Can Marijuana Ever Be Environmentally Friendly?

CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS/THINKPROGRESS
CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS/THINKPROGRESS

One of the first things that Tyson Haworth does when we meet on his farm in rural Oregon is spread his palms out, up toward the April sunshine, and apologize.

“I just applied some predatory fungus in the greenhouse,” he says, splaying his fingers and inspecting his hands. He doesn’t use any synthetic pesticides on his farm, he explains, preferring predatory bugs and bacteria and fungi instead, and before he can show me around, he excuses himself to wash his hands in his house adjacent to the farm. Between the farm and the house, on the other side of the gravel driveway that leads visitors from the winding back roads onto Haworth’s property, is a wooden play structure — a sign of Haworth’s two kids, who are the reason he moved from Portland, about thirty miles north, to Canby.

Them, and because it was getting hard to keep growing his cannabis in a garage.

Haworth started cultivating cannabis in 2007, after his wife had to undergo a second back operation. The first time around, she took opiates to manage the pain, but she didn’t want to do that again. So Haworth — who grew up around his father’s wholesale produce company and worked as a manager of a wholesale organic distribution company himself — started growing cannabis, medically, both for his wife and for Oregon’s decades-old medical market. For years, Haworth cultivated cannabis on the side, not able to make enough profits from the medical market to become a full-time cannabis grower. Then, in 2013, Oregon’s medical marijuana market shifted, allowing, for the first time, a legitimate retail component.

And so Haworth put his organic produce job on hold and jumped feet first into cannabis cultivation, moving SoFresh Farms to Canby in 2014. But he didn’t want to completely eschew the decades of knowledge he had gained working in the organic produce industry. And so Haworth decided to do something that not many cannabis farmers were doing at the time: create an organic, sustainable cannabis farm, a place without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, a place that sequesters carbon and helps repopulate native flora. A place that grows cannabis and leaves the environment better for it.

“It’s not enough to not be bad,” Haworth said. “We want to be good. It’s not enough to not be part of the problem, we want to be part of the solution.”

Cannabis — both psychoactive species and non-psychoactive species — has been cultivated for thousands of years, used in both practical applications, like fiber for clothing, and spiritual or medicinal settings. In colonial America, the government actively encouraged the production of hemp, the non-psychoactive species of cannabis, as a crop: in 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed a law requiring every farm to grow hemp. In the late 1800s, cannabis became a popular medicinal ingredient, sold widely in pharmacies across the country.

That began to change after 1910, when refugees from Mexico began immigrating to the United States in huge numbers, fleeing violence and unrest born from the Mexican Revolution. Awash with xenophobic fears about the influx of immigrants, anti-drug campaigners seized upon the Mexican tradition of using cannabis as a recreational drug to crusade against both immigrants and cannabis, using the drug as an excuse to detain, search, and deport Mexican immigrants. The Great Depression only fueled these fears, and by 1931, 29 states had outlawed cannabis. By 1937, Congress had passed the Marijuana Tax Act, effectively criminalizing cannabis nationally. That decision, though later ruled unconstitutional, was solidified in 1970, when marijuana was listed as a Schedule I controlled substance, the most restrictive category, placing cannabis on par with drugs like heroin.

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize the use of cannabis for medical purposes, beginning the work of loosening the national restrictions on the crop that have plagued it since the 1970s. Other states began to follow suit, with 23 states and the District of Columbia now allowing the use of cannabis in some capacity.

In 2012, Colorado became the first state in the country to legalize recreational cannabis, creating for the first time a legal market where the drug could be purchased and consumed by users over 21. Washington state followed suit hours later, and the two states embarked on an experiment in creating and regulating a legal market for cannabis for the first time ever in the United States. Two years later, both Alaska and Oregon followed suit, voting to legalize cannabis at a recreational level (that same year, Washington, D.C., also legalized the drug, though they’ve yet to set up any kind of regulated market for its cultivation or purchase).

But the march to repeal prohibition hasn’t stopped there — in 2016, as many as 11 states could vote on legalizing cannabis at a recreational level, with three more deciding whether to allow cannabis for medical reasons. While it’s unlikely that all of those states will vote to legalize — some places considering ballot initiatives, such as Arkansas and North Dakota, are long shots — public polling finds a majority of Americans support legalization, and one in ten Americans report using cannabis in the last year. When people in the cannabis industry talk about legalization, they talk about it with a certain level of assurance — it will happen, and it will happen soon.

