The Surprising Solution for Growing Sustainable Marijuana

California has years of (illegal) experience in what does and doesn't make for eco-friendly weed.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Artazum and Iriana Shiyan

Among the high hills and snaking creeks of northwest California, illicit marijuana growing has been a way of life for decades now, and locals have had a headstart over the rest of the country in considering what a legal system of regulation should look like.

Scott Greacen is an environmentalist whose intimacy with the area's river channels has forced him to bolster his own understanding of marijuana cultivation. The excesses of unregulated marijuana plantations have poisoned and leveled creeks. His vision of the industry is one he calls "highly regulated," with low barriers to entry so that small-time farmers and others interested in the production process can apply to be registered members of the supply chain. Not only would a more level playing field undermine the black market, he told Truthout, but it would produce other benefits as well: "You're going to get a higher quality product and better environmental performance from more small production. It's when you go to high-volume production, you lose quality and you have to use chemical crutches."

He's heard from a lot of people in his area who dread the day when "corporations come and take over [cannabis]," but remains optimistic that a regulated industry can develop into something that doesn't contort to the big business archetype. "Change is coming and overwhelming us, and the challenge is, can we create a system that doesn't just give it away to the corporations? I see a lot of hope for that."

One group in northern California is matching Greacen's hopes with action. The Emerald Grower's Association is a Northern California collective that advances policies for a sustainable cannabis industry. Its chairperson, Kristin Nevedal, explained to Truthout over the phone that her organization stands opposed to the kind of "industrial agricultural" model of marijuana production, and hopes California will eventually implement a regulatory model that allows for an abundance of small-time producers, distributors and retailers who keep the wealth generated from the crop mostly local.

It's a vision inspired by the demonstrated material windfall that befell northwest California between the late 1970s and the mid-2000s, when the regional economy thrived on soaring marijuana prices under national prohibition. The Sacramento Bee reports that in Humboldt County, one of three northern California counties that comprise the fabeled "Emerald Triangle," the pot industry accounts for over a quarter of the county's $1.6 billion economy. 

 "We want cannabis cultivation to return to the agricultural model," Nevedal told Truthout. "Marijuana is the number one cash crop in California, primarily produced by small [and] medium farmers... [and most of them] are responsible for supporting their home region's economy. They put money in fire departments, schools and the economic system by keeping their work and money local."

In addition to advancing communitarian pot laws, the Emerald Grower's Association also lobbies for environmentally conscious growing; namely, by advocating for sun-grown weed. With California’s vast geographic expanse and varied climate, there are plenty of places to grow pot outside—but in the two states where recreational weed legal, growers have been mostly forced indoors by weather and spatial considerations. That usually means cultivating marijuana using the most environmentally damaging means.    

"Diesel dope," the kind nurtured inside factory-sized warehouses swimming in horticultural lamp light, is unbelievably carbon-intensive, and the current annual CO2 emissions volume of all such facilities nationwide is "equal [to] that of 3 million cars," according to a study conducted by Evan Mills of Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory. The analysis also highlights that "a single [lamp grown] cannabis cigarette... is equal to running a 100-watt light bulb for 25 hours of average US electricity."

The The Emerald Grower's Association instead supports sustainable outdoor growing methods, and in places like Sacramento, where outdoor growing has mainly been banned, advocates for the use of greenhouses that rely on sunlight to flower the crops.

In order to prioritize more ecologically sound growing, states would need to implement strict systems of regulation mandating these methods, because there is more financial incentive to not use them. "In a [lamp-lit] indoor environment, [you] have six to seven turnovers over the course of a year," Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Oakland's Harborside Health Center, said in a discussion with Truthout. "In an outdoor canopy, it's at best two a year."

The new regulatory systems in Colorado outlaws the outdoor growth of weed, and also advantages large-scale production by mandating marijuana retailers also grow the majority of their weed, at least until October of this year. DeAngelo believes the developing landscape for the industry's future currently favors heavily capitalized warehouse growers over the less capitalized growers more inclined to plant their crops outside. "That's a real mistake. If anything, the incentive should be in the direction of supporting family farms and supporting more environmentally sound production methods."

The medical marijuana industry in Colorado was already producing excessive levels of carbon emissions before January 1, with some Denver growing warehouses racking up monthly utility bills of $100,000. Some municipalities in the state require growers to purchase energy from renewable sources, but demand for pot is surging so high those benefits are negligible. “Energy consumption in this business is pretty astronomical,” John Krocer, owner of the dispensary and marijuana growing business River Rock, told CBS Denver. “As this industry expands at its current pace I do believe that we will be a tax on the energy grid: something has to change.”

Xcel Energy, the utility which has a monopoly on electricity in Colorado, is the largest provider of wattage to marijuana growing facilities and has observed an increase in demand for its energy since legalization on January 1. “There’s definitely an increase, and we will definitely see more. Obviously it’s a booming part of the energy consumption business,” said Mark Stutz, a spokesperson for Xcel in Colorado, who went on to say that his company had to “make sure [a grower’s electrical] system was robust enough” to meet its wattage demands, “then look for ways to make them more energy efficient if they’re interested in it.”

A study out of UC Berkeley assessing the growing possibilities for the state of Washington said  that outdoor and greenhouse growing had “significant environmental advantages” over other methods. The authors also recommended that the Washington Licensing Board encourage—through innovative private-public processes—the use of LED lights for horticultural purposes in indoor facilities, the regulation of warehouses’ electric usage at night, and that the state label “environmentally friendly” cannabis in order to stimulate responsible consumption.

With months until recreational marijuana sales become reality in the Evergreen State, and with a state provision sanctioning outdoor growing passed last summer, Washington will likely be miles ahead of Colorado in the production of earth-friendly weed. Nevertheless, as evidenced by the destruction of topsoil, the poisoning of wildlife, and the siphoning of fresh water for outdoor pot production in California, citizens must be proactive in prioritizing the environment when they grow their weed—and decide whether or not this is more important than their bottom line.

Aaron Cantú is an investigator for the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmiguel_