The majority of Americans are now living in states where cannabis is legal in some form. And with more states considering legalization, the cannabis movement finds itself at a crossroads in its history, especially when it comes to pot’s present and future impact on the environment.
While cannabis legalization efforts sometimes appear to be racing ahead at breakneck speed, most efforts to monitor the cannabis industry’s environmental impact — as well as to establish regulations and protocols to limit ecological damage and promote sustainability — have been left in the dust.
There is fear that if such environmental concerns are not addressed now, the successors of this industry may face the devastating effects of long-term pollution as well as a myriad of other unexpected ecological factors without a sound recourse for action.
The Green Promise Behind Legalization
As the call for cannabis legalization expanded, many legalization proponents believed that cannabis businesses would have the potential to launch a well-regulated, environmentally-sustainable and lucrative industry into the American economy.
After all, modern cannabis was an integral part of the rebellious political and environmental activism that took place during the 1960s. That activism helped create such landmark measures as the federal Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and, eventually, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
Some of the cannabis advocacy groups that helped to legalize marijuana in Oregon and elsewhere campaigned on the promise that legal cannabis would bring an end to the negative environmental impacts of black market grows, including the clearcutting of forests from public lands, the spread of illegal pesticides and fertilizers, clogging ecologically-sensitive waterways with soil runoff, and the further endangering of vulnerable animals such as the rare Pacific Fisher.
“By treating adult marijuana use as a crime, we’re forcing those who grow marijuana to exist in the black market,” said Tara Sulzen, a conservation activist (and currently district director for Oregon’s pro-cannabis congressman, Earl Blumenauer), in a 2014 campaign video for Measure 91, the bill that legalized the recreational use of marijuana in Oregon.
“That means they go out into our natural areas, wilderness and forests to grow marijuana,” she continued in the video. “These illegal marijuana grows pose a serious environmental problem, because they don’t belong in our forests and natural areas. They remove vegetation, they harm our habitat and they hurt wildlife. Regulated marijuana would be grown like normal crops, but illegal marijuana growers are tapping into our fragile creeks and streams and actually dry them up.”
These promises prompted DOPE Magazine to look first at the ecological impact of cultivation as part of our ongoing investigation into the first five years of legalized cannabis.
The Environment is an Afterthought
Our investigation finds that only a handful of states and cities in cannabis-legal regions have put any such regulatory practices into place.
The first two pieces of legislation to legalize cannabis, Washington’s Initiative 502 and Colorado’s Amendment 64, do not mention sustainability, pollution, pesticides or the use of resources such as energy and water at all. Oregon’s Ballot Measure 91 states its purposes include “prevent[ing] the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands,” but otherwise leaves the task of regulation for subsequent legislation in the same manner as I-502 and Amendment 64.
Efforts to combat negative environmental issues appear to remain an afterthought or, at best, a low priority for most of the state and municipal government agencies that are working frantically to get their legal cannabis programs up and running.
“When I talk to people from other places they want to talk taxes, they want to talk about diversion, they want to talk about safety,” said Sam Kamin, Vicente Sederberg professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. “They want to talk about impaired driving; there are lots of things. Very few people say, ‘What about environmental impact?’ I wouldn’t say it’s in the top 10 things that people talk about when they ask about how cannabis is grown here [in Colorado].”
“Very few people say, ‘What about environmental impact?’ I wouldn’t say it’s in the top ten things that people talk about when they ask about how cannabis is grown here [in Colorado].”
– Sam Kamin, Vincente Sederberg Professor of Marijuana Law and Policy, University of Denver, Sturm College of Law
In Sacramento, officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told DOPE they don’t have a lot of the information they might need at their fingertips when it comes to cannabis and the environment.
Issues such as whether illegal cannabis cultivations are diverting water from the state’s economically important mainstream agriculture, or the amount of pesticide contamination leaching into their waterways from illegal grows, or the tracking of individual grow sites; that data collection is the responsibility of other state government agencies, and not readily available.
It’s all new, said Nathaniel Arnold, the department’s deputy chief of enforcement.
