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America’s Weed Industry Still Has a Big Environmental Problem

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Nick Johnson. Johnson is a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

It is admittedly difficult to begin any kind of essay in 2020, but writing about environmental issues this year is especially challenging, because there are so many ongoing calamities that I am loathe to add to the list.

However, whether they are wildfires, hurricanes, or disease, human behavior has contributed to these problems, so it is incumbent on us to keep taking stock of how our actions affect our environment.

On that note, I will again trot out the Very Tired Bad News Bear of 2020: cannabis agriculture remains a big environmental problem, and the industry’s increasing profitability means that we need to keep talking about it, even amid the year’s broader cataclysm.

Every Bud Has Its Bane

Before we get into why this is still an issue, I do want to acknowledge the suffering of many cannabis farmers who have lost houses, crops, and income from 2020’s deluge of wildfires, hurricanes, and other extreme weather.

But amid that suffering has come opportunity for the cannabis industry. During a pandemic that confined tens of millions of Americans in their homes for months, weed turned out to be an important coping instrument: retail marijuana sales for 2020 are pushing $15 billion, a 40 percent increase from 2019; by contrast, alcohol sales in 2020 generated just over $222 million.

By 2024, annual marijuana sales could be as high as $37 billion. So, if weed is going to be this huge part of the American economy moving forward, we need to pay just as much attention to its environmental effects as those of cars or the oil industry.

And those environmental effects, by any measure, are still not good. First, indoor growing: In June 2020, longtime cannabis-energy scholar Evan Mills released a study that showed cannabis cultivation buildings to be the most energy-intensive of any building type in the country. Recent research at Colorado State University found that indoor cannabis growers in Alaska, Colorado, and the Midwest produce more than 5,000 kilos of greenhouse gasses for every kilo of dried cannabis flower—that, according to researcher Hailey Summers, makes smoking a joint more environmentally harmful than eating a hamburger.

Emissions map from cannabis cultivation courtesy of Hailey Summers

“A lot of policy right now says that cannabis has to be grown indoors, and so I think that’s the biggest change that I can get,” Summers said of her research, which will eventually turn toward a nationwide energy use comparison between indoor grows and greenhouses. “To say no, it’s okay, you can grow in a greenhouse or a secure outdoor environment.”

But environmental problems don’t get much better when we turn to outdoor cultivation. For one thing, a 2019 study found that cannabis’s aromatic terpenes are actually “volatile organic compounds” that can contribute to ozone degradation.

In 2018, when it announced its lawsuit against California’s weed-famous Humboldt County, the environmental group Friends of the Eel River said that legal pot farms are “driving salmon and steelhead extinct in our watersheds.” The group recently settled the lawsuit after Humboldt County agreed to spend money to fix busted-up roads used by growers that exacerbate erosion. The impact of outdoor cannabis farms, both legal and illegal, on wildlife has been extensively documented, yet there seems to be no end in sight to marijuana-related pollution, especially in California.

According to Scott Greacen, environmental lawyer for Friends of the Eel, the incentives to grow illegally in California “are obvious: your chances of getting busted are 1 in 100, 1 in 1000. You might make fifty grand, or a hundred grand. Lots and lots of people are still doing it, and if you’re not going for a permit, you’re going to do it on the cheap, and doing it on the cheap means you’re gonna have impacts,” Greacen said.

Moreover, the environmental problems do not stop with cultivation; for example, the plastic packaging in which the legal cannabis crop is sold contributes to the deluge of plastic pollution in local environments as well as distant oceans.

Before we try to solve this problem, Americans first have to ask—why is this happening? How did the darling plant of the counterculture, which embraced all different strains of environmentalism, become a modern wrecking ball for landscapes and the climate?

Prohibition: The Root of Pot’s Environmental Problem

Past prohibition is one of the biggest factors in marijuana’s current environmental mess. First enacted by way of a restrictive tax in 1937, federal cannabis prohibition and its enforcement have inspired environmentally damaging cultivation practices, stoked institutional distrust and conflict among growers, and interfered with state-level legalization by propping up black-market pot prices.

