Year 2050

Weed Might Be the Only Thing Climate Change Won't Ruin

Climate change will have some devastating consequences over the next 33 years. One of those consequences will not be less weed.

by Mike Pearl
20 April 2017, 7:45pm

Illustration by Corey Brickley

In my research for this column, I've learned that climate change is going to flood New York City, ruin sushi and coffee, worsen immigration-related problems, and increase the size and quantity of some bugs. But here's some good news for a change: No matter how bad the climate situation gets by 2050, weed is probably going to be just fine.

Yes, there are signs of some trouble ahead for farmers—particularly in Latin America. And yes, there are probably going to be policy fights between farmers and local governments. But climate doesn't look like it will make weed worse or less available. In fact, there are signs that by 2050, the market will actually be flooded with cheap weed thanks to climate change.

Let's set aside legality. Sure, enforcement could potentially surge under a weed-unfriendly presidential administration. But as the New York Times recently put it, activists now take a kind of manifest destiny approach to legalization. "I'm assuming there'll be full legalization by 2050, otherwise I'm not doing my job right," said Sanho Tree, drug policy researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning DC think tank.

The weather itself won't kill pot plants, since the plant grows pretty much everywhere in the world, so increased average temperatures by 2050, such as the predicted five degree spike in the pot-growing stronghold of California, are scary for pretty much everything except weed farming. "They grow it at 62 degrees north latitude in Finland. They grow it right on the Equator, where I was the other day," said Donald Wirtshafter, legendary cannabis activist, lawyer, and historian. But Wirtshafter told me increased severe weather events may present a bit of a problem for weed farmers. "Wet plants produce moldy plants, especially late in the season," he said.

Wirtshafter, who spends much of his time on Colombian cannabis plantations, told me the Colombian farmers he knows just dry their buds with mold still on them, producing a horrible, brown product. A recent rash of unusual storms in Colombia may or may not be connected to climate change, but if it is a trend, it doesn't bode well for the quality of Colombian weed, unless farmers take steps to improve conditions. "They're getting amazing quality crops just by putting a plastic cover up," Wirtshafter told me.

Meanwhile, if California sees some sort of drastic increase in precipitation by 2050—and it's possible—farmers would likely have the option to pull up stakes and move. "As more states open up, more reliably dry places like Arizona are going to reach dominance," Wirtshafter predicted.

But perhaps more importantly than any of this is the fact that more sensitive crops like corn and wheat can shrivel up—literally wilt—when temperatures increase. "As these problems become more extreme, we may become more dependent on cannabis because of its adaptability to these harsh conditions," said Wirtshafter.

According to Van Butsic, a UC Berkeley researcher studying agricultural land use in Northern California, this is already happening. Farmers he's acquainted with are growing quote-unquote "organic vegetables," alongside their organic vegetables. Once it's legal, Butsic told me, "cannabis can join the mix with other crops," and diversifying your farm's output is just good business. Even if your first love is, say, wine, it might be a good idea to keep some weed plants around. That way you can "withstand fluctuations in markets, or bad years," Butsic told me. By implication, weed might also keep your farm in business if the apocalyptic heat from climate change melts your vegetables.

The weed booms in Colorado and Oregon are well underway. But in an agriculture-heavy area like California, where recreational weed retail won't become legal until January 2018, it seemed plausible that the invasion of a new, high-value crop like pot might harm food production. Even if some of the pot industry's energy problems will likely be solved when the crop can be grown out in the open, one plant still uses 23 liters of water per day, as opposed to the 13 liters per day a grape vine uses. So, yes, it's a thirsty crop.

According to Butsic, pot may have its environmental issues, but an increase in farming by 2050 isn't likely to rob the region of its resources.

Butsic, who researches ways to count acres of cannabis farms in California, said "there's a maximum of 20,000 acres of [outdoor and greenhouse] weed production right now in California," and meanwhile, there are "about one million acres" of land dedicated to almond orchards. "So even if weed quadrupled and took over some almonds, that would be a tiny percentage of almonds—I just don't think the land use area for weed cultivation will ever be big enough to compete," he said.

In short, climate could harm food crops, but if that farmland starts getting used for ganja by 2050, don't blame the plant itself.

Besides, the proliferation of pot farming has upsides for everyone. According to David Wrathall, Oregon State University assistant professor of geography and environmental sciences, "One of the main environmental benefits is depriving the Mexican cartels of profits." The cartels, he pointed out, lay waste to huge swaths of forest, just to launder their money, and they also just generally suck. So any negative impact, Wrathall told me, "would be offset by fewer negative environmental consequences [from] illicit production."

My last worry was an oversaturated market. In other words, what if climate change causes the problem we all secretly want: too much cheap weed. That would be great for consumers, but—to be fair—bad for producers.

But Wirtshafter told me not to worry about that either. "Eventually, there'll be a flooded market for pot. But that just means we'll use cannabis for other things, like industrial hemp, which is making a huge resurgence in the United States," he said. We all got a big reminder about this the other day when the State of Kentucky had to burn a farmer's hemp due to it having too much THC in it.

And if climate change causes a famine, according to Wirtshafter, all those bountiful pot harvests could be our salvation. "Hemp was known as a crop for times of drought and famine. People ate a lot of hemp seeds in prior famines," he said, adding, "We may be back to that fairly quickly."

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