The Consumer’s Guide to Buying Cannabis

If you’re a savvy shopper, you’re used to meandering the aisles with a keen eye. Spot a new, enticing flavor of cookie, and you’re soon inspecting the ingredients, searching for labels like “Fair Trade Certified” or “Certified Organic,” and raising an eyebrow to claims like “all natural.”

You won’t see many of those familiar certifications when you browse the aisles of your local cannabis dispensary, as they’re federally regulated. How can you be a savvy cannabis shopper if the familiar terms and labels don’t apply? Keep reading — we’ll break down the most common mysteries you’ll find on a craft cannabis package.

Name of the Strain

Going by the name of a cannabis strain on a dispensary menu is only the beginning, said Jeremy Plumb, owner of the Farma dispensary in Portland, Oregon.

“Most people assume that Blue Dream is Blue Dream,” Plumb said. “I can greatly influence the chemotype of Blue Dream. If a plant is grown in different environmental conditions, they would all have a different phenotype and the same genotype.”

But that isn’t to say the name has no meaning. Heritage and small-batch producers often work with carefully cultivated libraries that they know well, Plumb said. “If you took coffee, wine, and beer and put them in one category, cannabis is more complex. THC and CBD, Indica and Sativa, and now people are talking about terpenes,” Plumb said. “I’ve been working with chemists internationally and there is so much more to the story.”

You may not always hear the word “strain,” either. Medical director of PHYTECS, Dr. Ethan Russo, said the word “strain” has no real meaning; the more accurate term is “varietal.” You might also see the term “cultivar” from farmers and breeders, like Kevin Jodrey, owner of Wonderland Nursery in Northern California.

Good Practices

Whether it’s a package of flower, oil, vape pens or infused edibles, the cannabis inside has to be grown somehow — that “how” can make all the difference. If you see “sungrown” or “outdoor” on a label, that cannabis is grown with real sunlight. Huckleberry Hill Farms founder and lead cultivator, John Casali, is a dedicated sungrown farmer in Northern California, and one of many farmers who use both full-term and light deprivation cycles for his outdoor garden. “Light dep” means that farmers trick the plants into thinking it’s always late summer by manipulating the plant’s light cycle, which produces harvests faster. Sometimes this means farmers use artificial lighting in their greenhouses, though Casali does not.

California legislators have made moves to protect the regional pride of cannabis producers by requiring companies that claim their cannabis comes from a particular county be truthful. Where your cannabis is grown can definitely impact what the harvest is like, Casali said. This year he’s growing three different varietals, but it took him decades of sifting through genetics to develop them.

“I’ve tried hundreds of different strains, and I particularly believe that every piece of property has a certain strain that it grows better than any other. Depending on your elevation, depending on your climate,” Casali said. “Someone who grows Fruit Loopz on my property as opposed to somewhere else that’s 3,000 feet in elevation, it might be totally different. It might look different, it might taste different but Fruit Loopz is a strain that I found grows really well [at] Huckleberry Hill Farms.”

As you browse flowers in a dispensary, you might see “regenerative farming” pop up. This refers to an approach to farming that facilitates a diverse, healthy ecosystem in the soil and on the farm. Dia Damon of Nomad’s Landing has always taken that approach, first on her own farm and now as creator of natural farming inputs. “We use a whole farm approach that creates an intricate web of micro-biodiversity,” Dia said. “Ecosystems must be in balance on the farm.”

“Dry farming” is another eco-friendly indicator; a sign of a water-conscious product. Cultivation expert, Kevin Jodrey, said dry farming is a technique “where you plant on alluvial soil plains alongside a river, and as the water table drops throughout the season, the roots chase the water,” he added. “Every night, the soil re-moistens through capillary action from the bottom. What that means is you have this unbelievably balanced system where the plant has just the right amount of what it needs and the minerals are so rich.”

Clean Green Certified

While cannabis farmers can’t apply for organic certification due to federal prohibition, there are other programs that certify sustainable and responsible farming standards.

Attorney Chris Van Hook said he founded Clean Green Certification in California in 2004 because he saw an opportunity to help responsible farmers prove they could meet a higher standard, even when no one was requiring them to do so. To create the program, he looked at the standards for the organic certification program and applied them to cannabis. He inspected farms and processing centers to certify those who met the standards. Since then, Clean Green Certification has expanded to seven other states. If the cannabis is sourced from a Clean Green Certified farm, you’ll see their logo on the packaging. Consumers can also see a list of certified businesses at

Demeter Certified Biodynamic

The Demeter Certified Biodynamic logo may be familiar to some, as this program certified vineyards and farms since 1985. Elizabeth Candelario of the Demeter Association said that in an analysis of 74,000 California wines by the “American Journal of Wine Economics,” eco-certified wines averaged a higher score compared to conventional wines. “The same will be true of biodynamic cannabis,” Candelario said.

But what is biodynamic farming? According to the Demeter Association principles, “In day-to-day practice the goal is to create a farm system that is minimally dependant on imported materials, and instead meets its needs from the living dynamics of the farm itself.” All Certified Biodynamic cannabis is labeled on packaging.

Mike Benziger of Glentucky Family Farms in Sonoma County has been a Certified Biodynamic farmer since 2000. His farm is diverse; he grows 15 different crops, including cannabis. Being sensitive to the rhythm of nature is crucial, as is the attitude and intention of the farmer, he said.

“To craft is to create,” Benziger said. “The farmer and the plant work together.”

Compliant Farms Certified

Founded by watershed expert, Hollie Hall, and permaculture professional, Dan Mar, in Northern California, this certification program holds farmers to high standards.

Farmers must go beyond being able to produce a clean harvest. The Compliant Farms Certification brings together adaptive watershed management and sustainable permaculture practices. What does that mean? That farmers must be responsible stewards of their soil and their local waterways. John Casali of Huckleberry Hill Farms is a proud Compliant Farms Certified farmer, and said he intends to set the standards for fish-friendly craft cannabis. Look for the Compliant Farms Certified logo.

Dragonfly Earth Medicine Pure

Dragonfly Farm is a family farm that has set its own standards for the industry. The Dragonfly Earth Medicine Pure Certification is “sought after and given to gardeners that are already on the path of ecological regeneration, growing high quality healthy medicine, and food and education for the next generation of healthy cannabis growers,” according to their website. “Having a DEM Pure Cert recognizes that a farmer is utilizing solely regenerative and biologically intelligent practices.”


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Emerald contributor since December 2016


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