|Cannabis is a resource-intensive agricultural crop when grown indoors and, if produced en masse without regulation, it could create environmentally unjust burdens on the same communities that state and potential federal legalization aim to alleviate. Above, a cannabis farm in Oregon. Photo: Oregon Dept. of Agriculture, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.
Feature: Why an Unregulated Pot Business May Be Bad for the Environment
By Kelsey Simpkins
As much of the U.S. population has stayed at home for the past two months to reduce the spread of COVID-19, one “essential business” has stayed open in many states — cannabis dispensaries.
The resulting increase in reported cannabis consumption has been marked. Oregon alone saw a 30 percent spike in cannabis sales during March alone and it has been the largest month of sales on record for other recreationally legal states.
Some states are now allowing licensed retailers to take orders and deliver products, or to increase daily purchase limits. And with extra time on their hands, home-bound Americans may decide to try legal cannabis for the first time in some form.
But there’s a potential problem with this growth. Cannabis may be known for its verdant color, but its legal cultivation in the United States is not necessarily green.
There’s actually still very little peer-reviewed scientific research on its positive or medical benefits for the human body, aside from treating seizures. Anecdotal evidence remains the largest body of information on the impacts of cannabis in treating anxiety, pain and a multitude of other ailments that it is now advertised to treat or cure.
And the outbreak of severe vaping-associated lung illness in 2019 affected many in the legal industry, who feel they were unfairly attacked and conflated with the illegal market for THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
All the same, medical cannabis has now been legalized in 33 states and the District of Columbia, and 11 states have legalized cannabis for recreational use since 2014. Many other states have decriminalized cannabis.
The money is big. In Colorado, which has legalized recreational cannabis, sales now average $1.5 billion per year, according to the state’s Department of Revenue, with 2019 exceeding that number. Total sales in the state since January 2014 — when retail stores opened — are now over $7 billion.
Environmental impacts unclear
One of the many opportunities that legalization of recreational cannabis offers is the ability for those who grow, process and sell the plant in various forms to operate in the light. Even literally – by growing cannabis outdoors, under the sun.
But legal commercialization at the state level has also left most voters and consumers in the dark. Does a person in a state where this cannabis is legal know what they are actually buying when purchasing a product, in environmental terms?
- Was it grown indoors or outdoors?
- Were pesticides used, and if so, which ones and how soon before harvest?
- Was it grown in soil, or in a hydroponic, soilless medium?
- How much water and energy went into its production?
- How much waste was generated? What happened to that waste?
- What happens to all the child-resistant (often plastic) packaging it is sold in?
- How are grows affecting local air quality?
And does anyone actually care?
At its core, cannabis is simply a crop. But cannabis is a resource-intensive agricultural crop when grown indoors. If produced en masse without regulation, it could create environmentally unjust burdens on the same communities that state and potential federal legalization aim to alleviate.
Yet states who are about to legalize recreational use, or are considering it, are barely examining the environmental impacts of cannabis in their decisions, including the granting of licenses to cultivators, producers and dispensaries.
The cannabis industry is young, large and growing. Once it reaches a certain size, change to incentivize, encourage or regulate smart environmental practices will be more difficult.
A self-regulating industry
If cannabis has been legalized in your state, it’s likely for one of two reasons.
One, citizens want to consume it legally. Two, people would like to see a stop to arrests and imprisonment for using, dealing or growing it — especially people of color.
In addition, taxes from cannabis sales are supposed to benefit the state, the industry is expected to bring jobs and economic growth, and, maybe, illegal growing and dealing operations will fade away.
But so far in states where cannabis is now legal, not all of these things have happened. For one, illegal growers are not gone, and in some states, their efforts have increased since recreational legalization.
Many people across the United States are
passionate about cannabis legalization at
the state and federal levels. Yet they are unaware
of the potential resulting environmental impacts.
Many people across the United States are passionate about cannabis legalization at the state and federal levels. Yet they are unaware of the potential resulting environmental impacts.
Take Colorado for instance. The state is no stranger to air pollution, ozone, fracking, agriculture and many other environmental issues. So when I had the opportunity in 2017 to explore the environmental repercussions of legal cannabis in Colorado, I was surprised to find that the industry was one of the only players in the cannabis game interested in tracking and reducing these impacts.
Cannabis businesses do so for their bottom lines, their reputations and, for some, a sense of responsibility (see sidebar, “Smokey’s 420 Gets the ‘Dirt’ on Pot Crop”).
“As a business owner, you're looking at your budget, and your spending, and the resources that you're using,” said Amy Andrle, founder and owner of L'Eagle Services in Denver, during a panel on the subject during the 2019 Society of Environmental Journalists annual meeting in Fort Collins, Colo.
“Let’s be smart about how we're using energy,” she added,” and the amount of waste we're putting out there.”
Cannabis in the crosshairs
Indoor cannabis cultivation, said Bruce Barcott, senior editor of Leafly, is essentially “agriculture in a very strange, restrictive space.”
This growing practice uses a lot of energy and can draw as much electricity as a large data center, added Kaitlin Urso, an environmental consultant at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Many cultivators have turned to using state-of-the-art greenhouses, LED lights and automated systems, which mitigate the energy costs of the intensive lighting and temperature regulation that cannabis needs to thrive. This is one example of how helping the bottom line also benefits the environment.
Cannabis does often find itself in the crosshairs of environmentalists, several speakers noted at a cannabis sustainability symposium in Denver last October.
When cannabis was recreationally legalized in Colorado in 2014, the rules were focused on safety and security. “We completely did not consider the environment whatsoever when creating this regulatory structure,” acknowledged Urso at the Denver event.
Most states have strict laws requiring that cannabis with psychoactive cannabinoids, such as THC, be sold in child-proof packaging that is causing a ridiculous amount of non-recyclable waste, added Barcott.
In Colorado, all organic cannabis waste initially had to be shredded and mixed 50/50 with another substance, such as plastic, so that it was deemed “unrecognizable.”
This law was recently altered due to recent efforts within the industry. Now, organically composting cannabis waste is allowed under state rules.
Beware of stigma, misinformation
Pointing out the ecological failings of the cannabis industry requires caution, argued Urso, a scientist who studies the effects of cannabis cultivation on air pollution and consults with cannabis businesses on how to make their production more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
An example, she said, was when the press highlighted cannabis production as a potential cause of Denver’s ozone problem in 2019. “This is not accurate and almost it's scare tactics, just to get a reader or get that hook,” Urso added.
Barcott, too, said journalists should be aware of the century of stigma around cannabis and of misinformation campaigns.
“It matters when any journalist is covering this,” he said, “Their first instinct is to cover it lightly, to make jokes to put in the headline, and to really not care about what is actually happening — what is happening with the product, with the experience with growers, with consumers.”
“Journalism's role right now,” Barcott emphasized, “is to give a damn, is to be accurate and be precise.”
The truth is, according to Urso, that many state rules have been put in place that never considered environmental impacts.
But there’s good news. Cultivators who are offered best environmental management practices adopt them at high rates, she added.
“A great thing about the cannabis industry being an emerging market,” Urso concluded, ”is people are really dynamic and they're open to change.”
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Also see Simpkins sidebar story, “Smokey’s 420 Gets the ‘Dirt’ on Pot Crop”].
Kelsey Simpkins is a writer, photographer and artist with a master’s degree in journalism. She works for the University of Colorado Boulder as a science and news writer, and media relations specialist.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 18. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.