Despite its medicinal benefits, cannabis will negatively impact the environment if we don’t plan accordingly.
The ever-louder chorus of support for medical cannabis is a positive thing for everyone involved. For patients, it means easier access to natural medicine that can deliver a genuine improvement in their quality of life. For everybody else, it means a brand-new industry ready to thrive—which could quickly lead to more tax revenue, more jobs, and a healthier economy overall.
Of course, as the market for medical cannabis grows, we find ourselves in need of space to accommodate this new cash crop.
Where's all this medicinal pot going to be grown? That is one of the challenges we see emerging from the industry as it seeks legitimacy. As marijuana becomes more readily available for medical and even recreational uses, Americans are reckoning with some new and some familiar environmental questions, collateral damage, and positive developments.
A New Debate-Within-a-Debate
Outside American politics, the debate about marijuana's legitimacy as a medicine is largely over. When you divorce the question of business-as-usual partisan politics and poll the American people on individual issues like this one, you find something remarkable: Americans are far more progressive than our government or our media would have you believe.
For the most part, mainstream American culture sees pushback against medical pot for what it is: obstructionism, anti-science grandstanding and greed, plain and simple. Cannabis has been used medicinally as far back as 2737 B.C.—a fact most conservative and a dismaying number of liberal politicians seem to miss when they climb atop their soapboxes.
But things get even messier when you include legitimate questions about medical pot's influence on the natural environment—already a touchy subject when you consider the so-called "debate" surrounding humanmade climate change, dirty fuels, and the push for safer, friendlier technologies and agricultural practices.
Short version? Getting serious about our lapsed stewardship of this planet is no longer optional, and the pot industry presents unique challenges.
As a result, many of us might find it surprising to learn that medicinal cannabis might have a role to play in humanity's outsized and increasingly tragic abuse of planet earth. At the very least, we need to ask ourselves some questions about how we want to roll out our marijuana initiatives from coast to coast in a thoughtful and measured way—one that considers the delicate state of the planet's ecology.
Several potential environmental challenges surround our push to farm cannabis in a large-scale way.
Historically, unsanctioned grow operations have had the largest impact on our natural world. As of 2014, "trespass grows" in California constituted more than a third of all the pot seized by authorities in the country in a given year. Trespass grows are efforts to cultivate marijuana on publicly owned but largely unpoliced tracts of land, such as national parks and forests, and some of them are quite sophisticated. One haul from the Central Valley in California yielded a stunning 5,500 plants, valued collectively at nearly $16 million.
These sites are also a scourge on our natural surroundings. Remember that the entire point of national forests is to allocate and protect our land for posterity. Unsanctioned grow sites often include "bunkers" and other structures that use harmful diesel-fueled generators. They employ pesticides that can cause health problems for native plant and animal life, including already threatened salmon species. The removal of trees and other plant-life to create growing locations exacerbates deforestation, negatively impacts soil retention, and creates the potential for mudslides.
From Death Valley to Yosemite, trespass grow operations are a significant problem—and they're nearly impossible to police in a concerted way. For example, teams of researchers and scientists have delivered disturbing reports on the effects of rat poison on native species such as the fisher (see the Mother Jones link above for reference). As a dangerously threatened mammal species, the fisher has been particularly hard-hit by some of the synthetic chemicals used in large quantities by rogue marijuana farmers.
As you can probably guess, opening the door for legal cultivators to develop their strains in a safe environment—far from endangered species or threatened habitats, and in a highly regulated environment—is a challenge, and solutions must be a top priority. Done properly, planning accessible and safe legal cannabis growing facilities would remove the incentive for pot farmers to set up shop on protected lands and help reduce some of these problems.
Legitimizing pot cultivation, therefore, is not merely the morally correct thing to do from a humanitarian standpoint, but it's also borderline critical if we want to shrink the ever-larger footprint our species is leaving on this earth.
Keeping Medical Pot Green
Naturally, encouraging safe and sustainable farming practices, bringing these rogue grow operations closer to home and imposing sensible regulations and safety standards is a tall order. And, even when we're successful, cannabis cultivation of nearly any type comes with certain environmental caveats attached.
Small grow operations are more likely to avoid rat poisons and some of the other harmful compounds commonly found at unsanctioned grow sites, but experts still say "organic" farming techniques at permitted growing facilities are still relatively uncommon.
