California Prepares to Launch Country’s First “Organic” Cannabis Program

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California’s cannabis industry will soon become very familiar with the term “OCal.” This will be the state’s version of the National Organic Program, which creates and enforces the rules and “uniform national standards” for any agricultural product grown for sale in the U.S. Official organic status is unavailable to the cannabis industry as it is a federal designation, and cannabis is illegal under federal law. But as organic practices in the United States become more common, many California cannabis producers and consumers want the option of organic cannabis. 

So, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is in the process of building OCal, a “comparable-to-organic cannabis” program, and this week held their fifth and final working group meeting in Sacramento, California. The state’s OCal program will launch January 1, 2021, and will be available only to state cannabis license holders.

As part of the learning process ahead of the OCal program launch, CDFA visited more than 50 cannabis farms, met with other regulators in the state, and shadowed people conducting organic inspections. The Department also attended a number of conferences, including the California Certified Organic Farmers annual conference, the EcoFarm Conference, and California Organic Products Advisory Committee meetings. 

At previous working group meetings, stakeholders asked a number of questions, like: what will the specific labeling requirements be, for example, for sun-grown or soil-less plants? CDFA’s answer: “Same” as the National Organic Program. 

And what about farmers just starting out, without access to organic seeds or clones? The draft regs, as of November 4, read: “If organic seed or clone is not commercially available, a grower may purchase seed or clone from a non-organic source as long as it’s not treated with a prohibited substance.” 

While the rules for the program are far from finalized, there are strong hints at what California’s cannabis industry can expect, based on how closely this program will mirror existing organic regulations. The major points will be similar, and will almost certainly cover, for example, areas like co-mingling of crops and contamination, and pest, weed, and disease management plans. 

Cannabis cultivators meeting existing license requirements have a jumpstart on these regs, and will simply have to “enhance those practices,” saud Javed Iqbal, an environmental scientist with CDFA, during Monday’s meeting.

“You’re already one step ahead,” Iqbal said. “A lot of these practices, you’ve already been doing it.” 

One stakeholder at a previous meeting made a similar point, noting that “restrictions on cannabis pesticide use and required testing regulations make it so hard that licensed cannabis producers growing conventionally are already achieving beyond organic standards.” 

Wade Laughter, a medical cannabis grower from Nevada County, added that cannabis testing is much more stringent than for other types of agricultural products, for example, oats. 

There was some discussion over who would actually do the inspecting. Jeromy Lord, an auditor and ambassador with the Cannabis Conservancy, a Colorado-based entity that certifies growers based on sustainability practices, said it was important to have inspectors solely focused on cannabis. 

Understanding terminology will be important to participating in the OCal program. For example, “processing” includes “all activities under the cultivation or distribution license,” such as “cooking, baking, curing, heating, drying, mixing, grinding, churning, separating, extracting, slaughtering, cutting, fermenting, distilling, eviscerating, preserving, dehydrating, freezing, chilling, or otherwise manufacturing and includes the packaging, canning, jarring, or otherwise enclosing food in a container.” 

On the processing front, one commenter during the meeting urged regulators to “recognize that ‘no’ is the only answer to” questions of whether non-organic terpenes can be used to flavor products. 

Mother plants, or the plant used for cuttings to grow more of the same variety, have come up at multiple meetings. OCal now suggests that “non-OCal produced planting stock, such as a mother plant, may be used to produce OCal seeds and planting stock if the non-OCal planting stock has been maintained under a system of organic management… for a period of no less than one year.”

So what happens if someone engages in an “inappropriate” use of the OCal certification? In other words, what if someone insinuates that a cannabis crop was grown using “comparable-to-organic” practices, when the crop hasn’t been certified? While OCal can’t itself suspend a license, “the other licensing agencies may take action against a license for inappropriate use of OCal or organic,” the draft regs note. 

“OCal can fine anyone, whether they’re certified by OCal, or not certified by OCal, for using its designation,” said Charlene Graham, of the CDFA OCal Program. 

Further, certifying agents “must (rather than may) investigate credible complaints of noncompliance,” according to the draft rules. 

Fines can be steep for any cannabis cultivator, regardless of whether they’re certified OCal, and can be issued without notice. For example, if someone is “knowingly labeling or selling a product as ‘OCal,” but it’s not, the fine could be up to $18,000. 

“To be honest with you,” Phil LaRocca, a member of the California Organic Products Advisory Committee, said during the public comment period, these fines would be “a drop in the bucket.” He mentioned an orange grower who was fined tens of thousands of dollars, but had made millions, so the fine paled in comparison. For growers cultivating cannabis, “a high-end crop,” LaRocca said, “those numbers are way too low.”  

There’s a chance that the OCal program will be obsolete as it gets off the ground. One attendee asked what would happen if and when cannabis becomes a federally legal product, and whether California’s OCal program would remain or vanish. 

“OCal will go away,” said Graham.

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