Opinion: How to prepare for cannabis’ inevitable future as a natural product

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Image of CBD and other products at a health and wellness store

(Photo by Kristina Blokhin/stock.adobe.com)

Image of Ricardo Baca
Ricardo Baca (Courtesy photo)

It was 2015 – not long after adult-use marijuana sales began in Colorado – when regulated cannabis operators began learning the hard way that “organic” was a word the federal and state officials take very seriously.

As the first-ever cannabis editor at a major newspaper (The Denver Post), I noticed when a prominent early player in Denver’s emerging marijuana market changed its signage.

RiverRock Organic Medical Cannabis was no more, but RiverRock Cannabis rose in its place, and the name remains to this day.

While reporting the story, I discovered that the Colorado attorney general was in full investigative mode.

An office spokesperson told me the attorney general was reviewing consumer complaints about cannabis companies “misrepresenting their product when they say ‘organic’ or ‘organically grown.'”

Why? The U.S. Department of Agriculture controls use of the “organic” label and accredits third-party agencies to certify growers and their farming practices.

Since cannabis was federally illegal, it simply couldn’t be certified as organic by the federal government – regardless of the actual growing methods or products used.

That’s still the case nearly a decade later.

Marijuana is still federally illegal, although you’d never know it by scrolling through your social media feed, walking into your neighborhood Whole Foods or even shopping at your local wine-and-beer superstore.

Cannabinoids are everywhere: THC, CBD, CBN and CBG are in everything from mocktails to vitamin gummies and face creams, much of it fearlessly labeled organic or, for the cautious, “made from organically grown hemp.”

While hemp can be organic, intoxicating hemp derivatives legalized by the 2018 Farm Bill are a whole other story.

Poised for change

Cannabis sativa, the plant genus that includes both low-THC hemp and high-THC marijuana, has turned a major corner since Colorado and Washington state first began adult-use sales a decade ago under heavy scrutiny.

Marijuana growers and retailers might have been getting ahead of their skis in 2015 by claiming “organic” designation on labels, but they were stumbling in the right direction.

Cannabis is well on its way to becoming a card-carrying member of the $199 billion (and growing, fast) natural, organic and functional food and beverage industry – not to mention the $22 billion organic, personal-care products market.

In many ways, cannabis products already made the jump; it’s not uncommon to find hemp-derived cannabinoids at your nearby Sephora or CVS.

Federal rescheduling, smart lobbying and consumer demand could soon be the cracks that collapse the dam entirely, flooding the market with products derived from high-THC marijuana plants that can legally be classified as organic, made with good manufacturing practices and accepted by consumers as a legitimate natural product carried on store shelves and in online shopping baskets.

What would that mean for the cannabis marketplace of the future? And what does the currently beleaguered and bruised sector need to do to get ready?

I have a few ideas:

1) Up the game with CGMP

The first prediction is clear: More cannabis companies will adopt Current Good Manufacturing Practice (CGMP) standards, which are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

This move toward standardization and quality control is a necessary step for the industry’s growth and legitimacy.

Actionable insight: Cannabis companies should begin implementing CGMP standards immediately.

This proactive approach not only prepares businesses for future regulatory requirements, but it also enhances product quality, consumer trust and market competitiveness.

Obtaining European Union-GMP certifications – as Canadian companies are doing – can further position U.S. businesses as leaders in global markets.

2) Pursue certification

As the federal government reevaluates marijuana scheduling at its own pace, lobbying for organic certification becomes more tangible.

Actionable insight: Companies should start aligning their cultivation and production processes with organic standards, where possible.

This means investing in organic cultivation methodologies, sourcing materials sustainably and preparing for the rigorous certification process.

As Cypress Hill so wisely rapped, “When the sh*t goes down, ya better be ready.”

3) Focus on cultural acceptance

With 88% of U.S. adults already in favor of legal marijuana for recreational or medical use – and nearly every state in America operating some sort of medical cannabis program – the stage is set for a significant shift in cultural acceptance.

This evolving perception can lead to increased mainstream adoption of cannabis products.

Actionable insight: Cannabis companies should focus on educating the public about the benefits and safety of regulated cannabis, emphasizing its natural, therapeutic properties and broadly agreed-upon medical efficacy.

Push for standardized cannabis testing for the good of the industry.

Collaborations with influencers, participation in community events and transparent marketing practices can help demystify cannabis and reduce stigma.

Engaging in policy advocacy and supporting research into cannabis benefits are also crucial steps in shaping a more cannabis-friendly society.

As cannabis continues its march toward becoming an organic category of the modern natural products and wellness consumer packaged goods industry, its potential economic impact is immense.

Joining the ranks of the natural, organic and functional food and beverage industry – as well as the organic personal-care market – opens up significant opportunities for growth, innovation and investment.

When a cannabis company prioritizes quality, sustainability and education, it is well positioned to contribute to the broader acceptance and success of cannabis as a valuable natural product.

For those ready to adapt, the potential is as vast as it is vibrant.

Ricardo Baca is the former cannabis editor of The Denver Post, a current member of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis-appointed Natural Medicine Advisory Board and the founder and CEO of cannabis marketing and PR firm Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency, which recently expanded with the addition of a natural products marketing/wellness PR practice. He can be reached at ricardo@mygrasslands.com.

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