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BERKELEY - Mendocino County, the rugged California outpost that was first in the nation to ban genetically modified crops, is striding toward a new agriculture frontier with a proposal to certify medical marijuana as organic.
The notion of pesticide-free pot is eliciting a few chuckles. But county officials, who are waiting to hear back from the state agriculture secretary about their proposal, say the issue is quite serious – with no system to regulate cultivation, consumers are at risk.
"We regulate wine grape growers and pear growers and everybody else, so why shouldn't we also regulate pot growers?" said Tony Linegar, assistant agricultural commissioner for Mendocino County. "It's really an agricultural crop. In our estimate it should be subject to a lot of the same laws and regulations as commercial agriculture."
If the county got the go-ahead to regulate organic medical marijuana it would be "absolutely a first," said Allen St. Pierre of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Nationally, several states have approved medical marijuana, but federal authorities adamantly oppose the idea.
Meanwhile, medical marijuana has slowly moved toward the mainstream, albeit in piecemeal fashion, with local law enforcement agencies issuing "user cards," and insurance companies honoring claims for stolen plants.
Regulating cultivation would be "a huge leap in the public discourse and policy making in that it recognizes that medical cannabis is legal but it needs to have some sort of local controls placed on it," said St. Pierre.
In Mendocino County, where two medical marijuana growers have asked for organic certification, Linegar said he and his colleagues are looking for some direction.
Mendocino County Agricultural Commissioner Dave Bengston wrote to the state department of food and agriculture last month, asking if the county can certify pot as organic and if employees should be inspecting marijuana nurseries to check for pests and other problems as they do with other crops.
Department spokesman Jay Van Rein said Monday the secretary is evaluating the request.
Linegar said he could not estimate how much marijuana is grown in Mendocino County, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, although it generally is considered prime pot territory.
The first time someone brought in a pot plant for a health check, was "awkward," he said.
Problems facing marijuana growers range from mites and mildew for indoor operations to the cornmeal worm outdoors.
With no products officially developed for marijuana cultivation, some growers have been using chemicals intended for ornamental plants, which could make users sick, said Linegar.
Mendocino set a pot precedent in 2000 with a ballot issue allowing residents to grow a small amount of marijuana - the move was largely symbolic since state and federal prohibitions rule.
Last year, county voters passed a first-in-the-nation measure banning the raising of genetically engineered plants and animals.
"When things like this crop up it's almost our county that's on the cutting left edge if you will," Linegar said. "When I'm discussing these issues with my counterparts in other counties, they really can't relate to the problems that we're facing in Mendocino. They laugh sometimes. But to us it's really a serious issue."