In the public imagination, there is much overlap between marijuana enthusiasts and environmentalists. Both groups are typecast as long-haired liberals with a penchant for “trees,” an outdoorsy lifestyle and the advancement of a “green” agenda tied to a greater appreciation for nature. But as marijuana gains legal status in states like Washington, Colorado, and California, one of the greatest struggles has become the task of reigning in marijuana farmers’ environmental footprint.
For outdoor marijuana growing operations, environmental concerns have cropped up around some farmers’ illegal siphoning of river water, high energy usage, and unkempt properties. And now, in California, when police target illegal marijuana farms, their major concerns often revolve around the landowners’ environmental stewardship. But many in the marijuana industry believe that indoor farms are the real environmental scourge.
Those who have the chance to observe an indoor marijuana farm in action will likely be struck by the sheer volume of water and energy necessary to grow even one plant. Indoor growing operations require vast amounts of energy and water because farmers must artificially supply what is normally provided by nature. Instead of rain, growers rig irrigation systems from their home water supply. Instead of the sun, growers use energy-intensive heat lamps so powerful that one often needs protective glasses just to safely observe at their crop.
As Pacific Standard reports, “A 2012 study estimated that indoor cannabis cultivation alone accounted for 1 percent of the nation’s total electrical use, and that producing one kilogram of weed emitted 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of driving 11,000 miles in an average vehicle.”
These environmental concerns have taken center stage for many in the marijuana industry. A good example is Derek Smith, co-founder of the Resource Innovation Institute, a non-profit that’s trying to ensure the cannabis industry puts a precedence on environmental wellbeing. Smith gathers data by frequenting competitions that attract large numbers of marijuana growers and encouraging them to fill out surveys about their farming practices.
Smith’s efforts are crucial for an industry that suffers from a chronic lack of environmental data. Not only does the U.S.’s federal prohibition of cannabis force growers into the shadows where they cannot be regulated and made to comply with environmental standards. But the lack of research on the environmental impacts of cannabis, as a result of prohibition, means that regulators are scrambling to establish fair environmental standards even for growers moving into the industry’s legal framework.
Earlier this year, the Department of Food and Agriculture held hearings to get public commentary on a number of draft regulations for California’s cannabis industry. The result was widespread concern over cannabis growers’ proposed responsibility to produce documents that proved their compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Many deemed these requirements to be “overly burdensome and unfair.” The Department ended up conceding to these concerns, writing that “more specificity about what environmental documentation will be accepted is needed.”
Another rule drafted by the Department of Food and Agriculture that got better reception would require indoor marijuana growers to source 42% of their energy from renewables.
Over the coming months and years, this back-and-forth between lawmakers and industry workers will be critical for establishing a fair regulatory framework that prioritizes environmental stewardship, without paralyzing growers with overburdensome permit requirements.
“I think a good point to understand in this, is that only until this last couple of years—and really only the last two years—we as a community have never felt safe enough to call consultants or call the state agencies out to our properties to make sure they were up to code, because we were living in a prohibitionist era. ” Terra Carver, Executive Director of the Humboldt County Growers Lands Alliance, recently told me. According to Carver, applying environmental regulations to an industry that was forced to establish itself in the black market makes things particularly complicated. Cannabis growers “are having to retool how their property functions, and how their business functions—that comes with, it’s a more difficult process. It’s very expensive.”
Still, Carver tells me that meeting environmental standards is a top priority for most in the industry. “We’ve got a pretty substantial group of local farmers that are really involved in biodynamic and regenerative practices and who are going far beyond what is asked of them to make sure and ensure that the cannabis they’re growing is being grown in the most sustainable way possible.” Carver believes that these types of sustainable growing practices are the future of the marijuana industry. “We have, those who are what I consider early adopter brands, who have been not only producing cannabis with the highest environmental standards but are now actually including that in their branding, and they are reporting back to me that they’re seeing a significant increase” in sales.
Consumer demand for environmentally sustainable products means that these practices will undoubtedly play an increasingly prominent roll in the cannabis industry. But as always, the push for environmental regulation will continue to be burdened by a lack of energy and water use data so long as marijuana is under federal prohibition. Until this changes, to some extent, making progress will require regulatory agencies and marijuana growers alike to feel around in the dark.