The surprising environmental costs of marijuana

The surprising environmental costs of marijuana
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Your cannabis consumption has a carbon footprint, and when everybody's cannabis consumption is added up, that carbon footprint gets mighty big. The resulting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that impact climate change the most are from consuming indoor cultivated marijuana, which is grown under lights indoors with extensive heating, air conditioning and other electrical equipment. Marijuana that is grown outdoors or in greenhouses or hoop houses doesn't require this kind of setup and has a substantially lesser impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

It would appear that the ethical thing for marijuana consumers to do when it comes to addressing climate change is to consume outdoor, sun-grown marijuana. But that is just for starters. Environmentally conscious consumers can get really serious and demand marijuana that is sun-grown, organic, and produced in a sustainable and regenerative fashion.

But before getting to solutions, let us first come to grips with the scope of the problem. Given that much of the marijuana grown in the United States goes into the black market, no one is quite sure just how much weed we produce. But a 2019 study from industry analysts New Frontier Data, "The U.S. Cannabis Cultivation Report," estimated that the "[t]otal legal and illicit output is forecasted to grow to" almost 35 million pounds by 2025. California alone accounted for more than 12 million pounds of illegal exports in 2019, according to the report. A 2012 article, which appeared in the international peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy, states that "[o]fficial estimates of total U.S. Cannabis production varied between 10,000 and 24,000 metric ton[s] per year as of 2001," while a more recent (2010) "study estimated national production at far higher levels (69,000 metric ton[s])."

That is a lot of weed, and how we grow it has an impact on the environment. The article in Energy Policy also found that marijuana cultivation accounts for at least 1 percent of all the electricity consumed in the country, at a cost of $6 billion a year—it is important to note here that outdoor grows can be done with virtually no electricity. This kind of energy consumption due to indoor marijuana cultivation across the U.S. translates into GHG emissions equivalent to that by 3 million cars, the article estimated.

According to an article in Cannabis Business Times, "the 2018 Cannabis Energy Report from New Frontier Data found that indoor cultivation in the U.S. produces 2.6 million tons of carbon dioxide or one pound of carbon emissions for each gram of harvested flower. The same report found that growing indoors uses 18 times more electricity and produces nearly 25 times more carbon than outdoor farms."

Meanwhile, in March, researchers at Colorado State University published an article in the journal Nature Sustainability that showed how shifting grows from indoors to greenhouse and outdoor cultivation "can drastically reduce GHG emissions" by the cannabis industry. According to the article, the move from growing cannabis indoors to "outdoor cultivation practices" would reduce the Colorado cannabis industry's greenhouse gas emissions by 96 percent (a switch to greenhouse cultivation would cut GHG emissions by 42 percent). A switch to outdoor cultivation in Colorado "would see a reduction of more than 1.3 percent in the state's [total] annual GHG emissions," stated the article.

The industry is headed in the direction of increasing outdoor cultivation of marijuana, but at an achingly slow pace.

That 2019 New Frontier Data study found that only 44 percent of marijuana cultivation operations were outdoor grows. A Cannabis Business Times 2020 State of the Industry Report had similar numbers. It found that 42 percent of survey respondents grow cannabis outdoors, 41 percent grow in greenhouses, and 60 percent grow indoors (the total exceeds 100 percent because many operators rely on two or even all three methods of cultivation).

The good news, according to Cannabis Business Times, is that the number of indoor operations has been declining steadily over the past five years, from 80 percent in 2016 to 60 percent in 2020, while greenhouse grows increased by 7 percent from 2016 to 2020 and outdoor grows increased by 5 percent during the same period.

Dale Gieringer, the longtime head of the nonprofit California NORML, has been following the evolution of marijuana growing for decades, back to the 1980s, when raids on northern California pot growers helped prompt the move toward indoor cultivation. It was just easier to hide the crop from the cops by growing it indoors, but that required artificial lights and all the other inputs to grow an indoor crop.

"Indoor [cultivation] never made any sense to us, any more than indoor wheat or any other indoor agricultural crop," Gieringer told Drug Reporter. "That's the whole beauty of marijuana: Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, you can make it with pure sunlight; it's very carbon neutral and energy efficient when you do it that way."

Nowadays, said Gieringer, it is not the need to hide from law enforcement but rather the need to comply with stringent regulatory requirements that induces growers to go under the lights.

"All those security precautions the government puts [in place] to protect us have driven a lot of people indoors," he said while speaking with Drug Reporter. "One of the weird things that happened in California was that authorities got real skittish about outdoor growing in a lot of places, and so, early on, we had these towns out in the desert that opened up huge indoor grow facilities that have to be air-conditioned. None of that makes any sense to me; it's just the way things have been regulated."

One group that encourages not just outdoor cultivation but outdoor cultivation with the best practices is Sun+Earth Certified, the leading nonprofit certification for regenerative organic cannabis.

Sun+Earth Certified was founded in 2019 on Earth Day "by cannabis industry leaders, experts and advocates with a common commitment to regenerative organic agriculture, farmer and farm-worker protections, and community engagement," according to an article in Cannabis Business Times.

