More states legalized weed this year, but what does that mean for the environment?
On November 6, 2012, Coloradans celebrated the highly overdue news of legal recreational marijuana with the passing of Colorado Amendment 64. Now, in what seems to be the sole silver lining of the 2016 election, four states are joining the fun.
But what does that look like for the environment — specifically, in terms of pesticide use, energy consumption, and carbon emissions?
An Aerial View
Commercial-scale cannabis growth to suit the volume of those who would imbibe is something the environment hasn't faced before. By the end of the first year of recreational legalization, Colorado was commercially cultivating an average of 250,000 recreational plants and 320,000 medical plants per month. With that volume of plants — and those are just the registered plants — comes a volume of pesticide and utility usage.
The list of approved pesticides for use in cannabis doesn't assuage any concerns when long-term effects are taken into account. Denver's Department of Environmental Health has initiated its fair share of recalls of unsafe marijuana products, citing pesticides harmful to humans and the environment as the motivation. But in the Wild West that is the non-federally regulated field of cannabis growth, growers can simply pick a different harmful pesticide, or skirt regulations altogether. It's not unlike the chemical formula changes that were allowing chemists to undermine synthetic cannabis (aka Spice) regulation.
On the water and electricity front, a 2012 report by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce evaluating the viability of legalizing cannabis, it's estimated that a single cannabis plant uses about six gallons of water per day. Per year, the existing cannabis cultivation industry uses about $6 billion worth of electricity, a figure that'll only increase exponentially as states with newly legalized weed start to implement programs and dole out grow licenses. Electricity use is, of course, directly related to CO2 emissions, which the journal Energy Policy estimated to be three million cars' worth of emissions per each kilogram of marijuana cultivated every year.
And it's not just for lights that drain electricity (although that's arguably the neediest system) — the heavy air conditioning, fans, security systems and watering infrastructure needed in industrial grow-houses mean that the energy needed to make one single solitary joint is equal to the same amount of emissions that result from keeping a 100-watt lightbulb burning for 25 hours.
... No wonder that marijuana cultivation has been cited the biggest contributor to the Denver's alarming rise in CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions.
In fact, Gina Warren, a researcher and professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, warned that the uncontrolled fossil fuel use needed for indoor pot cultivation has the potential to "completely nullify any previous environmental advancements made under local climate change policies."
Outdoor grows are an obvious solution to the emission problem of large-scale indoor weed agriculture, but, like we mentioned earlier — pesticides and water usage are themselves huge issues. In fact, environmental concerns are one of the most commonly cited reasons for police raids in Northern California's Emerald Triangle, the vast, fertile valley where over 60 percent of the country's marijuana comes from. Plus, with marijuana's new status as a commodity — as opposed to a leisure tool — economically-driven growers are much more interested in the year-round yield that indoor grows provide.
If you're sensing a positive feedback loop here, you get a gold star. As marijuana becomes more common with increasing legalization, expect to see more indoor grows in more places, many of which will struggle with a lack of environmental regulation and effective technology to curb their impact on the ecosystem and atmosphere.
In the Field
We spoke with Dylan Donaldson, owner of Boulder-based dispensary Karing Kind, to find out how growers and dispensaries are battling these environmental concerns. Karing Kind offers a pesticide-free bud to its consumers (although it's important to acknowledge that this is not a federal certification, as none is currently regulated and offered for the cannabis industry).
"Intelligently grown organic products are what we like to consume, and so do our customers. Garden cleanliness and natural pest controls can go along way to reduce, and in our case eliminate, the need for non-organic pesticides," said Donaldson.
"Energy consumption and pesticide use can sometimes correlate," he added. He's seen if firsthand; before working in the cannabis industry, Donaldson worked in traditional agriculture. "It is quite scary the waste that some agricultural and horticultural farms create."
Aaron Field, co-founder of cannabis consultancy firm Everglades Capital and a former Director of Cultivation, shared a similar story. After working in commercial cultivation, he sought to start his own cannabis knowledge-share company with a greener mission.
“Current cultivation procedures being followed at nearly every production facility in our state include: the use of chemical salt based nutrients, numerous pesticides and sprays, and tremendous waste that taxes the environment and is totally unsustainable,” said Field. “I think if people knew how the cannabis they buy is produced they'd stop shopping at dispensaries altogether.”
