The Bay Area’s latest movement: organic marijuana

Just say no to pesticides.
Just say no to pesticides.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

San Francisco is a town full of snobs. People who live here expect restaurants to accommodate their local, organic, sustainable, vegan, gluten-free, no-MSG, Paleo diets. And when they go shopping for weed at posh dispensaries, they also expect variety: prerolled joints, flowers, concentrates, brownies, cookies, caramel corn, cheese crackers, pretzels, you name it.

So it seems only natural that consumers (technically “patients”) are getting pickier about where their weed comes from too, worrying about pesticide use and the plant’s environmental footprint. Yes, there’s a growing movement in the Bay Area for organic pot.

Technically, the marijuana industry can’t lay claim to the organic label. That requires certification by the US Department of Agriculture, a federal agency, and at the federal level pot is still illegal. However, in California, the industry has what’s called Clean Green Certify, which models itself on the USDA’s organic program, requiring yearly inspections and pesticide testing.

According to research presented last week at the Emerald Scientific conference, which focuses on the science of cannabis, current screening methods can detect more than 200 types of pesticides in marijuana. Other common contaminants include mold, mildew, bacteria, fungus, chemicals, fungicides, solvents, toxins, and metals. The chemicals used to make plants grow faster can do environmental damage if leaked into streams and creeks, and toxins can accumulate in the body’s fat cells—a problem given marijuana’s use as medicine.

Weed grown indoors, typically thought to be better because of the controlled environment, also has its environmental impact: high-powered lightbulbs, HVAC systems, dehumidifiers, and generators. Since California legalized the cultivation of medical marijuana in 1996, electricity use in Humboldt County, considered the capital of pot growing, has risen much faster than the rest of the state. Producing a single marijuana cigarette creates two pounds of CO2 emissions, according to one estimate.

“It seems like this is the only time in my lifetime that a new sector of commercial agriculture is coming online,” Jeb Berman, managing director of fertilizer company Nutrient Guru, tells Quartz. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do it right from day one?”

However, not all operations that grow pot sustainably follow Clean Green Certify. It’s just one standard, and certainly not the gold standard of organic. In addition, it costs $2,000 to get certified. Citing these reasons, some growers forego the process, instead choosing to say they follow organic practices.

One such is a dispensary called the San Francisco Patient Resource Center, or Sparc. Located in the city’s Midmarket neighborhood, the dispensary—often hailed as the Apple Store of weed—is a hop and skip away from a plethora of tech companies, including Twitter. In 2014, it reported $16.8 million in revenue.

Last fall, it debuted a new line of weed grown outdoors using organic nutrients and no pesticides. Sparc markets Marigold only as “naturally grown.”

“There’s no question there will be a market for organic cannabis,” says Robert Jacob, Sparc’s executive director and former mayor of a small town in Sonoma County. But “there are no organic standards for organic cannabis.”

Unlike organic groceries, pesticide-free pot doesn’t necessarily cost more. Since most of today’s so-called organic marijuana is grown outdoors, it can actually be cheaper than weed grown in warehouses and basements. For an eighth of an ounce, Marigold sells for $25 to $40, versus $60-plus for top-shelf indoor marijuana. For customers with more discerning tastes, Sparc also sells ”veganic medicine” grown without animal products, such as bat guano or worm castings.

Auntie Dolores, an Oakland-based maker of edible marijuana goods, sources outdoor cannabis from growers that purport to use organic techniques. Unable to label its products organic, the company lists organic-certified ingredients in its packaging.

Founder and CEO Julianna Carella says because outdoor weed isn’t as manicured and might come with blemishes, she’s able to buy it cheaper than indoor-grown marijuana. (The look of the plant isn’t as important when it’s used in pot brownies.) However, the company uses other high-end ingredients, driving up the price of its products, which it touts as low-glycemic, Paleo, and/or gluten-free. Prices vary from $8 for a brownie with 100 milligrams of marijuana to $40 for a canister of cheese crackers with 500 milligrams. Auntie Dolores, which plans to expand to Washington and Nevada next, projects $1.25 million in revenue for 2015.

“Unlike any other product you’ll find, cannabis doesn’t really have a low-end market,” says Tim Blake, a renowned organic farmer who organizes the annual Emerald Cup, an outdoor organic marijuana competition dating back 11 years. “For the most part, everyone wants A grade. They want to get the best product they can get. They don’t want B grade.”