Is Your Weed Vegan?
Cultivating plants isn’t typically as cruelty-free as one might hope, but veganic growers are trying to change that
It sounds like a question straight out of a Portlandia sketch, but vegan cannabis is a real thing! If you’ve ever seen a “veganic” strain at your local dispensary, you’ve already encountered it.
Hold up — isn’t marijuana, a plant, already vegan?
Not necessarily, depending on how strictly you define the parameters of your veganism. Before you hit your next pre-roll or take that strawberry-flavored edible, here’s everything you need to know about vegan-friendly weed and how to find it.
Why does this exist?
Marijuana is a plant, yes, but the way it’s grown can be anything but cruelty-free. “When medical cannabis was first passed [legally in California] as an alternative treatment in the ’90s, not many people seemed to think about the fertilizers and pesticides used to produce [it],” says Barry Warman, executive of sales for Bio-Veganic, a plant-based cannabis nutrient system.
If you buy organic fertilizer, it almost definitely contains bone or blood meal, which are both made from slaughterhouse waste and comprise a major revenue source for the beef, fish, and poultry industries.
Cannabis farmers, like other farmers, need healthy soil to grow healthy plants. The fertilizer you use at home and fertilizers used in agriculture have something in common: they likely contain chemical-based growing additives like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, as well as other metals like zinc. If you buy organic fertilizer, it’ll be chemical-free, but it almost definitely contains bone or blood meal, which are both made from slaughterhouse waste and comprise a major revenue source for the beef, fish, and poultry industries.
So in the same way that a tomato might be grown with cow manure or fish meal-based fertilizer, cannabis is also grown with animal products.
Now that cannabis is legal for recreational use in 11 states and in D.C. — and for medical use in almost all of the rest — many users can be selective about what they choose to consume, whether it’s a specific THC-to-CBD ratio, a locally grown gram, or just a really cutely-packaged cookie. For a community of veganic growers, taking the extra step to provide consumers with cannabis that’s grown veganically and sustainably is worth the work.
The veganic method
Veganic cannabis strains might still be niche, but they comprise a growing (heh) cottage industry. In fact, a veganic high-CBD strain won a first place prize in the High Times Cannabis Cup in 2016, and Veganic Strawberry Cough took home second place for Best U.S. Sativa Flower in 2015. Popular strains you might have seen include Veganic Starkiller OG and Veganic Platinum Cookies, which is grown from a clone of the popular Girl Scout Cookies strain. Buds and Roses dispensary in Los Angeles often has several different veganic strains in stock, including Veganic Royal Highness.
It’s important to note that the legal cannabis industry has no regulatory way to certify bud as “organic” or “vegan.” (The closest you can get is something called the “Clean Green” certification for sustainably and naturally grown products.) But since you can unofficially grow cannabis veganically, how does it work?
First, a little gardening 101. At your local grocery store, you’ve probably noticed organic produce sitting right next to non-organic, or conventional, produce. Those non-organic carrots were grown with fertilizers like you find at any big-box home or hardware store, which are usually made by combining synthetic elemental salts — mainly nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. (Synthetic pesticides and herbicides are also used in conventional farming, and unless otherwise specified, GMOs.)
The organic carrots definitely cost more, but that’s because they were farmed using a more natural method. To be USDA-certified organic, a vegetable cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge, and it can’t be genetically engineered or irradiated. But it can be grown with animal products. So instead of being fortified with mineral salts, your organic carrots might have been fertilized with manure or bone meal.
“Veganic” farming combines two growing philosophies: organic and vegan. Veganic plants are grown both organically — without the aforementioned synthetic fertilizers or pesticides — and vegan. Because traditional organic farming often uses biological fertilizers like manure, veganic takes it one step further by eschewing any of the typical animal by-product ingredients like cow manure, fish meal, or bat guano.
“People who are vegan are definitely drawn to vegan cultivation, but there are a myriad of reasons to take some out of the organic animal production of growing cannabis.”
The practice of veganic farming has been around for a while, perhaps first highlighted by an Irish gardening enthusiast named Maye Bruce in her 1940 book on composting, From Vegetable Waste to Fertile Soil. But it’s master grower Kyle Kushman who really put veganic cannabis on the weed map. An award-winning cannabis cultivator, Kushman is the founder of Vegamatrix, a line of veganic bottled nutrients for growing without the use of animal products.
“People who are vegan are definitely drawn to vegan cultivation,” Kushman says, “but there are a myriad of reasons to take some out of the organic animal production of growing cannabis.”
When it comes to farming, cannabis plants in particular are especially finicky, requiring things like microbial inoculants and carbon dioxide tanks to produce healthy plants. And one thing they definitely require? Special nutrients to thrive. A small sector of veganic cannabis nutrient mixes like Kushman’s has sprung up, including the previously mentioned Bio-Veganic and the Dutch-based Canna company’s BioCanna line.
Besides these pre-fab mixes, veganic gardening has developed several interesting alternatives to both chemical and animal-based farming. “Green manure,” also referred to as cover crops, is a term for plants grown specifically to be dug back into the soil to fertilize it. (Common plants used as cover crops are legumes and grasses.) Alfalfa meal is a plant-based substitute for blood meal, which is often added to commercial fertilizers to boost nitrogen in soil, and a hay mulch can expedite the natural composting and worming processes. One of the most popular veganic methods is to use a good compost tea, made by steeping compost in aerated water for an even richer fertilizer. (Really hardcore people can use human urine and “humanure” from compost toilets — and to go even farther, some will use only the waste from people who eat vegan diets.)
