The Cannabis Certification Council (CCC) is a non-profit group that is dedicated to establishing a functional organic certification standard for the cannabis space.

Based in Colorado, the CCC is making great strides in calling attention to current testing standards in the industry while compiling extensive data and a network of like-minded people to raise awareness about what exactly we consume with our cannabis.

For now, we are likely far from seeing a functional organic cannabis certification standard from a government body. As a result, the CCC has identified a need for organic cannabis certifications not only for the good of consumers, but also the good of those businesses looking to occupy the craft producer niche.

To better understand the challenges of this promising endeavor, I had the opportunity to have a discussion with Ben Gelt, board chair at the CCC.

The Cannabis Certification Council

The CCC was originally founded in 2014 at a point in time when Colorado had just launched the nation’s seminal recreational cannabis market. In seeing the rapid rise of the industry, Gelt and his associates at the CCC quickly realized that established protocol for cannabis testing fell short of acceptable measures for both medical and recreational users.

In reference to the Colorado industry, Gelt states “today we only test for 13 pesticides.” This fact may come as a surprise to some, as compliance protocols set forth by the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) have been praised for their stringency and efficacy. What’s more, MED protocols have been reproduced in new legal markets throughout the United States and Canada. Colorado is often considered a vestige of functionality amidst struggling “wild west” markets like those seen California and Oregon.

For Gelt and the CCC team, the testing protocols set forth by the Colorado MED aren’t enough to give consumers the information they need for informed purchasing decisions. This protocol doesn’t come close to the CCC’s vision of organic cannabis standards. To illustrate, Gelt commends the standards of Sun and Earth, a California group promoting “beyond organic” requirements. These standards include regenerative cultivation practices, sun-grown crops, chemical-free farming, and worker protections. While Gelt applauds Sun and Earth for their efforts, the CCC organic standards will be less stringent as well as applicable across indoor, greenhouse, and outdoor growing. With this approach, the CCC’s vision is to make their standards accessible for the average grower.

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Gelt sees even more opportunity in the fact that the infrastructure is already in place to make this testing happen. He continues, “There are literally tens of thousands of pesticides out there… but the simple fact is that the type of equipment that is required to do meaningful pesticide testing is established science. It's not like we need to like go out and do all this groundbreaking research.”

To accomplish their goals of setting a functional organic standard for cannabis production, the CCC has identified a business opportunity in the organic goods market. To this end, they are confident that health-conscious and eco-minded shoppers are willing to pay extra dollars for clean cannabis products. On the business side of things, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, cannabis companies continue to search for innovative new paths towards market distinction. According to Gelt, “I think that there's a clear economic case for adding such a label into the supply chain… of cannabis production.” Gelt tells us that his label could demand as much as a 10 percent price increase above non-certified cannabis brands.

For the CCC, the obvious choice for inflicting change in the organic cannabis certification process is consumer demand rather than government regulation.

Moreover, with cannabis sales in states like Colorado passing the $1 billion mark, this economic benefit could very well be the impetus to drive the implementation of the CCC’s future testing standards.

What is Unique About Organic Cannabis Certifications?

When thinking about the organic cannabis certification process, one could easily assume it mirrors what we see with food crops and the USDA. However, the cannabis certification process exhibits major divergences from mainstream organic standards — these almost exclusively call for more stringent protocol than seen with produce.

The fact that individuals inhale smoke from burning cannabis puts it in a league of its own concerning testing standards. To illustrate, the USDA website cites a number of “synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production” including ethanol, chlorine dioxide, and copper sulfate. While the use of these substances in producing food crops is considered safe by the USDA, there is little evidence to show how such chemicals may react with the human body when burned and inhaled.

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When looking at the process of making cannabis extracts, it’s also evident that cannabis presents unique challenges unrealized in standard UDSA organic certifications. Largely because, Gelt says, the slightest residual substances (pesticides and fertilizers) left on a cannabis plant often become highly concentrated with the extraction process. This notion was realized in the early days of the industry, where countless batches of BHO were lost due to concentrated residual impurities of organic pesticides like sulfur.

Gelt also points out that the USDA’s approved pesticide list for organic cultivation is based on traditional outdoor farming. He states, “there are really big differences pertaining to pesticide use” between controlled environment growing (greenhouse and indoor) and outdoor agriculture. This is important because a vast majority of cannabis is grown in controlled environments, where there is potential for pesticides to linger far longer than seen with outdoor cultivation.

The Future of the CCC

Looking outside of the cannabis industry, the current state of affairs in organic certifications already presents a rather convoluted situation, mostly because many people cannot agree on what production methods are allowable under the umbrella term “organic.” Along this line of thought, many of these same skeptics also don’t trust the UDSA’s rulings on organic farming.

The cannabis industry takes the organic debate and makes it exponentially more confusing due to its market volatility, confusing regulations, and semi-legal status. Similarly, because cannabis is produced, processed, and consumed in such unique ways, it seems that established organic certification protocols simply won’t cut it.

If we leave it to government agencies to develop quality standards, it likely won’t happen anytime soon. For Gelt and the CCC, taking this matter into the arena of private, non-profit certifications is the only logical option. For the greater industry, it’s undeniable that the real value add here is giving consumers more information about what is in their cannabis products.

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