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The Problem With Puerto Rico’s Medical Cannabis

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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Recently Puerto Rico approved the law that regulates the production, manufacturing, dispensing and consumption of medical cannabis. Although medical cannabis was already “legal” through an executive order and was “supervised” by local regulation, there was no law to back up the industry and protect investors.

The creation and approval of laws resides in the hands of elected individuals. Expecting absolute knowledge is unrealistic, especially when we refer to cannabis as a medicine. Sadly, the lack of knowledge is affecting the patients, and an emerging industry that can be the solution to the Island’s current economic crisis.

I am in no way insinuating that Puerto Rico is the only example. I have seen this type of faulty thinking in many places, but cannabis is the perfect manifestation of this human defect. Check some of your laws, and you will find a few that nearly qualify for the same characterization.

As we can see, lack of knowledge can be dangerous. Objective, factual information needs to be shared, and our leaders need a formal education program. Patients need them to have a formal education program to better understand and regulate the drug.

The approval of this law is a significant step for the Island. Still, many Puerto Ricans are not happy with the result. The lack of legitimate information coupled with conservative views made the process an excruciating one. It took many hearings, lots of discussions and created tensions between the government and population, not because of the law, but for the reasons behind the proposed controls. Yes, it was finally approved, but with onerous restrictions that only serve as a detriment to the patient’s health, proving the need for an education program designed specifically to provide data as well as an in-depth scientific analysis of the information, then, you address the issue at hand.

Let’s take a look at some of the controls implemented and the justification for each one as stated by some members of the government.

  1. Patients are not allowed to smoke the flower in its natural state unless it is a terminal patient, or a state-designated committee approves it. Why? Because the flower is not intended for medical use (just for recreational) and the risks associated with lung cancer are too high. Vaporize it.
  2. It was proposed to ban edibles because the packaging makes it attractive for children. Edibles made it, but with the condition that the packaging is monochromatic (the use of one color), yes, insert rolling eyes here.
  3. It only allows licensed pharmacists to dispense medical cannabis at the dispensary (bud tending). The rationale? Academic Background.
  4. The new law requires a bona fide relationship between the doctor and the patient to be able to recommend medical cannabis, even if the doctor is qualified by the state and is a legitimate physician. This is contrary to their policy with other controlled substances, where a record is not required.

When there are different beliefs on a particular topic like it is with medical cannabis, you are not only dealing with the technical details of the subject; there is an emotional side to it too. Paradigms, stigma, stereotypes, beliefs and feelings affect the way we think. We let our judgment get in the way of common sense. When emotions, morals and previous knowledge are hurting objectivity, then we have to rely on scientific data and facts to issue resolution. However, when the conflict comes from opinions, we rely on common sense, and this one is scarce.

Now education: what can education do with beliefs, morals and emotional responses?

David Burns in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy discusses ten thinking errors that could explain, to those like me that want to believe this is a legitimate mistake, that there are cognitive distortions that affect the result of ours thoughts.

Now let’s analyze …

  1. There are many things wrong with this prohibition. First, the flower is natural and organic. It is the easiest to produce and the cheapest alternative for patients; there are more than 500 compounds all interdependent to make sick people feel better. There are seas of data, anecdotal information, serious studies collecting information for decades and opinions of highly educated individuals that support the consumption of flower in its natural state for medical purposes. The benefits are discarded, and personal opinions take the lead. Based on Burns’s work this is a textbook case of Disqualifying the Positive: dismissing or ignoring any positive facts. Moreover, let’s not forget the benefit for illegal growers and distributors.
  2. Keep out of reach of children, does it ring a bell? For years and years, we have consumed controlled substances, have manipulated detergent pods, bleach and so many other products that can be fatal. The warning is enough, just like is done with other hazardous Here we can notice how we can fall into the Fortune Teller Error, which believes that they know what will happen, without evidence.
  3. Not even the largest drug stores in the USA have this requirement. There is one pharmacist per shift, and a licensed pharmacist supervises pharmacy technicians. Medical cannabis is not even mentioned in current Pharmacy’s BA curricula. Most pharmacists take external courses in training institutes. On the other hand, bud tenders go through a very comprehensive certification process that covers from customer service to cash management and safety and of course all technical knowledge. If anything, a botanist (plant scientist) makes more sense. What a splendid example of magnification (make small things much larger than they deserve). This is an unnecessary requirement.
  4. The relationship between a certified doctor and patient has to be bona fide (real, honest). In practical terms, the doctor has to treat the patient for some time (sometimes six months) and have a history of the patient. Even though this sounds logical, not all doctors are certified to recommend cannabis, but all can diagnose. Are we penalizing the doctor or the patient? The only thing that you need to qualify as a patient is the condition. Besides, I had prescriptions filled for controlled medications at the drug store with no history. Why are we overgeneralizing Do we think that all doctors are frauds?