Among the dispensaries trying to avoid pumping pesticides into their consumers and turning the environment into a Mad Maxian wasteland is The Farm. We spoke with Stephen Lipton, Director of Cultivation, about their efforts to create a more sustainable cannabis cultivation process.
“We use an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program that uses only compounds that are certified for organic growing, as well as beneficial insects to combat harmful insects,” Lipton explained. “We minimize our electrical impact by scheduling our rooms to create as little load as possible on the grid. We're also exploring composting our soil with the City of Boulder.”
At large, the state of Colorado is working to combat the environmental footprint of the cannabis industry with the formation of the Cannabis Sustainability Group. The group seeks to collaborate with experts to from around the United States to find greener, cleaner methods of large-scale cannabis production. Meanwhile, the city of Denver is racing toward a 2050 sustainability goal to cut emissions by 80 percent, but there are hurdles; specifically, a competitive THC potency market and the less-than-competitive results of growing with energy-savvy LED bulbs.
Up in Smoke?
From Colorado to its newly legalized recreational brethren, advice errs in the direction of curbing pesticide use to in turn curb the environmental impact. But even then, it's up to innovators to reduce the impact of the sheer scale that is gearing up to be widespread commercial cannabis production. As there exist no federal labeling programs for “pesticide-free” or “organic,” cannabis cultivators who take on this mission are doing so in an atmosphere that doesn't officially recognize their efforts.
Each cultivation expert with whom we spoke expressed a desire to participate in a labeling program. “We are already set to be 'certified organic,' if it ever becomes a real possibility,” said Lipton of the Farm.
Donaldson added that, for Karing Kind, “Our customer base supports our ideas and philosophy and can see it in our products,” but cautioned on establishing clear labeling rules. “Certified organic can, in some cases, be misleading if you don't have 100 percent organic certifications.” His caution comes founded by USDA organic food that doesn't actually have to be organic to be labeled as such.
“We don't have to follow the path of big agriculture in the west, strip farming and mono-cropping, destroying the lands while producing GMO craps that are inferior to quality produce,” added Field. “We have a choice in how much and what kind of an impact we have as pioneers in this new industry.”
For these dispensaries and others who would seek to join the sustainability effort, there's a snuffed-yet-burning ember of hope: in April of 2016 the House passed Colorado HB 16-1079, a bill that proposes an organic labeling convention for cannabis. In May, however, the Senate Committee on Business, Labor, & Technology moved to postpone the bill indefinitely.
Unfortunately, considering that the nation's next president doesn't believe in climate change, “postponed indefinitely” seems like the appropriate label for the fate of the environment on the whole. For now, the burden — one as heavy as a blunt of indica after Thanksgiving dinner — falls on cannabis cultivators.
In the meantime, if reducing the environmental impact of marijuana growth is something you care about, you can address the problem a few ways.
The first is by buying from dispensaries like the ones we mentioned above who make sustainability a part of their business model.
Another way is to keep your business dealings underground — many private, non-dispensary growers (like this one) get into weed cultivation specifically to raise organic, sustainable crops. Or, shit — grow your own stuff! When the call comes from inside the house, if you will, you reduce your carbon footprint by nearly 100 percent as you don't have to travel to transport the pot from its place of origin to your face. Plus, home grows (which are perfectly legal in most states with legalized weed — in Colorado, you can grow up to six plants in the comfort of your own basement), allow you to modulate your own water and electricity usage better.
In fact, Ron Flax, Boulder County's building sustainability examiner, told Environment and Energy Publishing this is the route he's seeing many locals take.
"There are many examples where people are taking single-family homes and turning them into a commercial grow operation," he said, explaining that private growers are using energy-efficient LED bulbs to attain high-potency THC results.
And the last, and most far-reaching solution, is to petition your local government for better environmental regulations for the weed industry ... especially in areas where industrial grows are the most taxing on the local ecosystem (cough, drought-stricken California, cough). After all, with legal weed comes money. And part of that money should go towards making the industry we've all grown to love more sustainable.
That, or invent a marijuana strain that runs on Pepsi and disco-ball lights. Mother Nature thanks you.