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That organic weed you're smoking might not actually be organic

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Richard Vinal pulled the yeast-sized white packet off a long, jagged leaf and squinted at it.

"This is more of the beneficial bug packets," he explained, turning the packet sideways to try and see inside. "They're basically microscopic."

Beneficial bugs are just one part of Oregon-based HiFi Farms’ organic growing process. The microscopic bugs chase away larger, harmful bugs from the crop, negating the need for pesticides. And instead of insecticide?

“There’s a blend that’s really effective of rosemary and lemon grass and thyme,” adds Vinal. “It irritates the bugs… and also suffocates them.”

But no matter how many microscopic bugs or natural oils Vinal deploys in his nursery, Hi-Fi Farms – of which he is co-founder and COO – will never earn a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification, or even the private "Oregon Tilth" organic certification. And that's because HiFi is a cannabis farm.

"Because cannabis isn’t federally recognized, you can’t officially call anything organic," Vinal explained later, perched on a stool in the sparsely-furnished kitchen of HiFi's farmhouse-turned-event space. Lee Henderson, another of the farm's co-founders, nodded along beside him.

"The Cannabis industry is full of promise, but it’s going through some serious growing pains now," Henderson said. "I have often described it either as trying to do a puzzle while underwater and the pieces are floating away from you, or a Rubik's Cube where each piece is its own Rubik's Cube."

Organic Cannabis HiFi 4
Lee Henderson (front) and Richard Vinal, two of four original co-founders of HiFi Farms in Hillsboro, Oregon, survey the winter crop at one of HiFi Farms' indoor grow rooms. In winter, the plants are kept to a strict schedule of 12 hours under the grow light followed by 12 hours in the dark to simulate the summer growing season.

One of the cannabis industry’s main growing pains right now is the patchwork of agricultural regulations. Because cannabis is not recognized as anything but a “Schedule I” drug by the federal government, none of the federal regulatory bodies can contribute to the regulations of the marijuana industry. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cannot set work safety standards, the Department of Health and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot review medical marijuana research, and the USDA cannot set a baseline for any agricultural growing methods, let alone test for and hand out organic certifications.

Instead, states set their own standards, and have regulations that keep the use of pesticides, hormones and synthetics to "acceptable" levels. But beyond that, regulating the term "organic" or "all-natural" is hard in the new industry.

A member of Portland's cannabis industry spoke to Circa anonymously for this story. He said he has seen past employers use non-organic materials or the state-accepted trace levels of pesticides on their crop, then market it as green or organic.

And for many medicinal marijuana patients who use concentrated cannabis oil, being able to know what chemicals or pesticides are in the cannabis they are ingesting is a big deal.

“Once the trace particles are concentrated,” Tom Lauerman, a small cannabis farm owner in Brush Prairie, Washington - and the only cannabis farmer recognized as 'organic' by the federal government - explained. “Then you have a real problem.”

Organic Cannabis Farmer Tom 1
Farmer Tom and his wife look through photos of their early days at the Washington farm. The couple has been involved in medicinal cannabis for over 30 years, first in California and then in Washington state.

According to the AP, the University of California, Davis and KNBC-TV in California recently undertook a study of cannabis samples from 15 dispensaries in four Southern Californian counties. Of the samples collected, 93 percent tested positive for pesticides.

In that world of constantly-changing state criteria, the industry is finding ways to regulate itself. Each state has a baseline of requirements for acceptable growing methods, but the "above-and-beyond" certifications -- like organic growing -- are being awarded by third parties that have grown up within the industry.

Clean Green Certification out of California is one of the largest certifying bodies for organic cannabis. It was established in 2006 by Chris Van Hook, a former abalone farmer and current lawyer who owns one of the country’s 84 accredited USDA-organic certification companies.

Organic Cannabis HiFi 3
HiFi Farms uses "Beneficial Bugs" - microscopic bugs that chase away larger pests - instead of pesticides as one method of keeping their cannabis clean and pest-free. HiFi is also Clean Green Certified, an industry alternative to USDA Organic.

“Anybody who sells their cannabis as organic… is just saying they don’t know anything about the organic program,” Van Hook said. “In this unregulated industry, anybody can say they’re anything.”

Clean Green’s approach follows closely USDA organic guidelines, and most of its employees are USDA accredited. They also do all their testing at USDA-certified agricultural labs, rather than at cannabis labs.

Currently about 225 farms around the country are Clean Green certified, and there are yet other smaller programs like Certified Kind that follow some or all of USDA Organic Certification guidelines.

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But the certifications are expensive, and still not necessarily well known to the general public.

HiFi Farms’ Vinal and Henderson made the decision to go through the Clean Green certification process.

"Growers have to weigh the benefits," Vinal said, "of getting a certification that maybe no one’s asking for."

Vinal paused.

“But it’s the right thing to do.”

Originally published 12/21/2017

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