Does it taste different?
Without having to fight through synthetic chemicals and animal products, the theory goes, a plant like cannabis can grow in peace and nurture a balanced pH soil. But let’s get down to brass tacks: Does vegan-grown weed taste or smoke better?
“When you light a bowl of veganic weed or a joint, as that cherry cools, it doesn’t extinguish. You’ll be able to smoke a bowl or a joint in less than a minute.”
Veganic cannabis proponents say vegan Mary Jane does provide a cleaner smoke with less residue; Kushman claims that users can taste or smoke a palpable difference.
“When you inhale veganic weed for the very first time, you will note how smooth it is,” he says. “The flavors are much more prominent. You can taste the terpene profile much more because you’re not also tasting metals. When you light a bowl of veganic weed or a joint, as that cherry cools, it doesn’t extinguish. You’ll be able to smoke a bowl or a joint in less than a minute.”
Kushman and others claim it can also make you cough less.
“Smoked veganic cannabis won’t produce noxious fumes that tend to be associated with the notorious cannabis cough,” says Adam Siskin, founder of the website Cannaplayground.
“From personal experience, the flowers are definitely a smoother smoke. [The cannabis] has a better taste, and when the joint paper burns, it burns white smoke and ash instead of dark black or gray you would see with commercial fertilizers,” Warman says.
For smokers, that all surely sounds great. But just how valid are these claims that veganic cannabis is healthier for your body?
Dr. Robert Flannery, founder of Dr. Robb Farms and the first PhD in the United States with certified technical expertise in growing commercial cannabis, says that even if a plant is grown veganically, it will still contain mineral nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.
“Plants, cannabis included, can only absorb mineral nutrients through the root system to provide nutrition for the plants,” Flannery says. “This means that regardless of whether I use an organic fertilizer, a veganic fertilizer, or a mineral nutrient to fertilize my plants, the plant is only going to absorb mineral nutrients.”
Flannery says he’s heard the arguments that mineral nutrients cause a harsher smoke because of the presence of fertilizer salts inside the flower.
“However, I am here to say that even if you use veganic nutrients, the plant will still only absorb mineral nutrients,” he says. “The plant will still have those salts in its tissue regardless of the type of fertilizer.”
Why veganic growing matters
But even for tokers who might be skeptical, benefits to vegan weed extend beyond just the experience. Veganic growing techniques don’t only result in allegedly cleaner Mary Jane; they’re safer for the planet. Farmers of all types would do well to minimize their use of traditional chemical fertilizers; runoff from these products pollutes waterways by spawning algal blooms that pull valuable oxygen from the water. Nutrient runoff from the Mississippi River watershed has already created one such large low oxygen “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, choking off marine plants and animals.
By cutting back on demand for animal by-product-based fertilizers, consumers can send a powerful message to the meat industry.
Veganic fertilizers also boosts a plant’s bio-availability, which refers to how much nutrient it’s able to absorb. “Regular” fertilizer is received by soil as a foreign substance, but organic nutrients more closely resemble forms of nutrients plants would be exposed to in their environment and are more readily absorbed by the plant, leaving behind richer and more fertile soil.
Finally, factory farming, which generates the bone and blood meal used in organic fertilizers, is not only harmful to animals, people, and the economy, it’s also resource- inefficient, taking up increasing amounts of farmland and water that could be used for plant agriculture or housing. By cutting back on demand for animal by-product-based fertilizers, consumers can send a powerful message to the meat industry.
If you’re a vegan who consumes cannabis, vegan weed might still not be a concern for you! After all, even the most cautious vegan will accidentally consume an animal by-product now and then. And unless you ensure every piece of produce you eat was grown veganically, you will end up confronting the same issues.
For vegans looking to incorporate plant-based ethical consumption into all aspects of their lives, or anyone who’s keen to know more about what they put into their bodies, choosing sustainably-grown and vegan-conscious cannabis certainly can’t hurt.
“Once you introduce cannabis into your life, at any level,” Kushman says, “you tend to learn to live a healthier, better life of more introspection.”
How to cruelty-proof your cannabis
If you grow
Since there’s no official “vegan” certification growers can obtain, Kushman says the only foolproof way to make sure your cannabis is truly vegan is to grow it yourself. If it’s legal to grow in your state, invest in a nutrient mix like Kushman’s Vegamatrix, and make a good compost tea to further feed your plants. Steeping some of your compost in aerated water makes a rich and potent fertilizer; ingredients like kelp and molasses can give your compost a boost to get those healthy bacteria and fungi multiplying faster.
If you shop
Veganic strains can commonly be found at dispensaries in legal states. Since the legal cannabis industry is still largely unregulated, there’s no certified “organic” or “veganic” label, but some states make it easier to see how your cannabis was grown. Colorado, for example, requires that every commercially grown recreational cannabis product list all ingredients used for cultivation.
If you dig edibles
Check out vegan brands like Ganja Goddess that offer dairy-free edibles, and always check a product’s ingredient list for the usual suspects like carmine and gelatin.
Veganic gardening methods are useful for more than just cannabis! Here’s a good guide to get started if you want to try making your backyard or fire escape garden veganic. Vegetarian potting mixes, like this one from Dr. Earth, are free of chemicals and animal by-products. At the grocery store, you can also look for products from veganic companies like One Degree Foods, which uses only plant-based fertilizers in its agriculture.