Six years after the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Certified Clean Cannabis program was launched to certify synthetic chemical-free cannabis growers for medical marijuana, Maine cannabis farmers claim their product is healthier and less prone to disease.

However, the program has been slow to take off – so far only 20 producers from nearly 700 vendors in the state have been certified.

Chris Grigsby, director of MOFGA Certification Services LLC, said the Certified Clean Cannabis program mirrors the national organic certification program that is available to other growers. This program is not available to cannabis growers due to the ongoing federal ban on THC cannabis.

While it was something the growers wanted, the process of becoming – and staying – a MOFGA certified clean cannabis producer is strict, and the organization continues to struggle with consumer reach and demand.

The last six years

John Black, CEO of Earth Keeper LLC in Wilton, was one of the original supervisors who reached out to MOFGA to encourage them to develop the certification program in 2015. He saw the issue of clean cannabis as a manufacturer’s responsibility.

“There are many sick people that cannabis helps and it is not responsible for infecting them with high levels of metals, pesticides and fungicides,” Black said. “There is so much cannabis that is contaminated. You can speak to most of the laboratories and they will tell you that they see the problems every day when the same pesticides contaminate their extraction vessels. “

The Clean Cannabis Certified program requires that inputs for growing cannabis for organic use be approved, and applicants agree to regular on-site inspections and strict records. This is reflected in the program for other producers. But there is one key difference: hydroponic surgeries, which are popular for cannabis, are not qualified.

“There’s a lot of organic hydroponic production out there, but it’s never MOFGA certified because organic farming is based on the belief that you are feeding the soil, not the plant,” Grigsby said. “You can smell the difference [between soil-grown and hydroponic-grown cannabis]. It’s really great when you work side by side. “

Black said the program has not changed significantly since it was launched, other than the increase in the number of growers participating and the “need” to do more to verify the traceability of growers’ crops.

Tui the shop dog waits while Tom Falby roots cuttings at the Casco Bay Cannabis organic farm in Scarborough on Thursday April 29, 2021. Photo credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

However, some report that the program is leading to better cannabis.

Certified producers like Sweet Dirt have seen positive changes in their plants. Hughes Pope, founder and head of cultivation at Sweet Dirt, who was certified in 2015, said the healthy, cleanly grown plant products are less prone to disease and also produce more bracts for the buds to develop in.

“You can immediately see whether it is organic or not just what this flower looks like,” said Pope.

Pope is not alone in his observations.

Newer manufacturers of certified clean cannabis can tell the difference too. Nick Tremblay, owner and founder of Nick’s Trees in Eastport, became a MOFGA certified clean cannabis operation in 2018. Before moving to Maine, Tremblay worked in both organic, conventional and hydroponic farms in California.

“There are so many ways to cultivate the plant,” Tremblay said. “[With hydroponic operations]You can perfect these systems and they will grow very quickly, but you will lack cannabinoid production and terpene production. In San Francisco, I came into contact with cultivators there who sprayed all kinds of horrible pesticides, then they sold it and people smoke it. It was very important to me, and that’s one of the main reasons I started the MOFGA- I think certification is beneficial. “

A pile of leaves lays on the ground in front of Tom Falby as he prunes plants at the Casco Bay Cannabis organic growing facility in Scarborough on Thursday April 29, 2021. Photo credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

However, manufacturers of certified clean cannabis are aware of the extra workload associated with MOFGA certification.

“This is the hard way,” said Justice Rines, chief compliance officer at Sweet Dirt. “Not only are we regulated by the state’s marijuana policy, but we can come and check you out anytime under MOFGA certification.”

Many of the certified clean cannabis manufacturers said the biggest challenge was keeping records.

A notebook helps keep track of each plant from seed to sale at the Casco Bay Cannabis organic growing facility in Scarborough on Thursday April 29, 2021. Photo credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“You need to have all of your evidence of inputs that you use on the soil,” said Tom Falby, owner of Casco Bay Cannabis Company in Scarborough, who received Clean Cannabis certification in 2017, as well as your clones and cuttings throughout the process . They record every interaction you have with the plants. ”

Then there are MOFGA’s regular on-site inspections and visits.

“When they come and inspect you, they do an exercise where they pick a plant on your records and track it against your records to confirm that your tracking system is working,” Falby said.

Charlie Murray, owner of Stark’s Mountain Herbs in Fryeburg, which was certified in 2020, said the process was rigorous but worthwhile – especially in terms of cost, as growers no longer buy the expensive chemical products that are attached to cannabis To be marketed to producers.

“It usually becomes cost-effective,” said Murray. “I think the practices MOFGA is promoting are likely to be educating and preventing, young or new or seasoned farmers, from thinking about what they’re putting in their soil, rather than just running away and buying what’s next panacea . People spend a lot of money on this stuff. “

The future of clean cannabis

While Maine is making it easier and easier to gain recognition for clean growing practices, regulatory hurdles remain.

For example, recreational cannabis used by adults has statutory testing, while medicinal cannabis does not. Sweet Dirt is hoping for organic certification for its recreational marijuana – currently MOFGA certification is only available for medical marijuana – but strict testing requirements make it difficult.

“It was illegal nationwide for so long, so they want to make it difficult for people to be in the market,” said Pope. “[Recreational cannabis growers] are only kept at an unreasonable level. We just need sensible regulation. I think they are working towards that. I think it will take some time. If MOFGA regulated everyone, it would be different. “

Grigsby believes more producers will pursue MOFGA’s Certified Clean Cannabis program, but said the word was difficult to get across.

“We really need to shed some light on this and educate consumers,” said Grigsby. “One of the challenges for us is to get the word out about the program, similar to the way organic has grown in the market due to consumer demand.”

Grigsby said producers who have clean cannabis certification are still not getting all of the financial benefits.

“When you go to the farmers’ market, you may pay a small price premium [on organic produce]”Said Grigsby.” These supervisors don’t see that in the [medical marijuana] Market so far. You cannot ask for more due to the market price. I think they have seen us grow and perform well on this certification, but I would appreciate it if one of these pharmacy customers walked in there and said, “Do you have any of the MOFGA certified products?”

Tom Falby of Casco Bay Cannabis cuts plants at his company’s organic facility in Scarborough on Thursday April 29, 2021. Photo credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Falby said he would like more manufacturers to apply and also adhere to the standards – for the benefit of the industry.

“MOFGA represents the possibilities of what the cannabis industry could have been in Maine by having private third party evaluations and not involving the state,” said Falby. “The cost would have been lower and therefore taxes and the price passed on to the consumer would have been lower than the bureaucratic system we are now being introduced into.”

For the moment, however, Black said that clean cannabis certification helped gain the trust of its existing patients as a trustworthy breeder, which is valuable in and of itself.

“We have received a lot of positive feedback on our products,” said Black. “In the future I would like to see more growers in the program and anyone who needs help getting into the program and learning organic farming methods can reach out to most of the current growers as I think they would be willing to to help out. ”