Which, of course, will bring with it an entire new set of issues, like trading a racial disparity in cannabis arrests for a racial disparity in cannabis work.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Another big issue that the burgeoning cannabis industry will have to confront as legalization becomes increasingly widespread is the industry’s massive environmental footprint. Cannabis is the country’s most energy-intensive crop, largely because around a third of cannabis cultivation in the United States currently takes place in indoor warehouses, a process that requires huge amounts of lighting, ventilation, cooling, and dehumidifying. 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 energy consumption continues at current levels, the electricity used by indoor cannabis operations in the Northwest alone will double in the next 20 years.

Most indoor growers use High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps to grow their cannabis. These lamps have traditionally been favored because they give off an intense light for a relatively cheap price. But HID lamps are also really hot — some can increase the temperature in a grow room by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. That means that growers that use HIDs also need some way to manage the temperature in their warehouses, or they risk overheating their crop, destroying much of the cannabis flower’s flavor and aroma. So most growers using HIDs rely heavily on air-conditioning units and dehumidifiers to maintain a consistent temperature for their grow site, while also using artificial light sources for between 12 and 18 hours a day.

Cannabis cultivation annually consumes one percent of the United States’ total electrical output

One of the most obvious reasons for cultivating cannabis indoors is that the plant is still a Schedule I controlled substance according to federal law, and cultivating indoors gives growers a better shot at successfully growing without attracting the attention of law enforcement. Even in places like Oregon, where the drug is legal, the Drug Enforcement Agency has been known to bust growers for cultivating cannabis, making a clandestine operation attractive even in places where the crop can be openly sold. But growing indoors has other benefits — allowing growers to precisely control a slew of conditions, from how hot the warehouse is to how much light the plants receive. That, in turn, leads to a more replicable process with fewer uncontrolled variables — something important in a business where initial costs are high and growers depend on steady and consistent yields.

And all that equipment — the air conditioning units and the lights left on for half the day or more — adds up to expensive electricity bills. Eli Bilton, a dispensary owner and cannabis farmer in Portland, Oregon, estimates that a 25,000 square foot indoor grow site — roughly half the maximum area allowed by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission — powered by high-pressure sodium lights would rack up an energy bill of roughly $30,000 each month.

A 2013 study commissioned by the Washington State Liquor Control Board concluded that if the state were to legalize recreational cannabis, “the most important environmental cost of marijuana production (cultivation of cannabis) in the legal Washington market is likely to be energy for indoor … growing.” And because most of the energy used for illegal cultivation comes from off-grid energy sources — using diesel or gasoline fuel generators — illegal indoor production often comes with an especially heavy carbon footprint. One estimate figures that for every kilogram of cannabis produced using indoor growing methods, some 4,600 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere — the same as burning almost 5,000 pounds of coal.

But simply moving the cultivation of cannabis outside — or even into a new generation of high-tech greenhouses that are cropping up as demand for the product balloons in states that have legalized — is far from a panacea. To start, outdoor cultivation is hard — cannabis is a fickle crop that requires a particular climate, and does best in the relatively narrow stretch of land from Washington to northern California. And outdoor cultivation, if done improperly, can degrade land, erode soil, and lead to pesticide and fertilizer runoff. And growing cannabis outdoors, in soil, requires a lot of water. In California, which produces between 60 and 70 percent of the cannabis consumed in the United States, cannabis can require as much as 430 million liters of water per square kilometer for a single season, about twice the amount that wine grapes need.

Growing cannabis outdoors requires twice the amount of water needed to grow wine grapes

In 2015, ecologists at the University of California, Berkeley, published a paper looking at the impact of outdoor cannabis cultivation on the sensitive ecosystems of northern California. They found that in the Eel River watershed in Mendocino County — a previously degraded watershed that had recently begun to recover after decades of logging activity — illegal and semi-legal cannabis cultivation “can have a disproportionately large impact on water resources and flow.” The researchers also found that pesticides and rodenticides, used by cannabis cultivators to keep pests away from their crop, often harm wildlife — they point to several studies which have found the presence of rodenticides commonly used by cannabis cultivators in some 80 percent of deceased Pacific fishers, a rare weasel-like animal already a potential candidate for listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

“Inherent trade-offs and tension between marijuana cultivation and ecosystem needs exist, as they do in virtually all types of agriculture, and those trade-offs should be quantified and debated openly, as they are in other industries,” the study concluded. “There is a significant need to broaden the conversation to encompass environmental concerns and to explore how current and future marijuana policy can use both incentives and regulatory tools to prevent and mitigate the environmental damage associated with marijuana cultivation.”