“You know, it would be interesting to do an interview like this next August,” he added, “to see those types of impacts that we may not have known were going to happen in 2018, and where the industry has shifted or moved. Hopefully in a positive direction.”
While some independent organizations are monitoring power and water use by legal cultivators, utilities are the organizations best positioned to monitor resource use by cannabis cultivators. But DOPE found few utilities doing so.
Utility companies in some cities where cannabis has become a major industry, like Denver and Seattle, have begun to monitor data from cannabis companies, such as their power and water usage.
Denver has even offered water conservation consultations to cannabis companies and other small businesses. But those services, along with the municipal monitoring efforts, are still in their early stages.
Joe Sullivan, head of operations at Cultivate Energy Optimization, compiles power use information by licensed grows in Boulder County in order to help utilities offer energy efficiency rebates and programs to cultivators. According to Sullivan, “it’s difficult to differentiate how much energy would be used by an underground operation and how much energy is attributed to recreational cannabis now.” According to a 2016 Emissions Inventory by the city of Boulder, cannabis cultivation accounts for two percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Three energy firms in the Northwestern U.S. — Energy Trust of Oregon, Puget Sound Energy and Tacoma Power — have reportedly been assisting their local cannabis sectors via regional programs and have been achieving “significant energy savings.”
According to Derek Smith, executive director of the Portland, Oregon-based Resource Innovation Institute, Oregon is the only state currently requiring its cannabis growers to report water and energy usage, although Massachusetts, concerned about rising electrical demands from its newly-legal cannabis industry, recently adopted strict energy limits on local pot growers there.
“Other than that, we don’t see too many governments requiring the submission of natural resource data from the industry,” he told DOPE.
One reason for that lack of information, he added, is marijuana’s illicit history.
“What we need to do as an industry is openly exchange best practices,” Smith said, “and realize that that is not only for the good of each individual company but for the good of the industry.”
“What we need to do as an industry is openly exchange best practices and realize that that is not only for the good of each individual company but for the good of the industry.”
– Derek Smith, Executive Director, Resource Innovation Institute
THE CARBON FOOTPRINT OF CANNABIS BY COMPARISON
THE CITY OF BOULDER, COLORADO 2016 GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS
In the city of Boulder, which requires cannabis businesses to report their energy usage and offset electricity consumption, cannabis was responsible for 1% of carbon emissions, the same as 3,457 single passenger vehicles. This number includes dispensaries and processing facilities.
Jacob Policzer, director of science and strategy for the Cannabis Conservancy, agreed that the shortage of environmental information is a “huge issue in this industry.”
But it’s also to be expected, he added, from a once-outlaw business where good record-keeping could end up being used against you as evidence in a court of law.
“When it comes to utilities and different government agencies, we’ve conducted a few studies,” said Policzer, whose organization works with local governments and legal marijuana operations in the U.S. and Canada to assist them in achieving environmental, economic and social sustainability.
He said while more data is being accumulated about the environmental impact of cannabis, he’s not surprised that such information remains hard to find. One big factor is the lack of federal funding to finance such studies — research that is common in mainstream agricultural sectors and that contributes to more efficient operations.
“So, it’s really up to individual growers,” he added, “and for a long time a lot of growers viewed their process structure — their methodology — as a closely guarded secret, as intellectual property.”
“Investors put their trust in cultivators and there is not a good and standardized way to measure the quality of a grower,” agreed Smith, who went on to characterize the cultivation zeitgeist as a distracting and competitive environment mired in changing regulations. Amidst all that change, even change toward sustainability, “cultivators tend to do what they’ve always done.”
But cultivators looking for trusted resources on how to grow more sustainably have limited resources. And there are few best practices guidelines for licensed cannabis cultivation.
For example, the city of Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment released one best practices guide in October of 2017, which was updated this year. The Resource Innovation Institute also released a compilation of findings, The Cannabis Energy Report, this October. Those documents are available online and presented at industry conferences, as well as disseminated through other channels. That said, it’s unclear how aware the cannabis cultivation community is about the existence of these guides.