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County eyes organic marijuana

Growers in Calif. seek regulation

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Growers of medical marijuana in Mendocino County -- a Northern California outpost that is home to vegans, vintners, libertarians, and aging hippies -- want to have their crops certified as organic.

The notion of pesticide-free marijuana makes some people chuckle. But county officials say the issue is serious, and they are asking the state whether they can regulate marijuana growing and declare some crops organic.

With no system to regulate cultivation, consumers are at risk, they say.

''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."

California, one of 11 states with laws on medical marijuana, allows people to grow, smoke, or obtain marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. Around the country, medical marijuana has slowly moved toward the mainstream, as local law enforcement agencies issue user cards and insurance companies honor claims for stolen plants.

If the county got the go-ahead to regulate organic medical marijuana, it would be ''absolutely a first," said Allen St. Pierre, of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. 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."

Acting on a request from two marijuana growers who want their crops to be certified organic, and concerned by reports of illness in another county from pesticide-treated marijuana, Dave Bengston, agricultural commissioner of Mendocino County, wrote to the state Department of Food and Agriculture last month. Bengston asked whether the county can certify marijuana as organic and whether employees should inspect marijuana nurseries to check for pests and other problems as they do with other crops.

Department spokesman Jay Van Rein said last week that the secretary is studying the request.

Marijuana plants can be threatened by mites, mildew, and cornmeal worms. But with no products officially developed for marijuana cultivation, some growers use chemicals intended for ornamental plants, which could make users sick, Linegar said.

Linegar said he could not estimate how much marijuana is grown in Mendocino County, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, but not all of it is grown for medicinal purposes.

The first time someone brought in a marijuana plant for a health check, it was ''awkward," Linegar said.

Last year, Mendocino County voters passed a first-in-the-nation measure banning the raising of genetically engineered plants and animals. In 2000, Mendocino set a precedent with a ballot issue allowing residents to grow a small amount of marijuana. The move was symbolic, as state and federal prohibitions rule.

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