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

So far, cannabis growers have been able to bear the costs of high energy bills and environmental degradation because there has been neither a regulatory nor financial imperative for them to change their methods. Cannabis cultivators are a traditional bunch, in a sense, sticking to what they know works rather than branching out to try untested technologies. In that way, they’re not so different from farmers of staple crops like rice, who might hesitate to try a new method of farming that could help reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions but could also lead to a decrease in yields. But with the advent of a legal market for the drug, the cannabis farmer’s steadfast preference for traditional techniques could begin to change — and cannabis cultivators looking to cut down on their costs might look to other agricultural industries to figure out how to trim down their operational overhead.

“The biggest issue with sustainability in the cannabis industry is that they haven’t been forced to do anything differently,” Derek Peterson, CEO of Terra Tech, a high-tech greenhouse company based out of California, said. “They can spend thousands on their lighting because the margins are there. For produce [farmers], it’s not.”

The razor-thin margins of the produce industry are something with which Tyson Haworth is very familiar.

“I came from the organic wholesale produce industry, where you operate off of 1 percent margins, maybe 2 or 3 percent if we’re doing really good,” he said. “In no other industry will you see plants grown indoors. The most you’ll see is considered a greenhouse.”

Inside the greenhouse at SoFresh in Canby, Oregon. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling
Inside the greenhouse at SoFresh in Canby, Oregon. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling

Haworth operates his quarter-acre cannabis farm with the same fastidious commitment to reducing waste that you might see from a produce farmer keen on squeezing every last drop of efficiency from his or her operation. His plant trimmings get put in vats with lactic acid bacteria, which over the course of a few weeks turns the waste into nutrient-dense plant food. Any other trimmings that aren’t turned into fertilizer get put into giant compost heaps that dot the property; nearly a dozen chickens dart from their coop to the mounds, turning the compost and pecking the soil. Instead of growing three rounds of large plants in a year, Haworth grows five rounds of smaller plants — dividing the heat and energy needed to grow the plants by five as opposed to three evens out to a smaller energy footprint, he reasons. Excess heat from the farm’s indoor grow space is pumped into a separate room where the cannabis seedlings grow, reducing the need to heat that space with more propane.

Nearly every inch of Haworth’s SoFresh farm contains an idea like this — a manifestation of Haworth’s almost tunnel-visioned commitment to eliminating as many waste streams as possible. The roof of the barn, inside of which is the farm’s only indoor growing space, is completely outfitted with gutters that trap the plentiful Oregon rainwater and funnel it into a water reclamation system; from that water, Haworth reckons that he can offset months of irrigation needs. The dehumidifiers and air-conditioning units also serve a dual purpose: a condensation pump take the excess moisture that collects on their metal exteriors and siphons it into the reclamation tanks to help reduce the farm’s dependence on groundwater.

The water reclamation system at SoFresh. CREDIT: Tyson Haworth
The water reclamation system at SoFresh. CREDIT: Tyson Haworth

The ideas to streamline the efficiency of his operation come to him constantly, as he works during the day and as he lies awake at night.

“I think about that all the time. What’s your waste source, and how can you turn that into a revenue stream or help with an expense?” he said. “We’re trying to make as many closed-loop systems as possible, so that everything feeds off the waste from the previous cycle.”

For Haworth, all the effort — turning plant clippings into fertilizer and saving the drops of condensation on his air-conditioning units — makes financial sense because he can fetch a hefty price tag for his products at the market. Haworth’s cannabis was one of the first brands to claim a Clean Green certification, a label analogous to the USDA’s organic label (cannabis can’t be labeled organic since it’s dictated by a federal body, and cannabis is still federally illegal). But he knows that not every business is ready to make the leap from a more traditional style of cultivation to what Haworth and his workers are doing in Canby.

“I come from the produce industry and understand that people are willing to pay 20 percent more, on average, for an organic product,” Haworth said. “I can put all these great things on the farm with closed-loop systems and trying to create our own fertility, we pay our employees health care, we offer retirement, but a lot of businesses in the cannabis industry haven’t been able to do those things. We’ve been able to command a higher price for our product.”

Cannabis plants growing inside the greenhouse at SoFresh. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling
Cannabis plants growing inside the greenhouse at SoFresh. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling

One of the major barriers to convincing farmers to switch from their traditional indoor setups, Haworth explained, is just a lack of knowledge. He admits that it’s hard to change behavior, that it’s hard to convince a cannabis grower who has only known indoor growing and the pests that come with it that cultivating without pesticides, in a greenhouse — or outdoors, without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides — is possible.

“We’re trying to be a leader and show people that it’s possible to not use pesticides when you have spider mites,” Haworth said. “We’ve had them all, and we haven’t used pesticides, and we’re still growing [Cannabis] Cup-winning flowers. I just don’t think a lot of people know that’s possible.”

