By Mitchell Colbert
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the US Department of the Treasury (TTB) defines an appellation of origin as: a country, US state (or the foreign equivalent), US county (or the foreign equivalent), a multi-county appellation of up to three counties, or a government recognized viticultural area. What is key to all parts of the TTB’s definition of an appellation is that they are based on geography. According to the federal registrar, California has more than 180 American Viticultural Areas, which form the backbone for wine appellations in the state.
The California cannabis industry is finally getting their first appellations this year, and they have learned a thing or two from the wine industry about how to craft thoughtful appellations. I had the pleasure of interviewing Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association (CGA), someone who has been advocating for appellations in the cannabis industry for more than a decade.
Wine Industry Network (WIN): As I recall, the California Growers Association has been trying to create cannabis appellations for nearly three years, how does it feel to finally have them and be able to shift your focus to crafting what those standards will look like?
Hezekiah Allen (HA): For me personally, this goes all the way back to 2006. This is one of the only things that has really made sense to me about regulation. I’ve struggled long and hard to be sure that regulation will be a net positive for the world, because if it comes with all the downsides of investment capitalism, I’m not sure it would be a net positive. I know a lot of folks with deeper roots on the growing side have similar feelings, we have struggled with this for a long time. It isn’t that we want to keep our profits and keep it illegal, it’s that we want to be outside of that system of consumer capitalism.
With CGA, our core values are inclusivity, transparency, and accountability. The spirit of inclusivity will be key to prop up the system of appellations and have the trust of the growers, we need to ensure that anyone who wants to get licensed and be part of this system can be, and that it’s not all about money. Transparency also will be necessary, which is why we’ve been having open public meetings. This is a chance for the diverse cannabis tribes from all over the state to come together and share their oral histories, which were never written down before, because writing could become evidence. Accountability is huge, and that is where bringing in the California Department of Food and Agriculture will help, they are credible and accountable.
WIN: SB 94, the newest incarnation of Governor Brown’s trailer bill, contains a provision to transfer responsibility of creating appellations to the Department of Food and Agriculture from the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation (BMCR). Further, it empowers them to “establish appellations of standards, practices, and varietals applicable to cannabis grown in a certain geographical area in California.” Do you feel this is a good shift, giving that authority to the Department of Food and Agriculture rather than the BMCR?
HA: Yes, absolutely. To give you a bit of backstory, there was a drafting error back in 2015 and because of the ways these bills build on each other this is the second time we have had to redo this. Prop 64 undid a previous revision we already made, and now we have fixed it again. It really should be with the Department of Food and Agriculture. The addition of standards, practices, and varietals is huge. When we crafted and proposed them, we wanted to capture the intangible values in the CA marketplace. As a disclaimer, this is speculative, all we have now are a few words in that law.
- Standards: Objective, and they come from experts in their field. For example, we want the Public Utility Commission to create a carbon-neutral standard.
- Practices: To be determined by the grower (an expert in their field). Take the idea of being hand-grown or hand-trimmed – culturally, what does that mean? If you want to be technical, everyone is using a machine (i.e. shovels or scissors).
- Varietals: This is our collective experience, created by crossing the folklore and anecdotes with the botanical facts. We want to make sure existing strains never get patented, if they are commonly existing now, then they should be going forward. If someone wants to start with what we have now and then develop something new, that’s different. We are concerned about the strains that have been around for years and wary of private IP claims being made on them. (i.e. “I’m the guy who got the bag of seeds at the Grateful Dead show and now I own OG Kush.”)
- Geography: This is the easiest to figure out, we all have maps of California.
WIN: On a related topic, with wine, appellations are determined by the viticultural area, which is based off of water basin and governmental boundaries. How are appellations going to be defined for cannabis?
HA: We can have water based appellations and there is nothing preventing that, but we are defining it and setting it up differently. On a tangential note, increasing awareness of the hydrology of California is one of the most important things we can focus on, and using those water basins is a great way to put the term “watersheds” into the average consumer’s mind. I think this will be a great tool to help consumers better attach their purchases to real world outcomes. We are definitely next-leveling it, drawing from international cheese and olive standards, as well as embedding the social consciousness of Fair Trade thinking, and we cannot understate the role that the wine industry has played in the process.
WIN: SB 94 includes standards which prevent false advertising of cannabis that is “likely to mislead consumers as to the origin of the product.” Do you feel the standards created by SB 94 are strong enough to prevent people from misappropriating an appellation to boost sales?
HA: I think that it is an objective and fair starting point, but it’s not necessarily as strong as it could be, and there are some loopholes. It does clearly state the intent and folks who try to exploit loopholes now should watch out down the road. As a first step they look great, the spirit is clear and the mechanisms to strengthen it are there, but we are definitely not done yet.
WIN: Do you know of any sort of appellation map they are using? Or has no one mapped it yet because they aren’t crafted yet?
HA: We are publishing our first draft of our map to be unveiled at the Wine and Weed Symposium in August, it will just feature counties that have canna-cultural heritage. It is going to be really exciting, but we aren’t putting any new lines on the map, just going over the 15 or so counties with a history of growing.
Hezekiah Allen will be speaking and presenting updates on appellations and other cannabis industry news at the Wine & Weed Symposium on August 3rd in Santa Rosa, CA. For tickets and more information, visit www.Wine-Weed.com.