Applying for a medical cultivation license in California is as simple as checking a box: check the medicinal cannabis cultivation box for an M-license or the adult-use cannabis cultivation box for an A-license, and there is no indication that you can’t check both boxes. No matter which you choose, the application and licensing fees are identical.

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Cannabis laws in CaliforniaThere is also no difference in the guidelines for cultivators of medicinal vs. recreational weed. All cannabis harvested on or after January 1, 2018, must be lab tested for the following components: cannabinoids, moisture content, category I and II residual solvents and processing chemicals, category I and II residual pesticides, microbial impurities, homogeneity, terpenoids, mycotoxins, heavy metals, and water activity. Licensed cannabis lab testing facilities are responsible for determining whether or not the product complies with the California Code of Regulations Title 16, Division 42.

In summary, recreational and medical cannabis cultivators must follow the exact same regulations, pay the same fees, and fill out the same application. The only difference between the two comes down to which box the applicant checked—medical cultivation or recreational cultivation. With that in mind, there doesn’t seem to be a reason not to apply for a medical grow license while there are numerous reasons why it is a strategic idea.

Why Applying for a Medical License is a Smart Move

Indoor cannabis growWhile there isn’t a difference on the cultivation side of medical or recreational cannabis, there is a difference when it comes to the market each type of cultivator serves. Recreational cannabis users are adults aged 21 and over looking to relax and have a good time. Some of them may certainly benefit medically from their consumption of the plant, but this is more of an added benefit than a matter of necessity.

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Medical marijuana patients, on the other hand, can be extremely young pediatric patients. Depending on the condition they are using cannabis to medicate, they may be particularly vulnerable to infection. Additionally, medical patients who choose to seek out medical cannabis cards now that recreational cannabis is available are probably experiencing debilitating symptoms and need a substantial amount of cannabis to function at their optimal level. For these patients, cannabis is not just about having fun.  Sure, it is probably the most enjoyable medication they’ve ever taken, but at the end of the day, it is about living with an improved quality of life.

So why should a grower apply for a medical license? Growing medical cannabis aligns the producer with medical dispensaries and medical processors.  This allows the producer to target consumers with specific needs who may be looking for a validating label letting them know that the weed they are purchasing was grown with them in mind. That is to say, it was grown safely and with the knowledge that immunocompromised individuals are vulnerable to cannabis tainted with dangerous pathogens and chemicals. 

There is only one real reason a cultivator should not apply for a medical marijuana license, and that is if they have no intention of using the cleanest, most sustainable, and safest growing practices to ensure that medical patients are being provided with medicine, not poison.

Keeping Medical Marijuana Clean Needs to be a Priority

One of the most troubling aspects of black market cannabis is the dirty way it is often produced. To save money, rogue cultivators will use pesticides that can be extremely dangerous—both for the environment and the animals that inhabit it and for human consumers, especially those who are sick or young.

Elderly patient vaping medical cannabisIn 2017, a UC Davis study found that medical marijuana samples were contaminated with bacterial and fungal pathogens that pose possible fatal risks to patients, especially those with conditions like AIDS, lymphoma, leukemia, or any requiring immune-suppressing treatments.  Because of these findings, the researchers advised medical marijuana patients to stop using weed.

“Patients with impaired immune systems are routinely advised to avoid exposure to plants and certain raw foods because of the risk of infection from soil-dwelling organisms,” lead author of the study, George Thompson III, explained.  “But at the same time, they are increasingly turning to medical marijuana to help them with symptom control.  Because microorganisms known to cause serious infections in immunocompromised patients were found to be common on marijuana, we strongly advise patients to avoid it.”

So how did we get here?  How is it possible that cannabis specifically cultivated for medical patients is contaminated with potentially lethal pathogens? A combination of factors has led to an unregulated cultivation industry rife with convenient but dangerous and dirty growing practices.

For one, federal prohibition continues to stand in the cannabis industry’s way of developing universal cultivation standards. As long as there is a federal ban on the cannabis industry, illegal growers will have a market to profit from. Unfortunately for that market, the product may or may not be safe to consume.   

In California, thousands of private farms have popped up since cannabis was first legalized for medicinal use in 1996. However, almost none of those farms are actually legal. For example, in Humboldt County, somewhere around 15,000 farms are in operation. Of that enormous number, only 2,300 have submitted applications for licenses. Only 91 of those licenses have actually been accepted. 

Finally, California has recently revised its lab testing requirements to make them much more scrutinizing than they were in the past. That means that for a long time, “medical” marijuana sold in “medical” dispensaries came with all of the therapeutic benefits cannabis has to offer in addition to all of the dangerous attributes bacteria, fungi, and pesticide residue bring to the table.  Cannabis is an agent of healing, but when it is contaminated, it can be incredibly dangerous for those who would benefit most from its medicinal use.

Cultivators of commercial medical and recreational cannabis must follow the same regulations, and thanks to the stricter lab testing requirements, both sides of the industry will be held to account. Growing sustainably and safely may be more expensive and inconvenient, but if cannabis is to function as a reliable medicine for patients, that extra level of care is well worth the cost. And growers that have specifically opted to serve the medical community should be at the forefront of the fight, advocating for a better, cleaner way to cultivate cannabis.