A reader-submitted photo of a grow room from a how-to-set-up-your-own-grow-room column in the January 1993 edition of “High Times”

First, the bad growth habits: Prohibition did not deter people from growing cannabis. Instead, it merely pushed people indoors, where by the 1980s they had developed the sophisticated, energy-intensive cultivation techniques that still dominate the industry today.

Prohibition also hurt the environment in a more indirect way by fostering a deep-seated skepticism of government regulation among growers. After decades of seeing their own or their neighbor’s properties stormed by gun-toting government goons, many of today’s growers are wary of complying with regulations, fearful that their activities will be divulged to the feds or will be otherwise mismanaged. While most regulators act in good faith, these fears have not been unfounded: one county in rural California, for example, legalized cultivation and took millions of dollars in tax revenue to help recover from a 2015 wildfire, only to ban cultivation shortly thereafter, betraying the growers who had provided that revenue.

The federal ban on marijuana has also undermined legalization efforts in many states, exacerbating environmental issues. For one thing, marijuana’s status as a federal Schedule I substance, courtesy of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, contributed to the perception of the plant as first and foremost a drug instead of a crop. Thus, when states such as Washington and Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in 2012, regulations focused on consumption instead of production, eschewing environmental regulations in favor of strict security for grow sites and child-proof packaging. Although many states have since added environmental regulations, legalization ultimately favored environmentally damaging indoor growth instead of more sustainable outdoor growth.

Meanwhile, after California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, illicit growers flocked to the state’s remote northern reaches to cash in on a gray market that gave some legal cover for their activities, but no regulations on how they could farm. As opposed to the local counterculture-types that had grown before them, these new growers generally only cared about growing as much weed as possible. They siphoned water from streams and drove heavy equipment up and down old logging roads, dislodging dirt that clogged up rivers. They clear-cut trees and poisoned forests with rodenticide and other toxic pest controls. This activity has only increased since 1996, even as California currently has some of the strictest environmental regulations for its legal cannabis industry.

Again, federal prohibition is a big part of why California’s situation remains so intractable despite legalization. The state has only so many resources to enforce is own laws. Federal prohibition might give the DEA the authority to bust illegal outdoor grows on national forests, but it precludes bureaus such as the Environmental Protection Agency from setting nationwide organic or sustainability standards for legal cannabis growers. Prohibition also keeps prices for black-market marijuana high enough to sustain an intensively pollutive illegal industry, which the government then attacks via traditional drug-busting campaigns such as CAMP.

“The failure to move toward federal legalization has completely fucked us in the Emerald Triangle, in terms of moving to a legalized and regulated industry,” said Greacen. “Instead, we’ve really backslid. A lot of the people trying to be legal are struggling mightily because there are all these unpermitted growers.”

Cleaning Up Marijuana’s Mess

Federal legalization may be the easy call to remedy pot’s environmental problems, but—as with any situation involving drugs in the United States—it is a bit more complicated than that. Getting even a majority of growers on board with, say, EPA regulations, is going to be a tough sell, given the government’s history of violently suppressing cannabis agriculture. Monetary, physical, and psychological damage has been done for decades, and it will take a sincere effort on the part of regulators and politicians to convince growers that regulation is in their best interest.

One recent paper has suggested a mass public education campaign might help turn attention to the environmental impact of marijuana. I agree, and would add that the environmental regulations passed by Massachusetts and Illinois can also be instructive to other states that are considering legalization.

In addition, legal scholar Ryan Stoa has proposed an appellation system for cannabis, like the one employed by California’s wine industry. Under this system, just as Napa Valley Wine must meet a certain set of criteria to be labeled as such, Humboldt County Weed—or any other appellation—would have to meet a certain standard that could include environmentally sustainable production.

These standards could help weed out some of the more irresponsible growers by disallowing them access to the legal market, but only if black-market prices are simultaneously pummeled by federal legalization. But the problem with that, according to Greacen, is the consolidated nature of the legal weed industry, which conforms to the broader supermarket-style consumption pattern in the United States.

“How do you get [appellate weed] on the shelf at the dispensary? I love the idea of a CSA [community supported agriculture] that supplies people what they want. But CSAs don’t supply most of the food we eat,” Greacen said.

Given the tumultuous history of prohibition and legalization in the United States, only one thing is certain: once the hurdle of national legalization is cleared, the path to sustainable cannabis will be a lot clearer, if not any easier.

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