The public comment period on what regulated organic cannabis cultivation will look like in California is coming to a close soon and we spoke with one of the people that was sitting at the table as the OCal regulations came together.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture was mandated to get the ball rolling on the program by January. Due to federal law, cannabis can’t go through the usual channels in becoming organic. Regardless of intention or mandates, the program the state has created is essentially what USDA certified organic pot will look like at a point in time down the line.
“The OCal program will ensure that cannabis products bearing the OCal seal have been certified to consistent, uniform standards comparable to the National Organic Program,” CDFA said when announcing the two-week comment period last week. After the comment period, they’ll have a few months to adjust things accordingly if there are any big red flags the community raises this week.
We reached out to the CDFA to get their take on the process but a spokesperson told us they do not provide comments on proposed regulations during public comment periods. But they did note the CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing Division’s OCal Program is intended to be comparable to the National Organic Program, “so it may be helpful to reference the National Organic Program Handbook for clarification” until they start talking about it again.
But certain aspects are sure to be in the final version, like what it takes to be sold or labeled as OCal pot. There are a variety of things you can’t use on your pot. First and foremost are synthetic substances and ingredients. There are certain synthetic exceptions on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, but they are the same exceptions other agriculture sectors get. That list also provides the list of nonsynthetic ingredients farmers can’t use, the same as it does with the OCal program participants.
From there it gets a little more pot specific by prohibiting things like pesticides already banned for use on cannabis under state law. You also can’t use any ionizing radiation or sewage sludge if you want your pot to be OCal certified. We’re ok with that.
A lot of the regulations are nuts and bolts stuff. One example is the language around how a certified operation will identify cannabis products that are intended to be sold, labeled or represented as OCal in their track and trace system from seed to sale when they get more rules from the Bureau of Cannabis Control that don’t even exist yet but presumably would by the time the program goes live.
But there is also important language around the ethos of the whole program:
“Production practices implemented in accordance with this chapter shall maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil, water, wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife, and respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity,” one section of the draft rules read.
The regs went into more detail on how any field or farm parcel from which harvested cannabis is intended to be sold, labeled or represented as “OCal” will do things. They basically say a cultivator can do whatever they need to within the rules to manage “plant nutrients and soil fertility to maintain or improve soil organic matter content, biological diversity, nutrient cycling and microbial activity.” But the practices farmers use on their pot can’t contribute to contamination of crops, soil or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals or residues of prohibited substances. That would defeat the whole purpose of everything.
The rules say a cultivator shall use its own Ocal-grown cannabis seeds and planting stock or OCal seeds and planting stock from a nursery licensed by the department. But how will all this “organic” pot appear on January 1? It won’t right away, but with standards in place it will allow the ball to start rolling for the process to scale up. It will likely still be big in 2021 – who wouldn’t want to grow California’s first batches of Ocal? It’s a cool feather for any company’s cap. But expect 2022 to pop off even harder.
Pest management is where you start to get into some of the nastiest chemicals in cannabis cultivation. So what will farmers do? The state has ok’d mechanical or physical pest control mechanisms including but not limited to traps, light or sound. You can also use lures and repellents with nonsynthetic or synthetic substances consistent with what is allowed to be used in the grow.
How much will it cost to go organic? Pennies in the grand scheme of California pot permit costs. People that get on board in 2021 will pay $1,000, but the price jumps up to $5,000 in 2022. But if you get caught faking it’s big money.
Anyone caught selling weed that’s been falsely labeled as OCal or organic could be fined up to $17,952 per violation. Other fines related to fake organic pot schemes run up to $25,000 per violation.
We wanted to get a pro’s take on the situation so we hit up Vital Garden Supply founder Brian Malin. Malin is one of the most respected names in cannabis nutrients and also helped us with our garden prep guide earlier this year. Little did we know he was moonlighting as the weed expert helping the CDFA OCal committee build what the program and these regulations would look like. Malin went to meet with CDFA four or five times starting in the spring of 2019.
“It seemed like it was a decent group of people, and a lot of them had the best interest of the organic farmer from the organic approach in mind, which I do really appreciate,” Malin told L.A. Weekly. “And some were farmers that were already participating in the CDFA’s organic program, but not cannabis.”
Malin is obviously a big name on the subject, and kudos to CDFA for getting him in the mix, but we were curious to the level of cannabis expertise in the rest of the group and how many people had a background as extensive as Malin on the subject.
“There were a couple,” Malin replied. “It wasn’t a huge group, it was a small group. I have to give them credit on the people that they reached out to. It was like it was purely voluntary.”
When Malin arrived at that first meeting he felt like he had a little bit more from the cannabis growers perspective in mind than his peers in the group, “than probably anybody else,” he said. “Because some of the stuff that they were starting off with was kind of off the wall and not necessary. And a little bit above and beyond the call, because they’re not experienced with the plant.”
Malin pointed to the beginning of the discussions when there was talk of keeping a mother plant for one whole year before you could take the cutting off of it and claim the resulting plant to be organic. We asked if he told the group there wouldn’t be any organic pot in California for a year?
“Yes that too, and the fact this crop is annual. It’s not meant to live for a year. And it’s really hard to keep a plant healthy for a year. So it’s not in anyone’s best interest to ask people to do that. I got that one nipped in the bud,” Malin replied. “But for the most part, I think the regulations are pretty reasonable. They’re basically really similar to what it would be for any other organic crop, which is one thing I really appreciated about the approach.”
Malin notes all the other rules about cannabis aren’t even close to what other crops would be. “But this? This kind of is. So it’s not like it’s not going to cost way more money. They’re not gonna take advantage of cannabis growers on this notion, even though they have on many others right now.”
One thing the regulations don’t specifically mention are the words indoor and outdoor. We asked Malin if the committee operated under the intention there would be some kind of mechanisms for indoor farms to operate to an OCal certification. Malin told us he doesn’t see a reason why you can’t have organic certification and be indoors. He also pointed to the fact it doesn’t say anywhere in the regulations that they’re only for sungrown crops.
“I mean, it came up. And I think that we felt like it would be embraced more by the sungrown and greenhouse people than the indoor,” Malin said. “But we wanted it to be accessible to people who are indoor. Because I think they deserve it, you know? If you’re gonna go the extra mile indoor and be organic, then you deserve to get that certification. And if it’s a label that’s on the packaging that’s going to get them an extra dollar or two or whatever it is an eighth, they deserve that.”
Malin believes the whole thing is the blank canvas on what organic pot will become in the years ahead. He’s very excited to see where things go from here.