Organic Cannabis Association & Ethical Cannabis Alliance Announce Merger

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Organic Cannabis Association and Ethical Cannabis Alliance announced today they are merging into one organization, the Cannabis Certification Council (CCC), according to a press release. The new third-party certifications include “Organically Grown” and “Fairly Produced”, granting producers a seal for marketing if they achieve the certifications.

Ashley Preece, executive director of the Cannabis Certification Council

According to Ashley Preece of the Ethical Cannabis Alliance, now executive director at CCC, they plan on starting with the “Organically Grown” certification as first certification to market. “We are launching with Organically which will include robust labor standards as well as standards that go beyond [USDA] Organic,” says Preece. “The USDA Organic standard is watered down and we want to expand on proper horticulture practices so it relates directly to cannabis producers.” The process of designing that certification involves using that USDA Organic certification as a building block to draw from but not directly adopt.

“We will start by pulling from Organic and Fair Trade standards, then we will have a technical advisory committee (TAC), made up of multi-stakeholder agricultural industry and cannabis industry professionals to give input and adjust the standard accordingly,” says Preece. “From there we will have a pilot program, engaging with producers abiding by the standards’ requirements. After the pilot phase, we make final adjustments before bringing it to market.” In order to make sure their certification works across the board, Preece says they are engaging with stakeholders around the country and eventually globally. “We need to engage each different community to make sure this is applicable on a national level.” Preece also says they plan staying abreast of other standards, such as ASTM International’s, but those are geared more towards production safety. “We are looking towards more robust Organic and Fair Trade standards, and ‘cannabinizing’ them,” says Preece.

Photo courtesy of L’Eagle Services

David Bronner, a prominent advocate of drug policy reform and CEO of Dr. Bronner’s, a top-selling soap brand in the US market place, will be providing seed funding and a matching grant to the CCC. “We are committed to making socially and environmentally responsible products of the highest value, and we are excited for the CCC to begin driving that ethos in the cannabis industry,” says Bronner. “The Cannabis Certification Council (CCC), with its unique mission, is a perfect vessel for us to support our values in the cannabis space.”

Preece says the “Fairly Produced” labor certification is going to be based off of Fair Trade practices. “That will include living wages per community and taking options of ownership into consideration, including different business models where employees might have shares or partial ownership,” says Preece. “As we know, this industry has come from the illicit market, where we saw a lot of inappropriate working environments, gender relations and pay schedules. So we want to ensure that workers have contracts in place, they are treated fairly just as any other industry and we want to mitigate any strange encounters that might have seeped into this regulated market.” Founding board members include Laura Rivero of Yerba Buena Farms; Amy Andrle of L’Eagle Services Denver; Nick Richards of Dill and Dill and Vicente Sederberg; and Ben Gelt of Par, with Ashley Preece as executive director. “This is a huge step for the cannabis industry,” says Preece. “Our collaboration reflects the priority of the mission ingrained in both parties, and together we will immediately be greater than the sum of our parts.”

Dr. Allison Justice

What Does it Really Mean To Be Organic in Cannabis?

