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Market for ethically dope cannabis grows in S.F.

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Jesse Henry, executive director of SoMa dispensary Barbary Coast, poses with cannabis products in sustainable packaging. (Robyn Purchia)

It’s no secret San Franciscans appreciate dope dope. In the immortal words of RBL Posse’s 1992 rap hit, don’t give us no bammer weed.

But quality cannabis is only one of our demands. City markets have long carried sustainable products of all kinds. Well before major outlets jumped on the organic bandwagon, small local businesses, like Veritable Vegetable, promoted better farming practices and policies. San Franciscans have standards.

Now that California cannabis is becoming more regulated, it’s easier for San Franciscans to apply our ethics to inhalables and edibles. On July 1st, labeling and quality rules went into effect, including contaminant testing requirements. Finally, after decades of trusting whatever dealers provided, there’s some quality assurance.

This assurance should grow as the market matures. On January 1, 2021, the state will establish a program for designating and certifying cannabis as organic. Retailers are also voluntarily incorporating better packaging standards.

San Franciscans should show our support by creating the same demand we’ve sparked for other more sustainable and ethical products, like strawberries, meat and coffee.

For decades, marijuana existed in society’s shadow. The lack of government oversight meant cultivators and distributors – who were criminals – could put anything on the market. Growers could decide the type and amount of pesticides they used. Dealers could sell marijuana sprayed with toxins like paraquat used by government officials to kill plants. A 1986 Stanford study found that “the most definite health hazard” of cannabis was contamination.

“Obviously, pesticide usage was rampant because there was nobody regulating it and these crops are so valuable,” Zachary Eisenberg, vice president of San Francisco’s Anresco Laboratories, told me.

This dangerous tradition for cultivators and users continued as states began legalizing marijuana. Two years ago, Anresco tested approximately 100 samples for various contaminants at HempCon, a leading cannabis trade show. Eisenberg described the experience as eye opening. Close to 80 percent of the products they tested failed because of high levels of pesticides.

“The levels were alarming,” he said. “In food, we find about 0.1 parts per million of contaminants. In cannabis, we found up to 100 or 200 ppm.”

Thankfully, levels of contaminants are a lot less now than a year ago, according to Eisenberg. This could be due, in part, to better management.

Harmful chemicals aren’t always necessary for successful cannabis cultivation. If plants are grown in properly-ventilated, clean rooms, growers can avoid pesticides completely. Even outdoor cultivation doesn’t always require spraying compounds.

“Cannabis is a robust plant and may have natural insecticide properties,” Agricultural Commissioner Cree Morgan told me.

Government oversight is forcing suppliers to reexamine traditions too. As of July 1st, all cannabis must pass tests for pesticides, mold and other contaminants. As future requirements go into effect, the quality of our weed should improve more.

But San Franciscans know there is a difference between permitted food and sustainable food. Products certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture and fair trade meet stricter standards. Along with being safe to eat, they also promote an ecological balance and empowered workforce.

They also tend to be more expensive. While it’s hard to know the cost now, cannabis will probably not be an exception. Jesse Henry, executive director of Barbary Coast, said the new July 1st regulations have already increased prices, even though the SoMa dispensary has provided tested products since 2013.

But Henry believes quality is still important and supports an organic standard. Along with stocking their shelves with tested products, Barbary Coast also serves some sustainably-packaged cannabis. Their SoMa location, as well as locations Moe Greens on Market and Barbary Coast Sunset on Irving opening later this year, will adopt the same philosophy.

“It’s making sure we’re selling the best experience and the best medicine,” Henry told me. “To me, whether it’s recreational or medicinal, it’s still medicine.”

For so long, San Franciscans had to trust our medicine was healthy. Now we can know. We know retailers’ stock has been tested and verified. We know there are ways of growing cannabis without pesticides. It’s finally possible to get high without such dire health and environmental impacts.

Those who can afford it, should push businesses to adopt even better standards. Along with an adaptable organic standard for cannabis in California, we should demand better packaging and labor ethics. Like our support for sustainable food, San Franciscans can spark knowledge and change across the country.

We have come a long way since refusing to smoke bammer weed. Now we can be snobby stoners in the SFC.

Testing cannabis for pesticides, mold and other contaminants at Anresco Laboratories in the Bayview. (Robyn Purchia)

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Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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