Growing Greener Grass
As marijuana cultivation outgrows its black market roots, the industry, consumers, scientists, regulators, and environmentalists have begun working together toward a more sustainable future.
Photos by Emily Brady
According to a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Energy Policy, the carbon footprint of a single gram of cannabis grown in a closet-sized hydroponics unit is "the same as driving seventeen miles in a Honda Civic." To put that in perspective, every time Snoop declares "We gonna smoke an ounce to this,” that's—as any good herb dealer knows—28.3 grams of indo getting rolled up, to the tune of 481 Honda Civic miles. Just enough, coincidentally, to drive from Snoop's home in Los Angeles to Northern California's legendary Emerald Triangle, long famed for producing the world's finest outdoor marijuana.
Back-to-the-landers first started growing ganja up there in the 1960's, after seeking out cheap homesteads in a remote, ruggedly beautiful area that had recently been hard hit—economically and environmentally—by the cut-and-run tactics of the logging industry. Not only didn't those early hippies see any harm in tending a few pot plants alongside their vegetables—to get high off, and to help make ends meet—they actually believed deeply in cannabis as a medicine, a sacrament, and an alternative to petroleum, alcohol and synthetics.
Only now, half-a-century later, sad as it is to say, their beautiful dream has been transformed by materialism and official malfeasance into a Golem that sucks the land dry amid a very worrying drought; poisons wildlife; spoils hillsides; contaminates rivers, spills diesel, and creates serious fire hazards. All because the state of California, nearly twenty years after voters approved legal medical marijuana, still refuses to regulate the cultivation of cannabis in any meaningful way. And when Mendocino County (one third of the Emerald Triangle, along with Humboldt and Trinity) implemented an innovative zip-tie program in 2010 to effectively tax and regulate outdoor growing—including requiring responsible environmental practices—the Feds came down on them with a vengeance.
And so what's been left behind is a laissez-faire fantasy land where the invisible hand of the black market decides whether or not it's a good idea to divert a barely trickling stream in order to water your hundreds (or thousands) of chronically thirsty pot plants, or how much rat poison is too much when growing a medicinal herb, or if the diesel generator powering the massive indoor “bud factory” you've erected in the middle of nowhere requires a containment tank (vs. “fuck it”), or if leveling off that hillside could lead to some nasty mudslides down the road, or how much chemical fertilizer you can dump onto the land before it causes massive algae blooms downstream that threaten everything from bears to salmon.
According to the organization Grow It In the Sun, “The disproportionately high price of cannabis under prohibition has set the stage for these remote watersheds to become 'sacrifice zones' for short-term profits. [...] This marijuana mono-economy is now totally pervasive in the Emerald Triangle.”
Of course, if pot prohibition incentivizes High Intensity Discharge (HID) lights with huge carbon footprints indoors and lawless environmental degradation outdoors, the situation should be much better in Colorado, where the Department of Revenue licenses and regulates medical cannabis growers, and now does the same for the state's recreational marijuana supply. But according to Kayvan Khalatbari, a leading legal cannabis entrepreneur in Denver, things remain far from optimal in the Rocky Mountain State.
“Right now, you have four and a half million square feet of cultivation facility space in Denver County alone,” He tells VICE, “and the pressure that puts on our electrical grid, and our water supply, it’s just massive.”
Khalatbari co-owns and operates Denver Relief, one of Colorado's longest-running marijuana retailers, plus a national cannabis industry consulting firm, three pizza shops and a burgeoning stand-up comedy empire. So he's a “real business person,” albeit one with deep roots in marijuana culture and activism.
“We’ve been working really progressively, I like to think, for the last year, on sustainable technologies and methodologies,” He says, “including how to create incentives for the rest of the industry to adopt technologies that generally will be more expensive on the front end than they'd like.”
According to Khalatbari, too many of his competitors retain a prohibition-era mindset that stifles innovation and long-term investment. And so, the first wave of legal marijuana cultivation in America has largely taken the technologies and protocols of the bootleg era and scaled them up.
Enter a commercial cannabis production facility in Denver today, even one of the best run operations, and you'll see pretty much the same HID lights you'd find in a twelve-plant basement garden set up by a crafty teenager in Des Moines, Iowa. Lights that were designed not for growing plants, but for illuminating parking lots and ball fields, according to Neil Yorio, a former NASA scientist who now serves as a technology advisor for Denver Relief.
“It's my opinion that most growers are pretty much just following dogma,” Yorio says. “They all clone or seed their plants under fluorescents, vegetate under metal halides and flower under high pressure sodium. And when I ask: Why do you do that? Their answers always vary, but really it's because that's what they were told, or what they read in a book. So these growers are using technology that's old and energy wasteful, because it was the best technology available at the time they began using it. But when you look at things from a purely scientific perspective, cannabis can be cultivated in a much more efficient manner, with a far better outcome in terms of yield and quality.”
