The cannabis industry’s role, impact, and solutions in a quickly changing climate
In a particularly revealing article from Mother Jones, journalist Josh Harkinson explores the environmental impact of cannabis farms on the environment.
In 2014, he explored the Emerald Triangle in northern California. The region is famous for growing cannabis. After traversing the rugged terrain of the region, he wrote: “Whether grown in bunkers lit with pollution-spewing diesel generators, or doused with restricted pesticides and sown on muddy, deforested slopes that choke off salmon streams during the rainy season, this ‘pollution pot’ isn’t exactly high quality, or even a quality high.”
The article describes how cannabis farmers have infused the soil with fertilizers and sprayed toxic pesticides on their plants, poisoning local flora and fauna. These toxins seeped into groundwater and appeared in creeks and streams nearby. Alarmingly, Harkinson mentions how scientists and environmentalist have often shied from researching the environmental impacts of growing cannabis, for fear of retaliation.
As more information becomes available to illuminate the extent of cannabis’ impact on the environment, dispensaries are forced to examine their own practices. And as more states across the U.S. legalize the herb, this impact will grow and morph into ways yet unknown.
Warmer and more unpredictable
The statistics don’t lie: We are experiencing a rapid shift in our global climate. These changes, which have brought on more unpredictable weather and rainfall, have even affected our tiny corner of the country. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Coconino County experienced higher temperatures between 2000 and 2015, a 1.4-1.6 degree increase versus the long-term average.
Building upon that statistic, the southwestern region as a whole is drier and is in the midst of a long-term drought. As a society, we will need to adapt and adjust to the ever-increasing unpredictability of our weather patterns. This is particularly important in Arizona, where droughts are expected to be longer and more intense.
Water is the most valuable commodity in the southwest. Residents of California and Arizona are encouraged to swap out green lawns with more resilient desert plants. In higher elevations, winters are shorter and milder, leading to smaller snowpacks and less melt in the spring.
The last thing we want is precious drinking water supplies being poisoned by agricultural runoff or used up unnecessarily. Water waste needs to be prevented if we want the southwestern U.S. to remain habitable.
Cannabis’ unique impact
On the same note, cannabis is a thirsty plant. According to a 2016 report, a mature cannabis plant can consume up to 23 liters of water per day, compared to 13 liters for a wine grape plant. Outdoor facilities must reckon with pollution to the soil and runoff. Equally as concerning: indoor grow facilities require a huge amount of energy to remain in operation, fueling everything from running air conditioning to fans to lightbulbs.
This is why it is imperative for grow facilities currently in operation to hold themselves accountable for the environmental cost of growing large amounts of cannabis. This is even more important as we face a hotter, drier and more unpredictable southwestern climate.
Mike Paine is the High Mountain Health grow manager. Paine has a background in outdoor vegetable cultivation, he has used his prior agricultural knowledge to ensure the efficiency and productivity of the HMH grow. Like other cannabis growing facilities in legal states, he has faced increased pressure to produce more cannabis, faster, and with higher cannabinoid percentages.
“We are constantly needing to increase our productions levels,” says Paine. “There are multiple drivers for this, but can most easily be boiled down to market competition … As more cannabis comes to market in general, we need to both increase volume as well as reduce the cost of production to stay market competitive.”
Adding to the above, Paine says that maintaining the perfect level of light, water, etc. for cannabis plants can present a challenge.
Cannabis regulation is also a tricky topic. The plant is still federally illegal. Therefore, the EPA is unable to enact any widespread regulation or guidelines. Instead, state legislatures grapple with this responsibility.
For instance, in Colorado, the cannabis packaging must include all chemicals used in the production process. Laws in Boulder, Colorado requires growers to offset 100 percent of electricity and other fuels used in production by using renewable energy or paying into an Energy Impact Offset Fund. Companies in Oregon have offered cash incentives to reduce energy use.
However, Paine mentions Arizona has enacted little regulation to mitigate the environmental impact of cannabis farms.
“There are very few, if any, requirements from the state at this time,” Paine says. “At the same time, there are also no incentives for better stewardship.”
Paine believes environmental regulation will come with time. However, he thinks the bureaucracy of passing laws may take too long to match the industry’s pace.
“This industry is growing so rapidly, those impacts have not been grappled with at any substantive level,” Paine says. “There still seems to be a rather pervasive hurry up and grab a piece of the pie. That generally negates long-term considerations like environmental impacts.”
Can we green the green?
Moving forward, Paine and High Mountain Health have recognized their individual responsibility to address cannabis’ impact. High Mountain Health has taken steps to ensure their facilities are as environmentally friendly as it can be. Paine explained some of these steps the facility has taken.
“We try and look at everything through an environmental/conservation filter,” says Paine. “While our irrigation still drains to waste, we are moving to controlled fertigation for the bulk of our operation. This should give us a greater level of control and minimize waste. We collect and recycle all of the condensate water we pull from our dehumidification processes. This also offsets some of our reverse osmosis process, which is intrinsically wasteful.”
“We continue to move towards LEDs as a light source,” Paine adds. “I am sure we will continue to move forward with that technology. Our new HVAC uses a closed loop, cold water circulation for cooling. We do not have much saving data yet as it is recently installed, but [the difference] should be considerable versus our old system.”
Furthermore, High Mountain Health hopes to exist as an example for other dispensaries to mimic as the industry expands. As cannabis gains legality, it also becomes legitimate on the market. This makes it easier for grow operations to access renewable energy options and to explore different waste management options.
In the future, legalizing cannabis on the federal level will allow for increased regulation and oversight. Hopefully, this will help to prevent pollution and excessive water and energy usage.
This sentiment echoes Kristin Nevedal, the former chair of the Emerald Growers Association. Harkinson’s article quotes her: “…We really need to look at changing policy and starting to treat [cannabis] like agriculture, so we can manage it.”
The industry can undoubtedly still improve. However, people are working to ensure that cannabis is as good for the earth as it is for us.