in where the USDA has left consumers out:

“Modeled on national and international organic and sustainability standards, the Clean Green program requires on-site inspections and third-party lab testing. Much like the USDA National Organic Program for traditional agricultural products, the whole life cycle of the plant is considered, from seed selection to harvesting and processing, as well as soil, nutrients, pesticide use, mold treatment and dust control. Clean Green Certified also goes further than the USDA organic in some areas, requiring every operator to undergo pesticide testing every year, rather than only a small percentage of farms. Clean Green companies also must put into place a carbon footprint reduction plan, water conservation measures and fair labor practices.”

Until regulatory bodies like Clean Green become the norm, cannabis users will have to continue to be cautious consumers. Alternatively, if you really want to know what goes into your cannabis, you can always grow your own.