Despite the tree-hugging subculture associated with the cannabis world, the fact of the matter is that most of the green out there isn’t very “green” at all. For generations, cannabis cultivation has required an immense amount of water and energy. A 2011 study estimates that a kilogram of indoor grown cannabis uses about 4,600 kilograms of carbon dioxide. This is twice the amount of energy spent on the production of the average pharmaceutical product, and equivalent to the production of three million cars.
A lot of these environmentally damaging practices are rooted in decades of black market domination. And it isn’t only limited to excessive energy and chemical use. Scientists believe that because of the way black market growers keep out of sight they are more harmful to California’s forests than the logging industry itself.
Most cannabis is, of course, grown indoors, and energy efficient LED bulbs may do it for a person’s living room, but they have been found to yield slower results for cannabis harvesters. When the growing process is slowed down, it isn’t just bad for sales, it ends up using just as much energy as less efficient bulbs.
Luckily, the legal market is an opportunity to right the ecological wrongs of pot-past. California—as the largest recreational marijuana market in the world—has the potential to be a leader in this arena. The state, with its devastating season of wildfires, is particularly vulnerable to climate change. California has also suffered horrendous droughts in recent years, and weed plants require a lot of water.
The state of California and its cities are currently reviewing applications for commercial cannabis farms which will be monitored for pesticide and water use, among other things. Many farms which have been operating in a legal gray area are currently trying to get permitted, but some will also continue to operate on the black market, without their environmental footprint tracked.
According to Evan Mills, a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy, there’s a long way to go. “While the nation has achieved hard-earned progress towards climate change solutions, state and federal policymakers have made little or no effort to scrutinize the role of indoor marijuana operations,” wrote Mills. “Thanks to this inattention, these growers are enjoying a climate-change double standard as they are passed over by a host of policies and programs successfully improving energy efficiency and deploying renewable energy into virtually every other segment of the economy. For marijuana, there is no appropriate LEED rating, no ENERGY STAR label, no energy use transparency.”
Until cannabis begins to be treated like every other crop by the government, the responsibility will fall on consumers who care about the environment to figure out where their flower is coming from. Fortunately, that’s becoming easier as more farms are putting up websites and talking about their grows. Armed with this knowledge, smokers will be able blaze with a clear conscience instead of worrying about the atmosphere blazing in years to come.