Sunday, February 6, 2011

AlterNet: Which Dangerous Toxins Are in Your Marijuana?

Grown under the radar of legal authorities, even "medical" cannabis can be
covered in toxic mold or coated in commercial-grade synthetic fertilizers
and insecticides.

February 4, 2011
http://www.alternet .org/story/ 149804/which_ dangerous_ toxins_are_ in_your_mari

In 2004, California organic farm inspector Chris Van Hook submitted an
unusual request to the US Department of Agriculture: He wanted permission to
certify a medical marijuana farm as organic. He'd already inspected three
pot farms, he says, before word came back that weed couldn't be organic
because it wasn't a federally recognized crop.

So Van Hook founded Clean Green, a
certification program for medical marijuana farmers that's nearly identical
to the USDA's organics program-except that it can't legally use the term
"organic." Since launching in 2004, Clean Green has certified 80 medical
marijuana growers who last year produced 8,000 pounds of cannabis valued at
as much as $33 million. It's the only inspection service aimed at pot
smokers who want their ganja to be farmed as safely and ethically as their
organic salad greens.

In practice, medical marijuana is typically greener than pot from your
curbside drug dealer, which is often sourced through Mexican cartels or
illegal grows in
national forests. But the distinction pretty much stops there. Grown under
the radar of state and federal agricultural authorities, even "medical"
cannabis can be covered in toxic mold, raised in rooms filled with shedding
pit bulls, or coated in commercial-grade synthetic fertilizers and
insecticides such as phosphate and
which can be especially toxic if improperly applied. "Under our program a
huge advantage is the patient can be assured that their cannabis is being
grown in a legally compliant manner," says Van Hook. Well, at least "legally
compliant" enough for any eco-conscious stoner.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I accompanied Van Hook, a balding,
soft-spoken, 54-year-old, on an inspection of an indoor cannabis growing
operation in a house deep in a Northern California redwood forest. He'd
asked that I not reveal the name and location of the grower, a fit,
clean-cut young father whose day job involves corporate leadership training.
It had been about a year since Van Hook had certified his grow-op; just as
USDA organic standards require, it was now up for its annual re-inspection.

"I just want to do something I believe in," explained the grower, who I'll
call Jack, as we stood outside his modest bungalow, "and do it as ethically
and environmentally consciously as possible."

Though medical marijuana is legal in 15 states, most of them don't inspect
pot farms for compliance with agricultural laws. Which where Van Hook's
status as an accredited "apples-to-zucchini " USDA-certified organic farm
inspector comes in: He's denied some pot growers Clean Green certification
for infractions such a using composted human feces to fertilize plants,
growing plants near livestock pens that coat buds in manure dust, or setting
off a bug bomb in a grow room shortly before harvesting.

In the front of a detached garage, Jack deactivated a security alarm system
and welcomed us inside. Van Hook was already scribbling notes; he doesn't
certify grow-ops in houses with children, who can ingest buds or be killed
in electrical fires, unless the plants are in "detached, locked facilities."
Jack unlocked another door leading to a sealed-off grow room that filled the
garage nearly wall-to-wall. The pungent smell of 40 thriving marijuana
plants (most of them a variety known as Sour Diesel) mixed with the earthy
aroma of a bubbling brew of compost tea, a mix of nutrients and beneficial
bacteria that is used as a fertilizer and disease suppressant.

Along a wall full of organic gardening products-a molasses-and- yucca-based
soil supplement, an oil from Indian neem trees to control pests-Van Hook
spotted an unfamiliar-looking bottle of "natural" fertilizer from a company
called Humboldt Nutrients. Like many products marketed to pot growers, its
psychedelic label looked like the cover of a Grateful Dead album. "Forget
about the Buddhas and the spaceships; I look at the ingredients, " Van Hook
said as he picked up the bottle. A USDA-certified input reviewer on Van'
Hook's seven-person staff would later vet its contents.

A lack of approved products isn't the only obstacle to growing organic
ganja. Compost teas and guano-based fertilizers contain too much sediment to
pass through the tubes used in soil-free hydroponics systems, so indoor
growers like Jack rely instead on standard potting soil and watering by
hand. Powerful grow lamps suck down large amounts of electricity- a criticism
often raised by certified outdoor farmers, whose weed fetches about 50
percent less on the dispensary market because it isn't as powerful or
visually striking as indoor buds. Though Van Hook doesn't penalize people
who use lamps, he refuses to certify indoor grow-ops powered by dirty diesel
generators, which are common in California's remote northern counties.

As Van Hook continued his inspection, Jack flipped a switch and triggered a
white nova of grow lamps. Van Hook crouched beneath them with a microscope
in search of signs of pesticide residue and spider mites on marijuana
leaves; a few insects are actually desirable as signs of pesticide-free
growing. He went on to check that Jack complied with local pot-cultivation
laws, electrical codes, and agricultural sanitation standards. He's applied
a similar checklist to the nine medical marijuana dispensaries that are
certified as "processor/handlers ," giving them the right to package Clean
Green pot-just as the USDA authorizes Whole Foods to package organic

According to Van Hook, Clean Green marijuana doesn't necessarily sell for
more than uncertified medical pot; the trick is knowing where to find it.
About 10 California dispensaries offer Clean Green-approved product,
including Harborside Health Center in Oakland and Herbal Cure Collective in
Los Angeles. Van Hook, who charges an average of $1,800 per certification,
pitches his services to farmers and dispensary owners primarily as a tool
for product differentiation and marketing.

Despite those benefits, many pot growers and sellers are nervous about
letting a third-party inspector take notes that could be used against them
by federal law enforcement. Which is why the inside of Van Hook's van
displays a framed copy of his law degree from Concord Law Law School; being
a lawyer enables him to keep his notes confidential under attorney-client

The final stop on Van Hook's inspection was in a shed where Jack unlocked a
metal chest beneath a futon to reveal several plastic "turkey bags" brimming
with buds. Some dispensaries commission independent testing on their
purchases to check for harmful chemical residues. Van Hook's field tests are
more basic. He pulled out a microscope and searched for signs of hair or
mold. "They are beautiful buds; they are immaculate," he proclaimed,
marveling at their gemlike THC crystals. Jack smiled. "You are a medical
cannabis patient, aren't you, Chris? Why don't you try a little bit?"

Josh Harkinson is a staff reporter at Mother Jones. For more of his
stories, click here.
Email him with tips at jharkinson (at) motherjones (dot) com. To follow him
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