Marijuana growers use a lot of pesticides — especially when these mildew- and mite-sensitive plants are grown indoors.
But a growing number of farmers and shops are trying to give their customers a satisfying cannabis high without the downer of pesticide-related environmental or health risks.
Johnny Vanella is among them. At the JV Ranch outside Goldendale, Washington, he harvested his first organically grown cannabis crop this fall.
The farm sits in the shadow of Mount Adams. Vanella bends down in the morning light and inspects his plants before snapping off branches and piling them into a blue plastic bin to weigh.
“I don’t want to destroy the earth that I’m farming on, for one. I don’t want to contribute to global warming. And I want to have the safest product possible,” Vanella said.
But there aren’t federal pesticide regulations for marijuana growers. The federal government still considers cannabis to be an illegal drug. That leaves it to states to decide on pesticide rules for marijuana cultivation. Vanella said many growers are crossing into a new frontier.
“I think for a lot of growers it’s, they started growing and maybe they weren’t a farmer and didn’t have a lot of experience in agriculture. So the accepted practices in the dark ages of Prohibition, there was none,” Vanella said.
Those darker ages saw the dark side of unregulated pesticide use.
A white paper published by the Cannabis Safety Institute states pesticide use is "widespread in the cannabis industry."
“Given that cannabis production has developed and operated in an unregulated setting various practices have been adopted that are at odds with accepted regulations regarding human safety and environmental impacts. Chief amongst these is the unregulated use of pesticides, which has potentially serious public health and environmental consequences,” wrote the paper’s authors, Rodger Voelker and Mowgli Holmes.
As demand for sustainable marijuana grows, more producers, processors and shops are seeking organic-product certification. Since the USDA won't give cannabis its organic stamp of approval, several nongovernmental certification programs have popped up along the West Coast. Washington state is considering its own organic marijuana certification program.
While numbers are still small, two of the leading certification programs, Clean Green and Certified Kind, said they are continuing to certify more operations. Clean Green nearly tripled its certifications in Washington last year.
“People understand the importance of sustainable agriculture and want options in their cannabis shops that are kind to life and kind to the earth,” said Andrew Black, Certified Kind founder.
Many growers say their products are “organic” or “natural” when they aren’t actually following organic growing protocols. A Clean Green spokeswoman said there's been a 10 percent failure rate among farms that apply for their certification.
Growers using organic methods don't use synthetic pesticides. They can also control infestations with predatory insects and organic essential oils. Vanella's outdoor grow conserves energy and prevents bugs, mildews and molds that can plague indoor operations.
“I do everything I can do to produce a clean, quality crop organically, I can feel good about it,” said Vanella, who is completing his first full year growing third-party certified cannabis.
Some consumers are starting to look for a clean crop as well.
At Gorge Greenery in Hood River, Oregon, owner Kirsten Cook says she sells only sustainable products.
“We’re, right now, in an industry now that’s booming and consuming, and there’s no regulation. I think that we just have to be careful, since we’re such a progressive movement — to be a little more progressive in our thinking in health and sustainability,” Cook said.
She said it’s not just the environment at stake. There’s not been a lot of research on the health effects of inhaling pesticide residue.
The Oregon Health Authority recently recalled two cannabis strains tainted with high levels of pesticide. The strains were sold to 130 recreational and medical customers in McMinnville.
“We don’t know what pesticide consumption in inhalants is going to do to us in long term,” Cook said. “I just think that’s absolutely important. To not even put yourself at that kind of risk is key for us.”
She said more people are trying to avoid that risk, even when they’re indulging in a newly legal drug.
“There’s always a vice of some sort. We just want to make sure offering a clean vice,” Cook said.
It’s more expensive for growers to use alternative methods to control pests. Yields can also be lower. Those are two big reasons customers have to pay more for cannabis that has an organically grown certification.
But Vanella thinks organically produced marijuana growers and retailers are just going through some of the growing pains that organic food producers went through a decade ago.
“I do believe having it out there in the open for people to see is gonna help shift things,” Vanella said. “Ten years ago, I remember scoffing at organic food and its high prices. Now if you go to major food stores, there are aisles of organic food.”