By Dr. Allison Justice
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Dr. Allison Justice

If you ask an organic chemist, it’s any molecule with a carbon attached. If you ask a consumer of USDA Certified Organic vegetables, they might say it is food produced without chemicals pesticides, that it is safer and cleaner and even more nutritious. Possibly another consumer will say it’s just a hoax to pay more for food, but what does the USDA Certified Organic Farmer say?

Most will agree it is a very rigorous process of record keeping, fees, rules and oversight. The farmers have limited choices for pesticides and fertilizers; they incur higher labor costs, suffer potentially lower yields and generally have higher input costs. However, at the end of the day the farmer does get a higher price point.

With so many misconceptions about organic food, it is difficult to know what is actually organic by definition. First let’s think about what the word pesticide means. A pesticide is “a substance used for destroying insects or other organisms harmful to cultivated plants or to animals.” By definition, a vacuum used to suck off spidermites is a pesticide, so instead we should say that no synthetic pesticides are used. These are pesticides that enter and reside for long periods of time within the plant, which are potentially harmful to the end consumer. Though organic food does not contain synthetic pesticides, the perception of the food being healthier is also not always accurate. Growers often use foliar applied teas or manures, which increase the chance of the product containing E. coli or other harmful microbes. In addition, certain sanitizing agents or gamma irradiation is not allowed, so the post-harvest cleaning is not always as thorough as for conventional foods. When cannabis is sold as a dried product, the consumer cannot wash the flower as they might do before eating an apple. As growers, we should make sure we are disinfecting the flower before harvest and keeping the plant/processes clean throughout curing.

I often hear cannabis growers saying they are producing an organic product, but this simply cannot be true. The term “organic” is a labeling term for agricultural products (food, fiber or feed) that have been produced in accordance to the federal government’s USDA organic regulations. Due to our (cannabis growers) ongoing disagreements with the federal government, this is not a term we can put on our product. However, we can still grow to the same standards as USDA-certified farmers. How can we do this? By using OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) approved products. OMRI is a third-party, nonprofit organization that lets growers know if a product can be used in certified Organic production. You can find this seal on many fertilizers or pesticides.

Next, if it is a pesticide product that is not OMRI approved, check to see if it is registered by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The EPA will provide ingredients and crops that are approved, amounts which can be used safely and storage/disposal practices on the label. Products that are put through the EPA registration are evaluated for their environmental, human and residual risks. Companies pay a hefty fee for this process, and much research goes into providing this information – ALWAYS READ THE LABEL!

A couple of exceptions to an EPA registration are pesticides that are 25B-exempt and biological control. 25B-exempt pesticides are pesticides that pose minimal or no risk to humans. A complete list of these products can be found here. Examples of these pesticides include rosemary, garlic, spearmint, etc.

Biological control is a method for controlling pests by the use of natural enemies. Biological control agents are allowed in organic production. If you are still wondering which pesticides or fertilizer are OK to use in cannabis and you do not live in a state with already enforced regulation, check out allowed lists in states that do.

So we know we cannot be considered a USDA organic cannabis farmer, but we CAN strive to meet the same standards:

  • Follow your state’s regulations; they are there for a reason!
  • Use OMRI products, 25B-exempt products and BCAs.
  • Keep an eye out for upcoming third-party certification companies, such as Clean Green or MPS (beware of the ones that want you to only use their products), because we need more than the state to regulate what we put onto our crop.
  • Finally, always think about the microbial load you’ve put on your plants. Although many can be very beneficial and help to produce high quality crops, many species can be harmful to the end user.

Canadian Cannabis Recalls Raise Questions About Choices in Testing Methods

By Aaron G. Biros
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Cannabis sold between August and December of 2016 is being voluntarily recalled by Organigram, a Canadian cannabis producer, due to the detection of unapproved pesticides, according to a press release. Organigram is a licensed medical cannabis producer in Canada, which received an organic certification back in 2014 by ECOCERT, a third-party organic certification organization based in France.

health-canada-logo

Organigram and Health Canada deemed it a Type III recall, meaning “a situation in which the use of, or exposure to, dried marijuana, fresh marijuana or cannabis oil, marijuana plants or seeds is not likely to cause any adverse health consequences,” according to that press release. They don’t know how the products were contaminated as routine use of pesticides is barred under their organic certification. Organigram is cooperating with Health Canada to conduct a full investigation to determine how the cannabis was contaminated.