Terra Tech’s Peterson, the California businessman who has spent years trying to convince growers to switch to high-tech greenhouses, sees the same issue when trying to convince cannabis growers to test out a new technique or piece of technology.

“What has been concerning to cannabis growers is they didn’t want to deviate from the norm. They didn’t want to try something new,” he said. “It makes a lot of sense for people to look at sustainable technologies, but the biggest risk and concern is people not knowing how to operate that technology.”

But as the cannabis industry undergoes rapid expansion — and looks forward to a possible national market — entrepreneurs like Peterson are jumping at the chance to bring technology to growers. Peterson founded Terra Tech in 2009, after a series of financial crashes left him disillusioned with his Wall Street job. The medical cannabis market was just beginning to pick up, he remembers, and he began by researching lighting and hydroponic technologies that medical growers could use to help boost their yields. Then, he began looking into sustainability, and started to realize that the cannabis industry needed some help.

So he bought some land in New Jersey and started cultivating produce in a 5-acre greenhouse, using a Dutch-style glass building and hydroponics to grow leafy greens like butter lettuce and herbs.

“When you grow produce like that, you’re almost forced to lessen your carbon footprint,” Peterson said.

Flowers grown in a Dutch-style greenhouse. CREDIT: Shutterstock
Flowers grown in a Dutch-style greenhouse. CREDIT: Shutterstock

Greenhouses are where Peterson sees cannabis cultivation going in the future — using sunshine to mitigate energy costs, and integrating technology into the greenhouses to make sure inputs are being used as efficiently as possible. Some greenhouses, for example, have sensors that can tell when a cloud is blocking the sun and automatically turn lights on, meaning that electricity is used only when the sunshine can’t effectively reach the plants.

Haworth also sees greenhouses as the future of cannabis cultivation, arguing that as the legal market begins to force down the price of cannabis, indoor growing simply won’t be financially feasible for growers. Inside the SoFresh greenhouse, on a sunny day, Haworth will only run artificial lights for a few hours. Traditional fans are still used to regulate temperature, but using the natural sunshine allows Haworth to cut down considerably on the amount of energy that he uses.

But greenhouses aren’t the only way that the cannabis industry is looking to lessen its environmental footprint. Mike Bologna, CEO and founder of Green Lion, believes that better technology can help cannabis growers make more informed decisions about the techniques and inputs they use to cultivate their crop. Bologna is working to create software that can track a cannabis crop from seed to sale to help growers understand how their crops are reacting to changes in everything from temperature to light to water.

“It’s really about understanding every single step: what is your raw material input, what is your output, and what is the loss,” Bologna said.

And growers are also beginning to experiment with next-generation growing technology, like LED lights, which can significantly reduce an indoor growing operations energy use. According to Bilton, next-generation LED light bulbs are the future of indoor cannabis cultivation — they use half the electricity of a high-pressure sodium bulb, and only need to be replaced every ten to twenty years. As an added bonus, they also give off less heat, meaning growers need to use about a third of the air-conditioning they normally would.

For traditional cannabis cultivators, LEDs have a reputation for making big promises and failing to deliver. Haworth still uses high-pressure sodium bulbs in his operation because he says he just can’t get the same quality and yield from LEDs, though he hasn’t tried any of the new lights that have come on the market in the past few months. But other growers, like the Pink House in Colorado, have already begun experimenting with next-generation LED lights, like the kind manufactured by Heliospectra, an LED company based out of Sweden.

Cannabis grown under an LED light. CREDIT: Shutterstock
Cannabis grown under an LED light. CREDIT: Shutterstock

Chris Walker, Heliospectra’s general manager in the United States, admits that LEDs have a less-than-perfect track record with cannabis growers, but contends that new technology — the kind that has come on the market as recently as this year — could change all that.

“It’s really grower mentality. It’s a psychology,” Walker said. “And to get a grower to switch, you typically need to prove the technology, in which case you can’t simply replace a HPS with an LED and expect to derive results. You need to replace a whole room full of lamps. So there is a perceived risk in the mind of the grower.”

Switching to LEDs is also a significant financial commitment — they are more expensive than traditional high-pressure sodium bulbs, sometimes as much as four to five times more expensive. But LED evangelists like Walker and Bilton argue that the lights more than pay for themselves in the long-run, with the savings in energy bills and replacement bulbs. Ultimately, Walker says, it comes back to the market — will prices drop to a point where growers need to start looking for ways to shave costs from their production scheme?

