Originally published on Grist.
Now that the weed business is getting respectable, Chris Van Hook gets a certain kind of phone call.
It’s usually a weed seller on the line, or someone who takes weed and turns it into one of the approximately million billion weed-based products that have sprung up in the last few years: weedy lip balm, weedy coffee pods, weedy snacks (often with the word "baked" in the title), weedy personal lubricant.
The callers have a problem and they want Van Hook’s help. They buy their cannabis from farmers who grow super organic weed, like the most amazing stuff. But these growers are really shy, and don’t want anybody coming to their farm to check out their operation. So, any chance Van Hook could test their weed without paying a visit?
"No," Van Hook replies. He won’t certify a weed farm until he can see the plants with his own eyes.
The callers react with disbelief. Surely, Van Hook is joking, right? "‘We’re just trying to put money into your account,’" he says, reenacting one conversation.
Van Hook’s services are in demand because he and a few other self-made certifiers offer something that no one else can at the moment — not the government, not the states where recreational or medical marijuana is now legal, and not an industry association. In the absence of any true standard for organic weed, they’re making one up as they go along.
And based on how many growers and sellers want certification from Van Hook’s Clean Green Certified Program, it’s working.
Every single grower and distributor that I interviewed insists that for the vast majority of their customers, the primary question is still "How high will this get me?" But in the same way that some people will go out of their way to buy kale at the farmers market, others will do the same to buy organically farmed cannabis.
Some are convinced that organic pot makes them less susceptible to migraines (because no pesticides). Others want to be sure that their weed habit isn’t destroying salmon habitat or poisoning local wildlife. "There’s no one stereotype," says Bill Eddie, who sources cannabis for Ruckus dispensary in Seattle. "I’ve been asked for organic by everyone from old ladies to hippie kids."
Fake organic weed is everywhere
There’s just one problem. Fake organic weed 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.
How Van Hook got into the organic weed certification business
Van Hook has been farming in some fashion for his entire life. He grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, picked up a degree in environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and proceeded to spend the next 30 years running an abalone farm in Crescent City, California. "Neat way to raise two kids," he says.
Then, in 2000, the abalone started dying. To Van Hook, the cause was clear: The Crescent City Harbor District had stopped dredging the harbor a few years earlier, and it was filling up with mud, leaving his abalone without oxygen. District officials had a different perspective, which was that Van Hook was just unlucky. He went to law school in order to fight the harbor, passed the bar, and won his suit on all counts in 2005.
It did not, however, bring the abalone back.
A friend suggested that with his background in agriculture, Van Hook could get accredited as an inspector by the then-new USDA organic program. Two reams of paperwork later, and he was certified. One day soon after, Van Hook was inspecting the farm of an actual little old lady from Pasadena. She mentioned that she grew medical marijuana. So did a couple of her friends. Would he certify their pot, too?
Sure, Van Hook figured. Why not? Like many in his generation, he had more than a passing familiarity with marijuana. "I'm not sure if I ever dreamed I could have raised abalone if I wasn't getting high," he tells me. "I certainly couldn't have worked those 16-hour days on the water without getting high."
So Van Hook emailed the head of California's organic certification program asking how to certify medical marijuana, since it was legal with a prescription. "Treat it like any other crop," the guy wrote back. But then the feds stepped in and overruled, and that's when Van Hook began developing his own standards.
What does organic really mean?
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.
Take indoor growers. Can they really be "clean" or "green" if they burn through electricity by raising plants under grow lights? Sure, Van Hook decided, as long as they use solar panels. What about organic growers who send their used soil to the landfill after harvesting each crop, out of worry that reusing soil is a risk to the next generation of plants? No good, said Van Hook. Either amend the soil and reuse it, or donate it to someone who will, like a community garden.
What about water? Investigating water sources isn't a part of standard organic food certification. When California went through a multi-year drought, however, Clean Green began looking closely at water sources and asking weed growers about their water conservation plans.
What about workers? One farmer told Van Hook that she was thinking of hiring a crew of trimmers who worked on a pot farm down the road. These migrant workers from a poor Central American country worked 15-hour days, slept on the floor of the trimming shed, and lived off frozen burritos from Costco. You didn't pay them directly — just the person who had brought them to your farm. That person charged $100 for each pound trimmed. The average wage for the crusty punks and college kids who showed up at harvest time was around $250 a pound. The farmer figured she could save hundreds of thousands of dollars by hiring the crew of migrants. Could she use them and still be certified?
Van Hook decided she could as long as she followed a set of rules he drew up. Growers needed to provide separate sleeping quarters for men and women and keep invoices to show that they were feeding their trimming crews well. And they needed to have some verification that workers were getting paid — individually — at least $15 an hour.
These rules were, Van Hook admits, hard to verify, and easy enough to fake. But he believes that just setting them had an effect. Several farms dropped out of the Clean Green program after he added the clause about feeding workers well and paying them directly.
As weed gradually loses its black-market baggage, Van Hook has no doubt that he'll be certifying organic pot for the USDA some day.
And then weed growers could very well find that the epic paperwork awaiting a traditional farmer makes Clean Green's certification program look easy in comparison.
"Here's the truth," he says. "They have no idea how complicated it is to grow tomatoes."