About a month before Organigram’s recall, Mettrum Health Corp., a Toronto-based licensed medical cannabis producer, voluntarily recalled medical cannabis products that might have contained trace levels of pyrethrin, an insecticide not approved for use on cannabis, but generally regarded as safe with a low toxicity. That press release only mentions the detection of pyrethrin and downplays the health effects. “While the ingredient is not harmful and there is no negative effect on product quality and safety, we are doing everything possible to ensure client satisfaction and confidence is upheld,” says Michael Haines, director and chief executive officer of Mettrum Health Corp.

Pesticide Use was a major issue of 2016 Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr
Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

Reporting in an article last week, The Globe and Mail discovered that Mettrum’s recall included lots where they detected trace levels of Myclobutanil, a hazardous and illegal pesticide that is banned in a number of states as well. Myclobutanil has been discovered as the culprit in a slew of pesticide-related recalls in Colorado and Washington.

But Mettrum’s updated press release doesn’t include any mention of Myclobutanil. Health Canada also didn’t make any public disclosures addressing the detection of Myclobutanil. The Globe and Mail only found out that the recall included the banned pesticide after asking a Mettrum employee.

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Tegan Adams, business development manager at Eurofins-Experchem

Tegan Adams, business development manager at Eurofins-Experchem Laboratories, Inc., a Toronto-based GMP testing lab, indicated that while the regulations are clear in their statement on zero tolerance for pesticides- reasons for inconsistent testing results are in part related to variations in rigor of testing methods available to monitor for pesticides in cannabis. “Licensed producers do not have to release routine test results to the public,” says Adams. “There is a group of us, inclusive of representatives from licensed producers (LPs), working on proposing a new federal cannabis accreditation standard that would make testing results, grading quality, DNA and a few other things public for each cannabis batch legally released to the public to be accredited. Making information like this public would help remove a lot of consumer scrutiny on LPs, as it currently exists in the marketplace. Most of them care so much about their products and patients, they work very hard to create safe quality products”

According to Adams, routine pesticide testing typically scans for roughly 100 pesticides. She says a more rigorous test could scan for 500-700 different pesticides, a more accurate representation of what’s on the market. Adams says the regulations have zero tolerance for any detection of pesticides, not necessarily an action level for what is a safe amount to be present.

Toronto Photo: Paul Bica, Flickr
Toronto
Photo: Paul Bica, Flickr

More research is needed on the smoking and inhalation aspects of pesticide products to say what is safe and what is not. “There are different methods available to test for pesticides, and SOPs to follow to avoid their application,” says Adams. “But if a licensed producer chose a testing method that doesn’t for some reason cover a pesticide they are later found to have on their product, that could present the need for a recall if Health Canada or another entity were to somehow to detect it using a different method.”

Health Canada determined both of those recalls to be Type III recalls. Both companies said they are cooperating fully with the regulatory body. By embracing the proposed new cannabis testing accreditation standard, Health Canada could remedy the testing methodology discrepancies and require a greater level of transparency.

First Nevada Cannabis Lab Receives ISO 17025 Accreditation.

By Aaron G. Biros
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On December 7th, 374 Labs received ISO 17025 accreditation, becoming the first in Nevada to do so. The laboratory, based in Sparks, Nevada, is state-certified and now the only ISO 17025 accredited lab in the state, according to a press release. The laboratory is a member in both the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories (ACCL) and the Nevada Cannabis Laboratory Association (NVCLA).

