The clock is ticking on California’s efforts to establish an organic cannabis program.
California state Senate bill 94 made cannabis legal for recreational use by adults over the age of 21 as of January 1, 2018, but it also mandated California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA) create an organic cannabis program by 2021. Easier said than done, as state regulators have struggled to establish guidelines for the fledgling industry overall, let alone organic cannabis.
Phil LaRocca of LaRocca Vineyards, and a long-time organic grower, is part of the organic working group charged with coming up with the organic certification plan. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can take the national organic regulations and apply them to cannabis, but we can’t use the word ‘organic’ because that’s owned by National Standards Board and right now cannabis is not legal in the eyes of the federal government. So, California had to come up with another term. OCal is the term. Starting next year, certified organic cannabis will have the OCal seal on the label," he said.
Phil LaRocca, Founder, LaRocca Vineyards
With the deadline just a year away, LaRocca was part of a lively educational seminar on the topic at the recently held Organic Grower Summit in Monterey. Moderated by John DeFloria, co-owner of Big Sur Canna+Botanicals, LaRocca was joined by Val Dolcini, director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), and Christopher Carr, director of the Cannabis Connection.
Out of the gate, moderator DeFloria challenged the panel, asking why is organic cannabis even necessary? “How are you going to entice growers to go organic when right now the best-selling cannabis is grown indoors and is really the farthest away from organic?” Both LaRocca and Carr jumped in, defending the need for organic cannabis and insisting it is economically viable.
Phil LaRocca, Val Dolcini, and Christopher Carr discussed organic cannabis at OGS in December 2019
“This plant is a biological accumulator so it’s in every farmer best interest to look at the biology, and land stewardship,” said Carr. “The premiums that we see at the retail level are high cannabinoid potency and a broad spectrum of terpenes profiles, phenolic compounds and flavonoids, and you’ll see that when you grow to term in the sun in a biologically intelligent grow medium. We will earn the premium on the organic product because we have increases in natural potency.”
LaRocca insists the OCal label will be important to consumers. “It absolutely has to be certified. We have to have integrity behind what it is. The purer the better, and that means no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. And there is a long list of synthetic ingredients you can’t use in processing,” he said.
Representing the government and the regulation side, Dolcini says he comes to conferences like the Organic Grower Summit to get real time feedback on the process. “On the issue of cannabis, because there is this schism between federal law which outlaws cannabis cultivation and California state law which specifically makes it legal to cultivate cannabis, we really are in unchartered waters,” he said. Dolcini says state regulators, with input from growers and processors, will spend 2020 drafting the rules for organic cannabis growers and making sure they are communicated clearly.
Attendees listen as industry experts share the importance of organic cannabis
“DPR’s role going forward as we settle out state versus federal law will be to work with CDFA, the Department of Justice, Cal-cannabis (the division within CDCF in charge of the OCal certification), Bureau of Cannabis Control, Fish and Game and county ag commissioners to figure out who needs to do what in order to create a market place that is transparent and easy to understand from the grower perspective as well as from a consumer perspective. Opportunities like this conference are important to help us make this more of a collaborative project,” Dolcini said.
Carr, a longtime grower in the Santa Cruz mountains, says communicating the benefits and what he sees as superior product qualities of organic cannabis is key to future industry success, and he is anxious to get going on organic certification and marketing.
”Long term it’s going to an ongoing story telling mission to elevate the consciousness of the consumer. When you can articulate your narrative, and build a brand regionally , the product will be far superior to the ‘spray tan’ beauty of indoors cannabis products. We all need to be outspoken and involved. After 80 years of prohibition we’re now in transition. Education is an important part of this next step,” Carr said.
Communicating the benefits and product qualities of organic cannabis is key for the future
Dolcini and LaRocca couldn’t agree more, but they also understand the anxiety among cannabis growers and those looking to go organic. This year will be one of stops and starts as state regulators work to hammer out the rules that will dictate the next chapter in cannabis cultivation.
LaRocca, however, is clear on one point – state regulators and growers should not tolerate cheaters. He believes the OCal label adds value and reassurance to the consumer, and so the integrity behind it must be preserved. “We aren’t saying cannabis growers have to grow organically but if you say you are growing organically then damnit you better have the OCal label on it.”