Since we're in what appears to be a full-blown "green rush," there's quite a lot of incentive to throw together a rushed, slapdash operation that cuts corners, but significantly less incentive to work slowly and do things "by the book." In areas gripped by drought, for example, the effects of this new push for cannabis cultivation is particularly worrisome — we're stealing water from salmon and other species that need it.
What Can We Do About It?
Medical cannabis is doing a world of good, and we've barely scratched the surface of what that might look like. We're only going to learn more about cannabis, its weird parallel evolution with humanity and its apparently endless medical applications. But that also means we have a lot of work to do before cultivation methods catch up with all the potential demand.
While everything to do with the illegal marijuana trade has flourished under a veil of secrecy over the last several decades, demand isn't going anywhere—in fact, it's reaching new heights. As a result, growers are finding new political motivation to speak out in favor of sensible regulations focused squarely on the safety and health of the planet and on delivering a consistent, high-quality product. Self-policing will only go so far—we need a united agenda if we want medical cannabis to be taken seriously and bring relief to those who need it most.
Indoor vs. Outdoor Growing
In Washington State, which is still one of the nation's most important pilot programs for medical pot, industry experts discovered that indoor marijuana cultivation—the most obvious "fix" for disruptive or poisonous outdoor growing—was extremely demanding when it came to energy. Annual cannabis cultivation and harvesting eats up the same amount of power as 1.7 million homes.
To help mitigate the energy intensity of the indoor marijuana cultivation industry, Washington state decided to allow cultivation outdoors in environments with strict security coverage. This has significantly reduced the power required for lighting, temperature, and humidity controls and several other mechanisms that make this natural crop surprisingly technology-intensive. Moving growing operations from unpoliced public lands and residential basements to high-tech, passively climate-controlled greenhouses lets farmers take advantage of nature's gifts and lessens our impact on farmland.
Clamoring for Space
Another of the more significant growing pains associated with legitimizing marijuana cultivation operations is the sheer physical space required.
In Ohio, as the state's official medical cannabis program takes shape, regulators are discovering the delicate balance between allocating an adequate amount of space for cultivators and meeting demand. At the end of 2016, the state decided to expand their allocation of licenses from 18 to 24 growers and increased the number of square feet each facility is legally able to inhabit.
The tradeoff here is between creating access for all the current and future medical pot patients who require it and not taking up more physical space to grow it than is necessary.
Repurposing Existing Structures
As politicians and business leaders wonder how to reconcile a fixed amount of physical space with the demand that's expected to create more jobs by 2020 than all of manufacturing combined, Canada has revealed a novel approach: use facilities left behind by dying industries.
Simply put, pot is "in" and fossil fuels are "out." Growers in Canada are using warehouses and other locations once employed by the fossil fuel and manufacturing industries—ready-made spaces which would otherwise be vacant. This trades harmful industries for one which, though it has challenges of its own, is less impactful on the environment.
This thoughtful approach to repurposing existing resources is one way communities can begin opening the door to this legitimate business without putting too much stress on existing infrastructure and the built environment —and without visiting unnecessary harm on the natural world.
Forcing the Issue
One of the reasons why traditional farmers—the ones who bring kale, broccoli, and soy beans to our tables—run such efficient and waste-conscious operations is because they've been forced to. Profit margins are notoriously thin in the agriculture industry, so technology and earth-conscious cultivation methods have helped them make the whole process more efficient.
But the larger profit margins in the "traditional"—or illegal—marijuana market have made it unnecessary for growers to change their ways. They can carry on with their destructive practices because of the legal quagmire marijuana is currently caught up in. The war on drugs and the uncertain legislative future of cannabis has been extremely good for illegal cannabis growers and pushers.
So, it's time to force the issue.
Sure, lots of us recoil from the word "regulation," sometimes even for good reason. But, if the accounts are to be believed, the parties within the medical pot community who want to do things right—with a smaller environmental footprint and less waste—are the ones calling most urgently for sensible regulations.
Regulations helped the West Coast marijuana trailblazers like Washington and Oregon move their grow facilities to streamlined, secure, well-regulated grow facilities. It's also safeguarded land and waterways from the dangerous byproducts of unsanctioned pot cultivation. They have dramatically helped reduce electricity use by creating oversight—something pot users and providers have never really benefitted from under our previously draconian approach to regulating pot.
As medical weed "comes of age" in the states, regulations and oversight will help other communities do the same thing. Reducing our dependence on and abuse of our natural surroundings, creating more sustainable practices and developing new technologies that make pot farming friendlier for our one and only planet.
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