“As the crop commodifies, there is a higher demand for LED lighting because the cost per gram continues to stay the same, but the price of the product in the marketplace continues to go down,” he said. “So you’ve got growers looking for ways to grow cheaper, and LED is an obvious place to reduce your operating cost.”

But even as growers and entrepreneurs try to move the cannabis industry toward a more sustainable approach, the drug’s questionable regulatory status makes it difficult for the industry to fully embrace truly sustainable techniques. For the most part, regulators have dealt with the drug’s status on a case-by-case approach, meaning that each state tends to have regulations and requirements unique to itself. And even within a state, certain issues — water pollution, pesticide use, energy efficiency — are dealt with by distinct regulatory bodies, which can turn the requirements within a single state into a complicated web of bureaucratic red tape.

To start, cannabis can’t be labeled organic, even if producers like Haworth follow organic practices and eschew synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Without an organic label to help the product command a premium price at market, it can be hard to convince growers that the techniques — which sometimes can lower yields and cost more in both time and labor — are ultimately worth it. The cannabis industry has created its own certification, known as the Clean Green label, which acts as a kind of work-around for farms that want to use organic practices but can’t get a USDA organic certification. Created over a decade ago by Chris Van Hook, an attorney and USDA-certified organic inspector, farms and retail outlets in five states are now Clean Green certified. But a Clean Green certification hardly carries the same name recognition as an organic label, and it’s hard to say if a novice cannabis buyer would know the true weight of the certification on their first trip to a dispensary.

Clean Green certified cannabis at SoFresh.
Clean Green certified cannabis at SoFresh.

Aside from the issue of organic certification, city and state regulators have been slow to factor environmental concerns into state-wide cannabis regulations. In Oregon, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) deals with applications for recreational cannabis growers, but has only just begun to look at growers’ environmental impacts — the Task Force on Cannabis Environmental Best Practices, a part of the OLCC, had its first meeting on April 12, 2016. Water-quality concerns and pesticide use are dealt with by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. But according to Cannabis Policy Coordinator Sunny Jones, who came to the position in November of last year, any water or pesticide measures are often based off of complaints or largely voluntary actions taken by growers — most lack strict enforcement mechanisms.

In some cases, regulations can actually make cannabis production less sustainable. In Washington, when recreational cannabis first passed, the bill limited production to indoor facilities only — a move that would have forced growers to consume more energy (that was eventually reversed, and cultivators can now grow outdoors). In Oregon, cannabis can only be grown outside if there is a 100-foot strip between the edge of the property and the plants, limiting some growers’ ability to cultivate outside. And in Nevada, which is considering legalizing recreational cannabis in 2016, the crop can’t be grown in a structure that has see-through sides, eliminating the sort of Dutch-style glass greenhouses that companies like Terra Tech are peddling — under the state’s current medical regulations, cannabis can only be grown indoors.

The laws are potentially one of the biggest drivers for unsustainable business practices

Other places, like Colorado’s Boulder County, are experimenting with adding environmental rules into their cannabis regulations. Beginning in 2015, Boulder County mandated that any licensed cannabis grower had to obtain 100 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources. If growers were unable to use 100 percent renewable energy, for whatever reason, they could instead pay into an energy-impact offset fund, which is then used to help educate cannabis growers about using less energy and capitalizing on renewable energy sources.

“They use a very large amount of electricity. They use a lot of power. It’s a new industry, so it’s growing at a rate that is hard to find in other industries,” Ron Flax, Boulder County’s building sustainability examiner, said. “There’s a piece of it that we are regulating it simply because we can. There are other industries that we don’t have any opportunity to regulate.”

But more than regulating for regulation’s sake, Flax says that Boulder County saw an opportunity to shape the impact of cannabis production from the ground up. There’s a lot that can be done to make cannabis more sustainable — from growing outside to using renewable energy — and regulators in Boulder County felt it was important to help educate growers about these options.

“In general, the industry has been very supportive of this program,” he said. “They like the idea of having assistance in doing it better.”

In the end, however, the biggest hurdle to truly sustainable cannabis might be the drug’s federally illegal status, which makes it difficult for growers to take advantage of certain incentives — like energy efficiency rebates — for fear of running afoul of federal regulators. And federal prohibition means that in places where cannabis doesn’t naturally grow well outside — the cold Northeast, for example — cultivation will be forced to remain in greenhouses or indoors unless cross-border trade is allowed.

“The laws are potentially one of the biggest drivers for unsustainable business practices,” SoFresh’s Haworth says, standing outside of his greenhouse in Canby. “As long as we can’t trade with our neighboring states, we’re going to continue to develop lots of indoor cultivation facilities, because not everywhere is it suitable to grow cannabis outdoors or in a greenhouse.”