Why Cannabis Cultivation Isn’t Sustainable, and How the Industry Can Change
By Space Coast Daily // April 26, 2021
Cannabis is a green industry — but not because it is eco-friendly or sustainable. In fact, cultivation, transportation, manufacturing and other essential processes for getting weed to consumers can be remarkably inefficient, wasteful and environmentally damaging.
Though marijuana and hemp products are often marketed as natural and earth-safe, the truth is that most cannabis grow operations are dramatically more taxing on the environment than typical agricultural systems.
How could weed cultivation have such an environmental toll? Read on to learn why much of the industry isn’t particularly environmentally friendly and what changes can be made to green up the sticky green herb.
Most Weed Is Grown Indoors
The primary problem with contemporary cannabis cultivation is this: Over 80 percent of cannabis is grown exclusively indoors. There are dozens of reasons why growers opt to contain their cannabis crop inside warehouses and greenhouses.
Primarily, there is an issue of security; because cannabis is a sought-after drug, and because black markets for bud are alive and thriving, cannabis theft remains a serious concern for legitimate cultivation operations. However, indoor growing also gives growers much more control over the environment surrounding their crop — they don’t have to hope for favorable growing conditions like light, temperature, humidity and the like; they can manufacture an ideal atmosphere using tech.
Unfortunately, indoor growing doesn’t merely allow environmental control; it necessitates it. When plants are grown indoors, they rely entirely on cultivators to supply each and every nutrient, from light and water to ventilation, soil and more. Providing these resources to a large cannabis crop is extremely energy intensive. Estimates suggest that an indoor grow op consumes about 150 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year per square foot, which is more than 10 times as much as a typical office building.
The most straightforward solution is moving cannabis cultivation outside — but that isn’t necessarily the easiest or best option for most growers. First, many states strictly prohibit all forms of outdoor cultivation, primarily because of the significant security risks outdoor cannabis farms pose. States do not want the legal cannabis industry attacked by the criminal cannabis industry, and indoor growing helps separate the two.
Next, not every cannabis market is in a location that is amenable to outdoor growing. While Colorado dispensaries can source from huge outdoor cannabis farms, Massachusetts cannabis retailers recognize that their state lacks essentially all the resources required for a healthy outdoor cannabis crop. Places with climates that are too cold or too damp will never be able to produce enough outdoor-grown bud to meet market demand — which brings us to the second major issue impacting cannabis cultivation sustainability.
Federal Cannabis Laws Thwart Sustainability
In the U.S., the Federal Government has jurisdiction over all issues related to interstate commerce — which gives them a significant amount of power over cannabis businesses. Though the Feds legalized industrial hemp nationwide in 2018, psychoactive cannabis remains a strictly controlled, Schedule I drug subject to exceedingly harsh penalties at the federal level.
Cannabis cultivators cannot transport weed across state lines without risking serious criminal charges, which means each of the 17 states that have legalized cannabis operates a distinct cannabis industry segregated from all others. Cultivation must occur within the state of sale, which means many states are forced to participate in indoor growing or else perpetually lack sufficient supply for their cannabis retail.
Legalizing cannabis at the federal level would strengthen America’s cannabis industry — and it would allow for greater sustainability in cannabis cultivation. If states like Maine and Massachusetts could import bud from states with climates capable of supporting outdoor growing, like Tennessee or Kentucky, they wouldn’t need to waste fossil fuels on indoor grow ops. Likewise, federal cannabis legalization would provide more resources to fight ongoing criminal cannabis enterprises, reducing the need for high security at outdoor farms.
Every industry has an environmental impact. Cannabis cultivators should strive toward sustainable practices in every way they can, and governments should support the development of sustainable cannabis cultivation with the right regulations. A green cannabis industry isn’t out of reach, and by establishing cannabis as eco-friendly from the jump, we can be one step closer to an eco-friendly economy.