Even if you smoke weed regularly, it’s rare you ever come face to face with the impact that your consumption has on the environment. Most of us simply get into the back of an Audi and buy whatever strain our dealer has, without thinking of the chain of events that produced the contents of a baggie.
Between the huge amount of water and energy needed to grow it indoors, cannabis has a huge carbon footprint. A 2012 study estimates that growing a kilo of cannabis indoors produces the equivalent to the emissions from three million cars and in the UK, around £200 million worth of electricity is stolen every year just to run these cannabis farms.
“If a gang is siphoning energy, they don’t really have to care about how much they’re using or how much it costs,” explains Simpa Carter, a UK-based drug and social issues activist and host of The Simpa Life podcast. “If they don’t have the experience, they could be wasting thousands of kilowatts of energy to grow poor [cannabis] that doesn’t even pass standards to go to market.”
There’s also the huge amount of waste that comes from growing weed. In early January, Bradford City Council announced that they were taking action against the rising number of illegal cannabis farms that had been dumping bags of dead plants, lamps, wiring and tubs of fertiliser in streams and on country lanes.
“There are serious unethical practices around the British illegal cannabis industry,” says Andre Gomes, from Release, a drugs charity focusing on law and policy. “There are some environmental costs that come from an unregulated industry, such as no control over the use of fertilisers, nor sanitary measures to ensure their adequate disposal. Neither are there controls in the quality of the cannabis provided to people; it's not that uncommon for people to buy mouldy weed.”
But by far the most serious issue, Gomes says, is the human rights abuse related to the illicit market. Conditions for growers are dangerous – deadly, even, with one man dying after a fire broke out on a farm in a locked garage in east London. “Organised criminal groups have used undocumented migrants to tend to cannabis grows, engaging in debt bondage and threatening them and their families with violence,” Gomes explains. “This is actual modern slavery. Worst of all, the police is not equipped to deal with these operations when they bust them.”
But there are proposed concepts for cannabis to be grown sustainably, including ways energy is used and how waste is eliminated. Research has found that batteries made from hemp could perform up to eight times better than regular batteries. In England, you could take over disused, polluted pockets of land in ex-industrial cities like Liverpool or Newcastle, Simpa suggests. “[They could] grow cannabis on it, build the physical structure of it, build batteries from cannabis to power it, then grow cannabis within it to create into the products [we buy],” he says, “The sealed packets and the doobie tubes could be made from polymer plastics made from cannabis resin.”
“Within a few generations of cultivating on that soil, you bio-remediate all of the heavy toxins and you turn that back into quality, green arable land.”
Ultimately, legalisation is the key step towards more ethical weed, cutting out the reliance on criminal gangs who exploit poorly paid workers. “The legal regulation of cannabis would help remove a vital funding source from the hands of organised crime and into the public realm, helping fund needed treatment services and, vitally, the communities that have historically been marginalised or criminalised by cannabis' prohibition,” says Gomes.
“We need to as a society start talking more about how we can make sure that those that have been locked up for cannabis are not locked out of the market that would emerge upon its legalisation.”
But there’s currently no plan for the UK to legalise cannabis and Gomes says it looks unlikely under the current Conservative government. “There is some more support from other parties: The Green Party signed our cannabis justice paper, as well as the Liberal Democrat Drug Policy Reform Group. We are hoping for support from the Labour Drug Policy Reform Group, although Keir Starmer's opposition to decriminalisation is worrying to say the least,” he says.
“We still believe that legalisation will happen; there are too many global examples of regulated cannabis industries, and public health, education and social justice sectors that have benefitted from the industry. The case for its legal regulation builds every year; it's key to think now not of when, but how it should be regulated.”
Simpa agrees. “If there was a government-backed incentive for individuals to just grow in their back gardens, you’d drop the price, no one would want to nick it because it'd be everywhere and we'd be sequestering carbon left, right and centre and contributing so much towards research and development,” he says.
Until legalisation happens, he believes that growing cannabis can be more sustainable if it’s grown carefully in small batches. “It’s better if you buy a gram of weed from your mate who has bought the seeds and knows their stuff so isn’t putting negative additives into it,” he says. “The average person growing in their house is going to grow to the maximum yield, they’re not going to want to be wasting energy because they’re paying for it.” In other words, shop local.