For an industry that’s consistently associated with being “green,” cannabis plays an overwhelmingly large role in threatening our already fragile climate situation. One expert estimates that the industry already accounts for about 1 percent of our nation’s electricity consumption —a number that sounds small until you think about how many other industries and people use electricity in other ways on a daily basis. To put it into perspective, Politico found a study that reports it takes just about the same amount of electricity to grow one gram of weed indoors as it does to drive a fuel-efficient car 20 miles. As we navigate the murky waters of state legalization, the environmental impact of indoor cannabis grow operations is slowly but surely coming under the microscope, but one roadblock, in particular, is making it all but impossible to take a major step toward reducing that overall impact: federal legalization.
Because marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, grow companies and product manufacturers are unable to export their goods outside of their home states, even to other legalized states. If you think about other agricultural industries, their goods are able to reach all corners of the country. You’ll find Florida grapefruits, California avocados, and Oregon apples in any old grocery store in Massachusetts. But when you enter a legal dispensary or order from an online delivery service, you may notice that all of your options were grown and/or created within state lines. Because of these restrictions, each legalized state is using unbelievable amounts of electricity to grow overwhelming amounts of crops that, in many cases, result in massive surpluses.
In essence, energy is being used to create products that have nowhere to go and not enough people to smoke them. In 2018, for example, Colorado growers produced 37 tons of surplus weed, which experts estimate is enough to supply all of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles and across Southern California, growers have struggled to produce enough product for its growing consumer base. But due to federal prohibition, none of CO’s surplus could travel across state lines, even though it may have been a valuable supplement to the Southern California region. That’s not to say that CO isn’t making certain sustainable efforts – they continuously work to implement more sustainable cannabis plant and packaging waste systems, which includes a recyclable cannabis packaging initiative.
Although outdoor grow operations are a brilliantly viable solution, in theory, the realities of growing cannabis outdoors make it all but impossible for growers in most parts of the country to yield a year-round crop supply. Even in California’s “Emerald Triangle” – a famously arable region for growing cannabis in Northern California made up of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties – the climate just does not allow for prolific, lucrative, year-round outdoor cannabis growth. Though most of the year has perfect conditions for growing marijuana, light, temperature, and moisture are far easier to control in indoor environments. Due to those reasons, and local restrictions requiring most grow operations to be indoors or greenhouses, cultivators are all but forced to take their operation inside. And in a state like Michigan, which experiences harsh winters, humid summers, and other meteorological extremes, there’s simply no way to grow outdoors all year long, again forcing cultivators to move their projects inside if they hope to be successful.
Even as we see prominent lawmakers actively joining the charge for cannabis legalization, an overwhelming majority of them are still unaware of (or are choosing to ignore for the time being) the staggering electrical use in the industry. Even Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who put climate change AND marijuana legalization at the forefront of his 2020 presidential campaign, was quoted in Politico as saying “I’m not familiar with that issue” in regards to the cannabis industry’s climate impact. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), an advocate for expanding research into cannabis’ and psilocybin’s medical benefits, believes there is an “elegant” way to impose environmentally conscious practices in the cannabis industry while also ensuring that small businesses are prioritized throughout the process.
Tackling the cannabis industry’s environmental impact will not be a straightforward process. Federal legalization will help the issue, but it will not fix it. Allowing outdoor grow operations where they’ve previously been restricted can lighten the load, but only during the appropriate growing months. Implementing greener initiatives and requirements in the industry is a necessary step, but how and when that will happen is still very much up in the air.