LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a ubiquitous rating system for green buildings — set the aspirational standard for best practices in environmental design. Since 1993, LEED’s simple à-la carte set of building enhancements have become the industry standard in construction and for a time were easily recognizable by the average person. Through LEED’s promotion in the 2000s, sustainability became a hot field of study for college-age academics and a profitable venture for businesses. However, since the release of LEED v4 in 2013, the standard has aged badly. The cannabis industry can learn a great deal about how to structure its own future regulatory practices from the fall of LEED.
Once an ardent follower, Ralph Bennett, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, paints a picture of a LEED that’s no longer pioneering. “The rating system has become too complex for the average industry person even to understand, and so expensive that only high-rent buildings pursue LEED certifications anymore,” says Bennett. From 2016 to 2017, LEED registrations declined for the first time since its inception. Unless buildings have an altruistic mission to restore their environment, builders are typically only concerned with the greatest per-dollar tax benefit and so they pursue the lowest level of certification, LEED Silver, which is quite easy to attain with a modern building practice. Bennett says “the focus for LEED was the ceiling of standards and performance, and now it is the floor.”
Unreasonable Expectations and Foreseeable Futures
Early chemical studies of the cannabis flower and its derived products have returned alarming results. Products being sold on dispensary shelves are testing positive for trace pesticides, heavy metals and residual solvents. An on-air 2017 NBC study showed 41 of 44 cannabis products testing positively for pesticides in California. NBC sent the results back to the cannabis producers and published their responses, which ranged from denial to claims that they weren’t required to limit pesticide use in California — the state does not compel its producers to remove pesticides from their sold cannabis products. Bad business will always take shortcuts at the expense of the consumer until regulation intervenes.
Dr. Jeff Raber, founder of The Werc Shop, a prominent analytical and terpene creation laboratory in California, explained that NBC’s investigation can’t be taken at face value. “Labs are inexperienced and typically use hand-me-down medical lab equipment to perform sophisticated tests,” he says. Further, because cannabis is not chemically uniform across the entire plant, chemical concentrations are different depending on where the plant is tested. “Something like an aspirin pill,” he says, “is simple to test because it has a uniform composition and just a few ingredients.” The problem with testing cannabis is “hundreds of chemicals and a unique structure for every strain that comes through laboratory doors.” Despite best efforts, lab testing is a bit of a circus that could be better handled at the federal level.
The future of cannabis, says Dr. Raber, will go with regulation, and “belongs to those who can control composition with standardized, reproducible production.” The Werc Shop synthesizes terpene profiles for reintroduction into concentrates, vape products and more. They essentially create new cannabis products suited to the stringent regulation of tomorrow.
“The focus for LEED was the ceiling of standards and performance, and now it is the floor.” – Ralph Bennett, University of Maryland professor emeritus
Leadership in Energy
In 2012, Evan Mills produced an infamous study suggesting that cannabis operations use a full one percent of the nation’s electricity and emit as much CO2 as three million cars. Mills’ sources are “equipment manufacturer data, trade media, open literature and interviews with horticultural equipment vendors.” The study is insightful but relies on speculation. If numbers on paper determined actual operation, my Dallas Cowboys would be 2016 NFL champs. Instead, they’re 13-3 losers. That said, the Mills study is accurate in its observation that indoor cannabis gardening uses resources unsustainably, according to follow-up investigation previously published by DOPE in November 2018.
Derek Smith, executive director of the Resource Innovation Institute (RII) has made a career as a connector in emerging renewable energy industries. Cannabis regulation, he says, is “two years into a process that takes five to 10 years … The process generates informed agreements between the major parties, including government, cultivators, investors and the utilities.” Smith left behind a professional life where he testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on more than one occasion. He’s never seen a bigger opportunity to have a significant impact on climate than in cannabis.
Speaking on the modern grow operation, Smith describes a system in conflict with itself: facilities are built with overpowered lights that require overpowered HVAC systems to re-establish balance. Cannabis operations won’t share successes or struggles out of fear of competition stealing their individual data and flipping their gardening techniques against them.
Last year, RII collected over 200 anonymous energy and water reports from cannabis gardens. The data was compiled into a PowerScore tool which allows grow operations to anonymously compare information about their setup and receive extremely informative performance baselines and benchmarks. RII’s ultimate goal is creating an aspirational standard for best practices in growing cannabis. Like LEED, RII’s voluntary standard will be flexible, with multiple paths to compliance, provide government tax incentives and push innovation and education in the industry.
The regulation the industry needs is mired by disagreement over science and slow research cycles. Regulators are not scientists; they simply want people to be safe. Cannabis cannot settle on federal legality until we better understand the plant.
Any old Hammurabi could tell you that people are only as good as the code they follow. LEED fostered an era of environmental awareness through green buildings for a good 15 years. Tobacco has dragged people down for centuries. Whether it’s the beet-faced “Reefer Madness” politicians or the Dr. Rabers and Derek Smiths of the world, tomorrow’s regulation will determine whether we ever realize cannabis’ greatest contribution to this earth.