California cannabis growers are one step closer to appellation designations, legally defined and protected geographical indicators of origin that would allow for the creation of the cannabis equivalent of Champagne.
On Wednesday, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) held its final hearing on cannabis appellations, a first-of-its-kind program for which proposed regulations were released on February 21. (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of another first-of-its-kind cannabis agriculture program taking shape in the state: comparable-to-organic standards.)
After two hours of testimony, there were two major takeaways: appellations could provide an important advantage to legal growers, some who are struggling financially, as they compete against the state’s persistent illicit market; and, cannabis stakeholders in northern California are urging a “terroir” based approach to appellations. (“Terroir” is a French term that generally refers to the natural environment in which a specific type of wine is made, and to the earth or soil in which the grapes are grown.)
The CDFA has been tasked with crafting regulations for “use of origin designations.” Humboldt County, for example, or Mendocino, have long been known for their cannabis quality. These regulations will also guide the future of advertising, marketing, labeling, and packaging of cannabis products claiming these origins. (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of the process to establish appellations, which began in 2018).
When the Cannabis Appellations Program is up and running in January 2021, it will aim to “promote regional cannabis products and local businesses, prevent the misrepresentation of a cannabis product’s origin, and support consumer confidence about a cannabis product’s origin and characteristics.”
Along with the intense interest in appellations, there’s some concern about who will be able to secure an appellation, and who won’t. The Southern California Coalition, for example, made their case last year to the CDFA, calling upon the agency to consider the circumstances of indoor cultivators in the LA area when crafting regulations for how cannabis must be grown to qualify for the program.
Early in the public hearing, Genine Coleman, the founder and executive director of Origins Council, spoke. The nonprofit education, research and policy advocacy organization, Coleman said, has partnered with trade associations “representing renowned legacy cannabis producing regions of California,” including the Trinity County Agricultural Alliance, the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, the Sonoma County Growers Alliance and the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance and the Big Sur Farmers Association.
These groups formed the O.C. Regional Council, the policy body of Origins Council, and conducted a “technical analysis,” which Coleman highlighted during public comment.
“We propose an appellation of origin shall not be established unless the cannabis produced is planted in the ground in open air with no artificial light during the flowering stage of cultivation until harvest,” Coleman said. “Appellation designations derive their value from their exclusivity and literal connection to the land and collectively we don’t think these regulations go far enough to ensure this connection.”
Ross Gordon, policy director with Humboldt County Growers Alliance, agreed with Coleman, and pushed for the necessity of a “terroir baseline,” which will be “absolutely critical to the success of the appellations program.”
Casey O’Neill, a small farmer in Mendocino County, said he was born and raised in the area, and while he gave his testimony, he stood outside his father’s back door, “looking at cannabis and are planted with lettuce and leeks, onions, beets, apple trees, and it’s planted in the ground.”
O’Neill said that appellations “have always been intended to be terroir based.”
“And I think it is of utmost importance that that be enshrined in the legislation. To see that not happen would be fairly devastating. It would feel like a real blow to all of the work,” O’Neill said.
Omar Figueroa, a cannabis lawyer for more than two decades, emphasized that the entire cannabis supply chain will reap the benefit from the “premium value added by a properly functioning appellations program.” Figueroa also called for terroir baseline standards for the appellations program.
“It is critical that appellations of origin require that cannabis be an expression of the place where it is grown. It’s a recognition of an amazing fact of nature that the particular characteristics of the natural geography result in unique products that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world,” Figueroa said.
Diana Gamza, the executive director of the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance, called the creation of appellations “a defining moment for our industry,” and talked about how the Nevada County region is home to generations of cannabis growers who have worked to hone their craft over decades.
Gamza suggested that the program’s requirements be expanded to include “social practices.”
“It is critical that we expand the scope beyond just the plant and method of cultivation. Many of our historic standards and practices go beyond this, such as donating to nonprofits or maintaining roads,” Gamza said.
Eleanor Kuntz spoke on behalf of Canndor Herbarium, “the only cannabis devoted herbarium in the world,” and emphasized the importance of cultivars, or a plant variety produced through selective breeding.
“Establishing cultivars in the cannabis space is a fundamental aspect of the entire program. Without the knowledge of cultivars, it will be very difficult to draw the link between the uniqueness of the plant and place,” Kuntz said. “The value of the cultivars that exist in the California market is globally recognized and failing to establish these cultivars within the appelatory system will do detriment to the entire system and will lessen the value of the appellations that are put into place.”
Heather Burke, a Nevada City lawyer, spoke on behalf of her firm, Origin Group Law, about how a terroir program would result in “increased consumer trust,” which would in turn increase the value of the appellations program to the farmers.
“This heightened integrity offered in such a scenario would serve to lessen the adverse economic impact of petitioning for and maintaining an appellation of origin to the many hundreds or thousands of cannabis farmers who could take advantage of this program in the coming years,” Burke said.
“To be sure, our state’s cannabis farmers are suffering. So, an already complex regulatory transition has been exacerbated by one regulatory or land use pummeling after another. However, if the agency can amend the regulations toward a terroir-based program, California could someday lead an international cannabis marketplace,” Burke added.
Given that some smaller cannabis farmers continue to suffer financially, Michael Katz, co-founder of the Emerald Exchange, suggested lowering any associated fees, and extending the time period that they can be paid, because upfront costs aren’t going to be conducive to a program that’s aimed at helping small farmers succeed.
“Right now, cannabis is not a cash cow for many small farmers and small businesses who are participating in it. And it’s a system like this that will enable them to survive and thrive in the future by being able to charge a premium for their product,” Katz said.
Michael Krawitz, the executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, said that appellations and cannabis “share a fundamental therapeutic action: that of regulating system balance.”
“The appellation of origin system is profound, the rarest of economic and regulatory tools embodying not just the capacity to preserve and protect our world’s agriculture and medicinal traditions, but also to harmonize the social, economic and environmental imbalances of a global economy impacted by sweeping commodification of our natural and cultural resources over the last century,” Krawitz said.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this article has been updated to correctly identify Casey O’Neill.