Can the Marijuana Industry ever be Sustainable?

Cannabis has been cultivated for thousands of years, used in both practical applications, such as being a fiber for clothing, a substitute for paper made from wood, and many medicinal purposes. The production of hemp was once required by law to be grown on every farm in Virginia. In 1996 California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, which started the loosening of national restrictions on a large scale. Other states followed in California’s footsteps such as Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. In 2012 Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana for over 21-year-old users (Geiling, 2015). Now as many as 11 states could vote to legalize marijuana.

Currently the cannabis industry is the most energy-intensive crop, this is because the majority of the cannabis companies grow indoors. According to a 2016 report released by New Frontier Financials, cannabis cultivation annually consumes one percent of the United States’ total electrical output, which for a single industry growing a single crop, is a lot  roughly the equivalent of the electricity used by 1.7 million homes. If expansion continues it is stated that the electricity used by indoor grow ops will double in the next 20 years. This mass amounts of legalization places a burden on the environment. Most indoor growers use High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps to grow their product. These lights are relatively cheap, but put off immense amount of heat. This requires these faculties to be air conditioned and dehumidified, to maintain a constant temperature.

This all adds up to expensive electricity bills, one cannabis farmer in Portland Oregon, Eli Bilton, estimates that a 25,000 square foot grow site (which is half of the maximum area allowed by the state of Oregon) would on average have a 30,000 energy bill each month. An alternative to this type of indoor growing would be outdoor growing, which if done improperly can cause quite the environmental degradation. It can lead to degrading soils, and pesticide and fertilizer runoff. It also requires an immense amount of water. The outdoor industry in California alone consumes as much as 430 million liters of water per square kilometer for a single season, which is twice the amount that wine grapes need.

Currently, there is no incentive for theses large scale cannabis growers, to look towards more efficient measures. They can bear the costs of high energy bills and environmental degradation because there has been neither a regulatory nor financial enforcement for them to alter their ways. These growers tend to stick to what they know rather than altering their ways, which could lead to losing their crops. Not all cannabis growers are avoiding switching to alternative forms of cultivation. Some faculties within Oregon area outfitted with gutters that accumulate rain water, which is then filtered into the plants, this method avoids using ground water or Oregon’s runoff. Many clippings are turned into fertilizer and condensation from humidifiers and air condition units is accumulated within recycling systems. There are certifications that certify farms as “organic” one is currently called Clean Green certification. There is also a lack of research and knowledge within this industry.

There are alternatives to the process of growing indoors, which many farmers avoid due to the high yield seen within indoor growing. Greenhouses are a direction that the cannabis industry could focus on in the near future. Harnessing the energy of the sun, which would then mitigate energy costs. Sensors that turn on lights when the cloud cover is present. The main thing that can be done to make the cannabis industry more efficient would be a reduction in the overall price of marijuana. This would make the cost of indoor growing completely unfeasible for growers. Alternative lighting systems such as LEDs reduce the amount of energy compared to high-pressure sodium bulbs. The issue with LEDs is that they cost more than traditional lighting systems, but they pay themselves off the long run.
The city of Boulder implemented regulations on the cannabis industry, starting in 2015, Boulder County mandated that any licensed cannabis grower had to obtain 100 percent of their electricity from renewable energy resources (Geiling, 2015). If the growers are not able to obtain 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources, they could instead pay into an energy offset fund.The fund is then used to educate cannabis growers about using less energy and capitalizing on renewable energy resources. Overall the laws mainly federal laws are potentially the biggest drivers in making the cannabis industry unsustainable. The reason for this is because marijuana is only legal in states where is does not grow well outside. This forces these industries to grow in only indoor facilities, as soon as marijuana is legal on a national level, there will be a reduction in prices which will lead to more outdoor farms across the U.S. This industry is far from sustainable, which is quite ironic considering most “stoners” are environmentalist. The industry will continue on this unsustainable path, until regulations are implemented or the price of cannabis is reduced. 




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12 responses to “Can the Marijuana Industry ever be Sustainable?

  1. Do you think that such an increased energy consumption can be correlated with an increased demand from consumers for a higher quality product? In other words, do you think that using so much electricity to grow marijuana directly leads to a more potent crop? It’s no question that the THC content in marijuana has grown a significant amount since it was introduced as medicinal, but do you think that consumers would be willing to buy a less potent crop if they knew it was grown sustainably?


    • Growing indoors has nothing to do with a higher quality product; some outdoor plants produce more THC per plant than indoor ones. They have much higher yields for crops produced indoors. If the industry expands nationally environments across the plains which are ideal for cannabis will be opened up and more cannabis will be produced which will lower the price overall. I believe people will pay more for a sustainably grown crop than a higher potency one if that answers your question.


  2. amyquandt

    Interesting! In Boulder, have growers been able to find renewable energy sources? Does this raise the costs of growing significantly?


    • There has actually been a reduction in the amount of grow ops in boulder due to this law. A lot of companies avoid growing in Boulder specifically due to this regulation. It raises the cost but either way they would have to pay or use alternative energy.


  3. victoriallen

    This is something I am extremely interested in. I agree with you that changes need to be made in the production aspect of cannabis but how do you feel about the packaging and selling of products? Personally, I see a lot of plastic packaging due to child safety laws which although I think this is an effective and smart policy, I think is very unsustainable. Do you think there are any ways to mitigate this?


    • I didn’t want to get into the packaging of the products because it is such a controversial issue. On average dispensaries sell more plastic than weed. They also don’t allow you to bring your own jar. The only way i could see to mitigate this would be to allow for people to bring in their own jar. Or create compostable packaging.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. alecjordan7721

    I enjoyed reading this because it was insightful yet educational. However, I think that the overall price, even if it is legalized nationally, will not be reduced greatly because one of the incentives of legalizing it is the tex revenue generated from this industry. With that said, I think the burden is going to be on the government officials to create effective and efficient regulations and policies that force growers to be more environmentally friendly with their grow ops. Since this is a relatively new industry, I think it is going to be a trial and error type of system in figuring out the best way to motivate growers to lower their energy cost and environmental impact. I am curious though, does Boulder have any other environmentally friendly regulations for marijuana growers besides using renewable energy?


    • I agree that the burden is going to be placed on government officials, to incorporate efficient regulations that relate to sustainability, I didn’t focus on that very much in my paper because currently little is being done in relation to regulation. I am not failure with boulder having any other regulations other than renewable energy, but because renewable energy is so expensive the majority of grow ops are outside of boulder and lack renewable regulations.


  5. Great topic Adam! Weed is life to many. The question I wonder is how many plants a licensed medicinal grower can grow. I know many recreational growers are only allowed to harvest 6 plants per person per household, and this certainly doesn’t amount to the immense amount of energy businesses have. So why recreational growers limited to 6 when businesses seem to grow however many they want? Why aren’t there more limitations on them? Is there anything the government is doing to limit there energy usage?


    • I have no idea how many plants can be allowed, I believe it is regulated by size of the facality and not the ammount of plants within the facality. They can have more because they are taxed and regulated more stricly than just personal grow ops. The govements is currently pertty much doing nothing to limit enerrgy usage.


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