Tom Falby of Casco Bay Cannabis trims plants at his company's organic growing facility in Scarborough on Thursday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Six years after the creation of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Certified Clean Cannabis program to certify synthetic chemical-free cannabis growers, Maine cannabis farmers say their product is healthier and less susceptible to disease.

But the program has been slow to catch on — so far, only 20 growers have been certified out of nearly 700 providers in the state.

Chris Grigsby, director of MOFGA Certification Services LLC, said that the Certified Clean Cannabis program mirrors the national organic certification program available to other growers. That program isn’t available to cannabis growers because of the continued federal prohibition on THC cannabis.

Although it was something that growers wanted, the process of becoming — and staying — a MOFGA Certified Clean Cannabis producer is rigorous, and the organization continues to struggle with outreach and consumer demand.

The last six years

John Black, CEO of Earth Keeper LLC in Wilton, was one of the original caregivers who approached MOFGA to encourage them to develop the certification program in 2015. He saw the issue of clean cannabis as one of producer responsibility.

“There are a lot of sick people that cannabis helps, and to infect them with high metal concentrations, pesticides and fungicides is not being responsible,” Black said. “There is so much cannabis out there that is contaminated. You can talk to most labs and they will tell you that they see the problems everyday as those same pesticides contaminate their extraction vessels.”

The Clean Cannabis Certified program requires that the inputs for growing cannabis be approved for organic use, and applicants agree to regular on-site inspections and rigorous record-keeping. This mirrors the program for other produce growers. But there’s a key difference: hydroponic operations, which are popular for cannabis, do not qualify.

“There’s a lot of hydroponic organic production out there, but it’s never certified by MOFGA because organic agriculture is built around the belief that you feed the soil, not the plant,” Grigsby said. “You can smell the difference [between soil-grown and hydroponic-grown cannabis]. It’s really kind of tremendous when you do a side by side.”

Black said that the program hasn’t changed much since its initial inception, aside from the increase in growers participating and the “necessary” increased scrutiny on the traceability of growers’ plants.

Tui the shop dog waits while Tom Falby roots cuttings at the Casco Bay Cannabis organic growing facility in Scarborough on Thursday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Nonetheless, some report that the program is resulting in better cannabis.

Certified producers like Sweet Dirt have observed positive changes in their plants. Hughes Pope, founder and head of cultivation at Sweet Dirt, which became certified in 2015, said that the healthy, cleanly-grown plants products are less susceptible to disease and also produce more bracts, where the buds develop.

“You can tell right away if it’s organic or not just on how that flower looks,” Pope said.

Pope isn’t alone in his observations.

Even more recent Certified Clean Cannabis producers can see the difference. Nick Tremblay, owner and founder of Nick’s Trees in Eastport, became a MOFGA Certified Clean Cannabis operation in 2018. Prior to moving to Maine, Tremblay worked in both organic, conventional and hydroponic operations in California.

“There are so many ways of cultivating the plant,” Tremblay said. “[With hydroponic operations], you can perfect those systems and they’ll grow very quickly, but you’re going to lack the cannabinoid production and the terpenes production. In San Francisco, that’s where I did come in contact with cultivators growing spraying all kinds of awful pesticides, then they would sell it, and people are smoking that. It was a major concern of mine and that’s one of the main reasons I think the MOFGA certification is beneficial.”

A pile of leaves sit on the floor in front of Tom Falby while he trims plants at the Casco Bay Cannabis organic growing facility in Scarborough on Thursday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

However, the Certified Clean Cannabis producers are cognizant of the extra effort being MOFGA-certified entails.

“This is the hard way,” said Justice Rines, chief compliance officer at Sweet Dirt. “We’re not only regulated by the state Office of Marijuana Policy, but as part of being MOFGA-certified, they can come at any time and audit you.”

Many of the Certified Clean Cannabis producers said that the biggest challenge has been record-keeping.

A notebook helps track every plant from seed to sale at the Casco Bay Cannabis organic growing facility in Scarborough on Thursday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“You have to have all of your receipts for inputs that you’re using for soil,” said Tom Falby, owner of Casco Bay Cannabis Company in Scarborough, who received their Clean Cannabis certification in 2017. “You’re tracking your seedlings as well as your clones and your cuttings through the entire process. You record any interaction you have with the plants.”

Then, there are the regular inspections and site visits from MOFGA.

“When they come and inspect you, they do an exercise where they choose a plant in your records and kind of trace that through your record books to kind of affirm that your tracking system is working,” Falby said.

Charlie Murray, owner of Stark’s Mountain Herbs in Fryeburg, which was certified in 2020, said that the process has been rigorous, but worthwhile — especially when it comes to cost, as the growers move away from buying the expensive chemical products marketed to cannabis growers.

“It does typically often become advantageous from a cost standpoint,” Murray said. “I think the practices that MOFGA is promoting are probably educating and preventing farmers, whether young or new or experienced, to think about what they’re putting into their soil and not just running out and buying whatever is presented as the next panacea. People spend a lot of money on that stuff.”

The future of clean cannabis

Though it is getting easier in Maine to receive recognition for clean growing practices, regulatory hurdles still remain.

For example, recreational adult-use cannabis has mandatory testing written into the law, whereas medical cannabis does not. Sweet Dirt only received MOFGA certification for its adult-use cannabis products in 2021 — and are still the only producer to have done so — because strict testing requirements at the state level for recreational marijuana that are not required for medical marijuana make it difficult to achieve.

“It was federally illegal for so long, so they want to make it challenging for people to be in the market,” Pope said. “[Recreational cannabis growers] are just held to an unreasonable level. We just need sensible regulation. I think they’re working toward that. I think it’s going to take time. If MOFGA regulated everybody it would be different.”

Grigsby believes that more producers will pursue MOFGA’s Certified Clean Cannabis program, but he said that spreading the word is hard.

“We really need to shine a light on this and get consumer education out there,” Grigsby said. “One of the challenges for us is getting the word out about the program, similarly to how organic has had the growth in the marketplace from consumer demand.”

Grigsby said that producers who have the clean cannabis certification are not able to reap all the financial benefits yet.

“If you go to the farmers market, you may pay a little bit of a price premium [on organic produce],” Grigsby said. “That’s not something these caregivers are seeing in the [medical marijuana] market so far. They’re not able to charge more because of the way the market price is. I think they’ve seen good growth and positive performance entering into that certification with us but I’d love any of these dispensary customers to go in there and say, ‘Do you have any of the MOFGA-certified stuff?’”

Tom Falby of Casco Bay Cannabis trims plants at his company’s organic growing facility in Scarborough on Thursday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Falby said that he wishes more producers would apply and adhere to the standards, too — for the sake of the industry.

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

For now, though, Black said that the Clean Cannabis Certification has helped to gain the confidence of his existing patients as being a trusted grower, which is valuable in and of itself.

“We get a lot of positive feedback about our products,” Black said. “In the future I would like to see more growers in the program and anyone needing any help to get into the program and learn organic growing methods can reach out to most of the current growers, as I think they would be willing to help out.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Sweet Dirt was not MOFGA-certified for adult use marijuana.