Words like “terroir” and “elevation” have long been associated with wine, but they’ll soon become essential in the cannabis industry.
California is leading the way, as the first jurisdiction in the world to propose appellations for cannabis, as they exist for wine, like Champagne. An “appellation of origin,” as defined by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Cannabis Appellation Program, is “a protected designation that identifies the geograpical [sic] origin of a product and usually includes production requirements.”
But five years have passed since the program was introduced, and no such appellations have been established. The program’s homepage reads: “Prior to accepting petitions to establish an appellation, the Department is developing the administrative structure for the appellations program and establishing a review structure to support the fair and thorough evaluation of petitions.” And: “CDFA intends to announce the opening of appellation of origin petition acceptance in 2022.”
The reasons behind this slow pace were made clear during a “stakeholder workshop” hosted by the CDFA in June to provide an overview of the program’s long and winding road, and where that road is headed.
Francis Bean, a senior environmental scientist within the CDFA’s Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation, which oversees the Cannabis Appellation Program, led the meeting. Also present from the office were Keir Furey and Eric Duran.
Bean began with an overview of the program’s history.
In 2016, voters approved Proposition 64 at the ballot box, which legalized cannabis for adults. The state’s adult use law tasks CDFA with crafting regulations for the establishment of a cannabis “appellation of origin.”
Over time, as regulations were being drafted, there was some debate over which places and spaces counted as an “appellation.” For example, as Cannabis Wire reported, indoor growers in southern California pushed CDFA for their own recognition.
Then came SB 67, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in September 2020. This law makes it clear that the definition of an appellation “excludes the practices of using artificial lighting and structures in flowering areas.” In other words, the cannabis must be grown outdoors, in full sun, and in the ground.
What all of this meant is that between February 2020, when the first draft regulations were released, and this January, when the final regulations took effect, they were revised multiple times.
And, in the middle of that came AB 141, signed into law in 2021, which consolidated almost all cannabis regulatory oversight – which was spread across several entities, including CDFA – under a newly-formed Department of Cannabis Control (DCC). While the appellations program stayed under CDFA’s purview, some relevant aspects of enforcement and record keeping went to DCC.
“The impact on our program was confusing and dramatic. We lost authority over portions of the regulations that we were trying to propagate,” Bean said.
Bean then turned to what is required in a petition for an appellation. This includes, for example, descriptions of the area and its boundaries, the geographical features relevant to the cannabis grown there, the history and economic significance of cannabis in that area, and, importantly, “evidence of name use.”
“And that’s a real interesting one,” Bean said, referencing name use. “And it’s important. It looks like it’s a very simple one, but it gets to the essence of: what is an appellation of origin?”
Such a name cannot just be made up, he said, and it must represent, specifically, the geographic area, which, he noted, could be tough for particularly rural or unknown areas. And, as it is representing an area of cannabis production and its “practices and cultivars,” it will “require a certain amount of consensus from the cultivators in the area.”
In taking questions, Furey was clear that there is still “months” of work ahead before any petitions will be accepted, because the department still needs time “to iron this stuff out.”
For example, there were questions during the session around ownership of names and enforcement of name use. Bean was clear that nobody would ever own an appellation name, that the name belonged to the area laid out in the petition, and that a cultivator not following the language of the petition would not be able to use the name. However, Bean said, the enforcement piece is an open question, and one that needs to be sorted with the newly-formed Department of Cannabis Control.
Among the issues raised by attendees is the reality that there are many existing cannabis companies in the state that use specific geographies in their brand names. For example, a quick search on California’s regulatory database shows entities with “Humboldt” and “Emerald” as part of their business names. It is unclear whether and how those companies could continue using those brand names if that particular area becomes an appellation. Another open question is whether a cannabis appellation could share the same geographic area as a wine appellation.
Among the other details still being sorted, for example, are whether there will be a public database of pending petitions so that petitioners would know whether there were similar appellation-forming efforts underway. A lot of comments during the session came in support of an official seal, but CDFA has so far decided against it. Several commenters also emphasized the importance of sub-appellations, or appellations within appellations.