Yorio and his colleagues at NASA first got interested in grow lights back in the early 1990's while researching ways to design and build a bioregenerative life support system capable of “using crop plants in a sealed environment to keep humans alive in space, on the moon, or on Mars for long durations.” At the time, LED technology hadn't progressed much past tiny clock radios, but tasked with developing highly efficient, highly durable, lightweight, powerful lights suitable for space missions, Yorio and his team saw their potential.
Just five years ago, he wouldn't have recommended LED's for commercial marijuana cultivation, because the technology hadn't advanced far enough, but today, he says, his company Lighting Science offers “a robust, commercial grade fixture” that puts out sufficient light for growing high-grade cannabis while offering significant savings on energy use, water use and maintenance.
“When Neil first asked if we'd R&D test his new LED fixtures, we initially told him the exact same thing we’d previously said to a million other LED providers, 'No, thanks.'” Khalatbari recalls. “Because in the past, LEDs just haven't matched up to high-intensity discharge lights. But then we looked at Neil's background, and some white papers he brought to the table, written by Bruce Bugbee, a Utah state professor.”
Denver Relief eventually installed Light Science's LED fixtures in a small portion of their existing grow space on a trial basis, agreeing to run “three full tests comparing them apples-to-apples with HID lamps.” The results showed the LED fixtures produced equal or better results in terms of yield and potency, with energy savings of around 25% on lighting, plus additional savings on maintenance, cooling and water.
At that rate, conversion to LED pays for itself rapidly for existing commercial growers, and the technology makes even more sense for those building new facilities from the ground up. Khalatbari says that's why he's currently expanding his own use of LED fixtures, and also recommends them to consulting clients in Canada, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Illinois, and Massachusetts.
“But that’s just one piece of what we’ve starting doing with Neil,” he says. “There’s also an ex-NASA colleague of his at the University of Maryland who really wants to dig into water conservation options for the cannabis industry. So he's just come here and installed sensors and other tracking devices to remotely monitor and measure our water use, soil moisture, transpiration rate, plant temperature, and what we’re pouring down the drains.”
One immediate goal is developing alternatives to using reverse osmosis to “clean” tap water before it reaches plants, since that process wastes two gallons of water for every one gallon it produces. While the bigger picture calls for bringing together a broad coalition of industry, consumers, government, utilities and academia to share information, set goals and develop environmental best practices. Xcel Energy, among Colorado’s largest utilities, has already sent efficiency experts into marijuana cultivation facilities, to analyze their energy use, and offer rebates designed to push growers towards better methods and technologies.
“There haven’t been many studies of cannabis sustainability, and that presents a challenge,” Janet Burgesser, of the City and County of Denver's Department of Environmental Health tells VICE. “We’re basically starting from scratch to come up with these overall impacts and how to reduce them.”
Burgesser, who “didn't know a heck of a lot” about marijuana cultivation when the state first started regulating medical cannabis, now works together with the industry to help reduce its outsized impact on the area's energy grid and water supply (which Xcel estimates at “150-200 gigawatt-hours per year, or about one half of one percent” of total annual electric sales). She doesn't see direct government intervention as likely in the near future, but instead hopes that a message touting the combined social and financial return of adopting green practices will yield results.
“When I first started visiting these marijuana businesses, they were very open to working with the Department of Environmental Health,” She says. “They'd all tell me, 'We’d like to save money and reduce our impacts, we just don’t know how yet.' So hopefully people like Kayvan can demonstrate what's achievable and convince others to follow.”
Of course, when it comes to conserving energy and promoting sustainability, nothing comes close to growing cannabis in the sun—provided you've got a suitable climate and sound environmental practices. Remember, the serious problems up in California's Emerald Triangle aren't inherent to outdoor marijuana cultivation, but instead stem from the current grey market's unfettered incentivization of short term profit and total lack of effective regulation.
Outdoor growing also costs a lot less than indoor, which is why the long-term future of legal cannabis in Colorado may lie in large-scale greenhouses with supplemental light. At least until the federal government's all-out ban on marijuana ends, and interstate cannabis commerce opens up, allowing the nation's marijuana supply to be grown wherever conditions prove most suitable—just like any other other commercial crop.
In the meantime, green-minded ganja consumers can opt to do their part by supporting eco-friendly marijuana cultivators. For most of the country, reliably sourcing herb grown in this manner remains something of a pipe dream due to the “take it or leave it” nature of most illegal marijuana sales, but the good news is that when marketed effectively in legal states, the pot buying public does seem willing to reward those who strive to produce Mary Jane without harming Mother Earth.
According to Rick Pfommer, Director of Education at Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California—the nation's largest cannabis retailer—sun-grown marijuana grew from 5 percent to over 20 percent of their total sales in 2012, the first year they adopted the term to describe their outdoor and greenhouse-grown offerings. And sun grown buds not only tread lightly on the planet, they also offer a superior medicinal product with a longer lasting high.
“Sun Grown cannabis contains many more cannabinoids than its lamp grown counterparts,” Pfommer wrote in a recent essay for Cannabis Now magazine. “As more states legalize, those with a stake in the future, and I believe that is all of us, should be demanding that the cannabis they consume has been grown with as little ecological impact as possible. And the only way to ensure that is by using the sun.”
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