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Which Dangerous Toxins Are in Your Pot?

Your weed might be gnarlier than you think. So what's an eco-conscious stoner to do?

| Mon Jan. 31, 2011 5:30 AM EST

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 Diazinon, 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."

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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.

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