Parallel Industries: Will Cannabis Follow the Path of Craft Brewing?

Walking through downtown Bend, Oregon, it’s clear that something is up. Where did all these breweries come from? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that America is obsessed with craft breweries and, of course, drinking craft beer. Bend has even produced an Ale Trail app to help you navigate their brew scene. And it’s not just Oregonians who lay claim to a city inundated by fermentation tanks and hop aficionados. Asheville, North Carolina, has the highest brewery-to-population ratio, with roughly one brewery to every 4,100 inhabitants.

In a cover story for The Atlantic, James and Deborah Fallows searched small town America for the markers of recovery in the wake of the 2008-09 economic collapse. Among 10 other points, they discovered that “[t]he final marker, perhaps the most reliable: A city on the way back will have one or more craft breweries . . . [y]ou may think I’m joking, but just try to find an exception.”

When asked to predict the future of cannabis consumption, industry insiders most often reference craft brewing. Both industries have survived periods of prohibition, with the number of breweries only returning to pre-prohibition numbers in 2012. Then there is the shared major input: water. When you look at the proliferation of major brewing centers, they have the use of good, clean water in common. And as the cannabis industry takes shape, it’s natural to assume that cultivation centers will bloom in environments where flowers do, too.


 “…creating sustainable and vibrant cultivation at a potential tourism destination is a task that must be done.”


When the river runs dry

The brewing industry is one of the largest industrial users of water. In the wake of California’s historic drought, Bear Republic was forced to scale back production of its popular Racer 5 IPA, due to the low level of the Russian River. Despite technological advancements over the last 20 years, the process to brew beer creates a plethora of environmental challenges, including energy and water consumption, wastewater, solid waste and air emissions.

How we’ll protect our waterways

Where will our cannabis meccas be? The Emerald Triangle, the historic Northern California site where a large portion of America’s cannabis cultivation takes place is certainly a consideration, and there are many businesses already scrambling to create the kind of all-inclusive experience offered at breweries. Historically there has been environmental vandalism in the hills, and bringing farms up to industry codes comes with a hefty price tag for potential cultivators.

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Yet efforts are already under way to ensure that the Emerald Triangle will retain its natural beauty. Cris Carrigan, head of enforcement at the California Water Board, is currently working with cultivators on “establishing minimum flow requirements to protect fisheries and natural resources, starting in the Emerald Triangle and moving outward from there to the rest of the state. We’re looking to establish a streamlined ‘storage’ permit, too, which would allow small irrigators to capture flows during spring high-flow periods and store water so they don’t have to divert water in low-flow months.”

For an industry that has long operated without oversight, these new requirements may seem onerous. But creating sustainable and vibrant cultivation at a potential tourism destination is a task that must be done. As with the numerous cities that have welcomed the craft brewing industry, the towns and regions that take cannabis cultivation to heart will have to closely monitor their environmental and social impact.

A bud bar on every corner?

Are we experiencing a market saturation of craft brew? Many industry experts see more room for growth, especially regionally. Will cannabis cultivation follow a similar path, with a unique strain and popular garden in every corner of the nation? Will these cultivators support the community, create employment and provide welcoming gathering spaces? Only time will tell, but the craft brewery scene provides a promising example of the possibilities.

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