Maine patients could be the first on the East Coast to consume medical marijuana grown to standards similar to those used for certified organic food products.

The Certified Clean Cannabis program, launched by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and now in a yearlong trial phase, is the first of its kind on the East Coast and one of the only programs in the country to set standards for growing medical marijuana without harmful chemicals.

The program, launched in late August, verifies that medical cannabis is grown to standards that correspond to the national organic standards used for food crops. Five growers from across the state have been certified as part of the trial phase.

“We think we’re way ahead of the curve,” said John Krueger, a MOFGA board member who helped develop the clean certification standards over the past two years.

Marijuana cannot be called organic because the term is federally regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. The USDA does not recognize cannabis as an agricultural crop because it is illegal under federal law.

Though the term organic cannot be applied to cannabis, that hasn’t stopped growers in Maine and elsewhere from saying their marijuana is grown organically, Krueger said. Developing a program with strict standards allows patients to know that marijuana that carries the Certified Clean Cannabis, or C3, logo meets requirements for how the product is grown, he said.

The move to set standards has been met with excitement by both caregivers and patients, according to MOFGA staff and the certified growers, who say the program is overdue.

“This is trailblazing and was many years in the making,” said Erica Haywood of Love Grown Medical Marijuana Services of Maine in Farmington. The only female farmer certified under the program, she helped MOFGA develop the standards used to assess growers.

Maine’s medical marijuana program is regarded as one of the strongest in the country. There are now more than 2,700 caregivers, or small-scale growers licensed by the state to grow marijuana for up to six patients. The state doesn’t track the exact number of patients, but doctors have printed certification forms for more than 48,000 patients in the past year. That number could include duplicates, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the program.

The market for certified clean cannabis could grow drastically if voters approve a recreational marijuana legalization measure on the November ballot. Question 1 seeks to establish a legal adult use market similar to the ones in place in Colorado, Washington and Alaska.

“This program brings (caregivers) credibility,” said Dawson Julia, owner of East Coast CBDs in Unity and one of the five certified clean growers. “If I was going to the grocery store to buy food, I’d want to make sure it’s certified organic by an oversight organization. It’s the same thing with cannabis.”

Julia, who specializes in growing non-psychoactive strains of marijuana, says he has long used organic growing practices and approached MOFGA to see if he could become certified.

“I wanted to be certified to prove to my customers that I take the extra step to be (organic),” he said. “When I found out MOFGA didn’t have a program for cannabis, I knew we needed to set standards.”

On the West Coast, where there are both established medical and recreational marijuana programs, there are several organizations that focus on promoting “green” or “organic” cannabis. The Oregon-based Organic Cannabis Growers Society aims to connect people interested in growing natural cannabis, according to its website. The founder of the society could not be reached Tuesday. In California, there is a group that certifies green cannabis growers, Krueger said.

STANDARDS AND INSPECTION

Katy Green, the organic transitions coordinator for MOFGA, said the clean cannabis standards closely parallel the national organic standards applied to food. The standards require soil-based production and lay out how farmers should deal with pests and weeds. All products used by the farmer to deal with issues such as mold or pests must be organic. Cannabis grown using hydroponics is not considered clean.

After filling out an extensive survey about their farming practices and materials used, growers undergo an inspection that includes a visit to their garden by an independent inspector and a review of their records, Green said.

Haywood is excited to have the opportunity to prove to her clients that she grows cleanly, without the use of chemical pesticides.

“You can say you grow organically and that may be true, but I think the MOFGA piece really brings in the documentation part. It’s proof you are growing cleanly,” she said. “A lot of farmers are already doing this and the program will allow them to prove that to their clients.”

Haywood, who teachers classes for caregivers, also sees the program as an opportunity to educate caregivers about safe growing practices. In Maine, all caregivers who make more than $1,000 a year are required to hold a basic pesticide applicator license. When a grower has pathogens or pests take over their garden, they may be tempted to go immediately to a pesticide application so they don’t lose an entire crop. Some could mistakenly use a product intended for an ornamental plant, not plants that are consumed by people, she said.

“I hear lots of stories from patients about caregivers and dispensaries using products that should not be used on cannabis,” Haywood said. “It’s a problem.”

Samantha Brown of South Berwick says she is keenly aware of how the medical marijuana her daughter takes is grown. Kaylee, 5, uses medical marijuana to treat a severe seizure disorder. Brown said it is encouraging to see a program that emphasizes good standards.

“It’s very important for parents to know what pesticides or mold could be in the medicine. If that’s getting into the medicine, it’s getting into our fragile children’s systems,” she said. “It’s important to have clean medicine.”

Green said MOFGA is still working on fine-tuning its standards for cannabis and will spend the winter developing standards for edible marijuana products, which are an increasingly popular way for patients to medicate.

After a year, the MOFGA Board of Directors will assess whether to launch a full certification program. The board will consider interest in the program and whether it makes financial sense for MOFGA to run it, Krueger said. The organization has not yet set fees for the program. The five certified farmers together gave MOFGA $3,000 to pay for their initial certification.

In the meantime, the certified farmers and MOFGA officials will collect the names of caregivers who would be interested in the program. They will run a booth at the Common Ground Fair next week to talk about the program.

Krueger said that kind of outreach is important as the board decides whether to expand certification.

“We’re hoping to get people talking about it a bit,” he said. “This isn’t something that people need to fear. When you see the work these folks have gone through to grow a high quality product, you see you’re dealing with very responsible citizens.”