To earn the Sun+Earth seal, marijuana farms must not only be organic (no chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides), but also use sustainable methods that regenerate the soil, such as using cover crops, composting, reduced soil tillage, and planting the crop alongside food crops. All of these practices suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

"The multi-billion dollar cannabis industry has an important obligation to shift away from high levels of energy consumption and chemical-intensive farming practices, and Sun+Earth has the blueprint for how to do that," said Sun+Earth Executive Director Andrew Black during an Earth Day virtual press conference on April 23, marking the organization's two-year anniversary.

"In two years, we've grown to 33 cannabis farms and hope to finish the year with 60 total certifications," said Black. "This shows demand at both the farmer and consumer level for high-bar certifications for regenerative sustainable cannabis production."

The group is striving to set the gold standard for more-than-organic marijuana production.

"Our certification is tougher than normal USDA organic farming requirements," Black said during the virtual press conference. "Farmers must build soil fertility using natural resources from the farm itself to create living, bio-rich soil. And there are written contracts to protect farm labor and… to engage with and uplift the local community. Those aren't part of any other organic standard."

Sun+Earth certified farmers are a world away from industrial cannabis production practices indoors and under lights.

"I credit the [cannabis] plant with bringing me into the consciousness of being in a living system on a living planet," said Tina Gordon of Moon Made Farms, a Sun+Earth certified grower in Southern Humboldt County, who also participated in the press conference. "We do less than half an acre [of marijuana cultivation], in the ground, in full air [and] under the sun. The plants are exposed to the elements. You think about how the plants are grown and how they react to the natural environment, and you ask yourself: What does the land around us offer? What is the responsible way to live? You have to do this in the best possible way with the best possible practices, not just for the plant, but for the people and the community. That's why Sun+Earth resonates so deeply for me. We can care for and heal the planet and ourselves with cannabis."

As Gordon and fellow Sun+Earth certified grower Chrystal Ortiz, founder of High Water Farm, demonstrate, best practices mean adapting to the land, not trying to bend it to one's will.

"We're in an oak grove, and we chip the oak for mulching," Gordon said during the virtual press conference. "We mulch on top of where the plants grow and also beside them, and the mycelium starts eating the wood, and we flip that back into the soil, so it's soil-building. The mycelium is also breaking down a thick layer of leaves, making humus; this is how trees grow. We start with what feeds these native plants and then we start tuning in on the essentials. We use rainwater from the top of the property, and of course, we utilize the sun. When this [cannabis] plant goes indoors, the opportunity to understand how and where this plant is grown is lost."

Ortiz's High Water Farm occupies a different growing environment, and that makes for a different growing method.

"What is unique about farming here is that it is way different than Tina's [experience] of mulching and mycelium. I'm working [with] a beautiful, silty canvas in the Eel River watershed that fills with water every winter, a zen canvas that is rebuilt every year. Farming in the silt is different from forest cultivation. I'm learning new ancient traditions," Ortiz, who is a second-generation grower, said during the virtual press conference.

"We do dry farming with a cover crop, and we till the cover crop, run sheep that eat the cover, till the sheep poop and [compost the] cover crop into the ground, and then we plant our plants directly into the ground," she elaborated. "There is no water or fertilizer added whatsoever for the entire cycle. We just look at the ancient redwoods with their wide shallow root systems; they figured it out, and we follow the same process. We have wide plant spacing, the sunshine hitting this native soil and the evaporation of the water table. It's a very unique, faithful way to grow. When the plant gets the strength and resilience it needs, we're off to the races for another beautiful season."

Sun+Earth fills only a tiny niche in the massive marijuana economy, but it is a niche that is growing and one that can help begin to shift practices in the industry.

"We're trying to build a truly green cannabis economy, and that means educating at the dispensary level about why Sun+Earth cannabis is important and how consumers can support farmers by buying their products," said Black during the virtual press conference. "If we want to keep these farms on the land, they have to be supported in the marketplace.

"Right now, the expansion of Sun+Earth is happening organically," Black said. "We're creating demand in California, where we have an active campaign to promote Sun+Earth at point of sale. And we're trying to create campaigns that attract more of a national audience. For instance, last fall, we had a fundraising campaign where Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps created a cannabis-scented soap made from hemp extract from a Sun+Earth certified farm in Oregon."

Those campaigns are getting the word out beyond California, Black added, pointing to four farms in Oregon, two in Washington, a hemp farm in Wisconsin, and an urban medical marijuana grow in Detroit that have shown interest in the work being done by his organization.

"We're working on expanding to the Eastern Seaboard, too, maybe soon in Massachusetts, where local ordinances allow for outdoor grows. In some jurisdictions, they don't allow outdoor production, which is crazy."

What's really crazy, though, is contributing to the global climate crisis by smoking indoor-grown, high carbon footprint weed. As the example of Sun+Earth shows, conscious consumers can make a difference by supporting conscientious producers.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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