Managing Partner Alec Garcia at the LCMS/MS
Managing Partner Alec Garcia at the LCMS/MS

“As Nevada transitions into an adult-use cannabis market, it’s very important that the state’s cannabis testing laboratories are held to the highest standards – and ISO 17025 is a requirement of top testing laboratories in all industries from biotech to forensics in most major countries,” says Dr. Jeff Angermann, assistant professor in the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Community Health Sciences.

Laboratory Technician Bevan Meade working on sample preparation.
Laboratory Technician Bevan Meade working on sample preparation.

According to the release, 374 Labs was a driving force behind Nevada’s round robin cannabis lab testing program. That program, administered by the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health (DPBH) and the Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA), sends cannabis samples to each state-certified cannabis lab for a full analysis, measuring the consistency in test results across labs. “In other states proficiency involves testing pre-prepared, purified samples and neglects the challenges of coaxing out delicate analytes from the complex array of compounds found in actual marijuana,” says Laboratory Director Jason Strull. “I commend the DPBH and NDA for facilitating such an advanced quality program.”

Also notable is the announcing of their partnership with Clean Green Certified, a third-party certification (based on USDA organic certification) for sustainable, organically based cannabis cultivation. “Nevada allows certain levels of pesticides like Myclobutanil on its certified marijuana, so we wanted a way for patients and consumers to able to distinguish marijuana that is grown using organic methods,” said Laboratory Director Jason Strull. According to Michael Seibert, managing member of 374 Labs, they have already started performing inspections for the third-party certification and the first facility inspected was Silver State Trading in Sparks, Nevada (certified for both production and cultivation).

flower inspect

The Organic Certification of Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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flower inspect

News of potentially harmful pesticide use on cannabis grown in Colorado, along with new legislation in California that would develop guidelines for pesticide use, highlight the need to cultivate cannabis that is not only safe to consume, but also environmentally friendly. Cannabis cultivation is a rapidly expanding industry and as growers scale up their operations, the question of sustainability remains.

cleangreencertplants
Chris Van Hook performing a routine inspection of a Clean Green Certified crop

Clean Green Certified is a third-party certification program that incorporates aspects of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), international organic programs and sustainable farming practices. Cannabis is not eligible for USDA organic certification because it is not a federally recognized crop, so Clean Green Certified is the closest certification nationally available. More than 200 cultivators are currently Clean Green Certified in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Nevada.

Chris Van Hook, attorney and founder of Clean Green Certified, started the program in 2004 out of requests from growers to certify their cannabis as organic. Van Hook has decades of experience working in environmental law and USDA organic certifications. “About 95% of the Clean Green Certification is based on the USDA’s NOP,” says Van Hook. “The Clean Green Certified cannabis farmer would be eligible for an organic certification as soon as it becomes available, so we are helping the industry get accustomed to the regulations, inspections, and audits that come with getting organically certified.”

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A close-up of an outdoor Clean Green Certified crop

Getting Clean Green Certified requires an initial application. Upon inspection, Van Hook’s program examines all the inputs, including water and energy usage, nutrients, pesticides, and soil, along with inspecting the actual plants for agricultural vitality. “We follow the plants from seed to when it is harvested, checking for clean surfaces and containers, as well as drying, curing, trimming, and processing practices,” says Van Hook. “Just like organic farming, the cultivator needs to be an engaged manager and heavily involved with the plants. Much more monitoring is involved to prevent pest problems from getting out of control without using pesticides.”

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Van Hook inspecting the flowers on an outdoor plant

The initial screening process takes into consideration traceability and legal compliance, which in cultivation and processing alike is an eligibility requirement. “We use USDA organic standards as guidance for processor facility reviews as well, which include concentrates and edibles manufacturers, breaking it down to labeling, food handling, standard operating procedures, mock recalls, and more,” says Van Hook.

“In a market so used to a lack of oversight, there definitely are some challenges, but we are bringing the necessary agricultural and food handling regulations into the cannabis industry,” adds Van Hook.

The option to grow organically and acquire a third party certification for it can benefit cultivators across the country looking to market their product as environmentally sustainable and pesticide-free.