The Uncertain Environmental Impacts of Cannabis Cultivation

Will legal equal greener?

In November of 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64, or the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, ensuring the partial legality of sales and consumption of cannabis beginning in January of 2018 for nearly 40 million Americans. As legalization legislation spreads, cannabis is fast becoming one of the country’s most valuable cash crops.

This rapid increase in cultivation of cannabis in both commercial and private setting is creating it’s own set of issues. Among them is how this change in the law will affect the environment and how can California make steps to combat the environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation?

One of these issues is the water usage and chemical pollution associated with illegal growing operations and the how the state can enforce new regulations. Many professionals, such as Stephen Frick, assistant special agent in charge of the Forest Service, believe that the state does not have the capability to monitor and enforce illegal chemical usage associated with the increased cultivation of cannabis. In an article by the Independent he stated, “Until California gets serious about making clean water and our environment a priority over legalizing marijuana, pesticides will continue to be abused by growers regardless of the impact they have on our resources.”

The environmental impact of outdoor cannabis cultivation is one of the often cited by those who oppose legalization. Opponents say utdoor cultivation is often done on public lands, especially in Northern California. According to “Illegal Marijuana Cultivation on Public Lands: Our Federalism on a Very Bad Trip”, an academic article by Hope M. Babcock, published by the Ecological Law Quarterly in March of 2017, “Illegal marijuana cultivation’s environmental impacts can be ‘disproportionally large’ considering the size of the area under production because marijuana is a ‘water-hungry crop’ that is being grown in an area of limited water resources and sensitive ecosystems. Some state officials consider illegal marijuana farming the ‘number one threat’ to salmon in Mendocino County because it depletes streams that function as habitat for the fish during dry periods.” Written just before the legalization passed, the article argue the new legislation will have a positve effect by decreasing illegal land usage and pollution on public lands.

Others aren’t so sure of this positive affect of the legalization. According to a survey done by Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association, 40 percent of respondents in the organization reported that they would continue to grow illegally in the black market. Allen also stated that many established growers may go out of business because of new regulations.

Another possible positive environmental impact is the hope that legalization will slow the effect of energy consumption that goes with indoor cultivation. Indoor cultivation of marijuana requires high-powered lights, heaters or air conditioning, humidifiers and many other electrical requirements. Legal indoor growing accounts for 15 millions tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Those who point this out find this use of energy to be a serious concern.

“It’s not easy to get licensed and legitimized by the state. There are so many hoops to jump through and a big part of the growing community just won’t be able to make it.

Many cannabis growers have a different idea on how the “Green Rush” will effect the environment. According to a grower in Southern California who spoke by phone on the condition of anonymity, “I don’t think people who are worried about the environment are thinking legalization through. Sure, my lights add to the power grid but the sales taxes alone from my product could be spent on the environmental agenda of California, the negative effects are not that big of a deal.”

Some studies back him up. In a highly influential study by Evan Mills published in 2012 by the science analytics company Elsevier, Evan Mills points out that, “One can readily identify other energy end-use activities with far greater impacts than that of Cannabis production. For example, automobiles are responsible for about 33% of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, which is 100-times as much as those produced by indoor Cannabis production (0.3%).”

On the legal side of things, California seems to be experiencing a rocky transition into the legal market. One example of this is the TreeHouse dispensary in Santa Cruz County. According to their CEO, Bryce Berryessa, demand was difficult to keep up in the beginning of 2018 when legalization came into effect. According to an article released by The Cannabist in January of 2018, Berryesa said that the main issue is that smaller growers are not being licensed. This may become an issue because when demand increase and the supply will continue to come from the black market.

According to the anonymous grower, “It’s not easy to get licensed and legitimized by the state. There are so many hoops to jump through and a big part of the growing community just won’t be able to make it… Growing illegally may just become part of the job for a lot of growers.”

This seems to be at the center of the debate for managing the environmental costs of cultivation. If cannabis has become legal, how can the positive effect from the diminishing numbers if illegal projects come to fruition?

One problem is enforcing a raft of new regulations that go along with legalization. A new Bureau of Cannabis Control has been established statewide, but, with just eight officers in a state of 40 million, any serious law enforcement, whether keeping tabs on trafficking to out-of-state consumers or environmental regulations, will be an uphill battle, according to this article in the Los Angeles Times.

Just a few months into its process of legalization, the California is still very much in the dark on how legalizatio will impact the state. Will the state’s current cannabis growers all join in the legal business? Will the use of public lands and water resources for cultivation decrease? Will indoor efficiency increase? When it comes to the Golden State’s new cannabis rush, a lot remains to be seen.