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Making the Pot Business a Little Greener

Sustainability might be the next big battle for marijuana.

Photo by Psychonaught via Wikimedia Commons

Hezekiah Allen was given his first hard lesson in the weed business back in July 1992. It was just weeks before his ninth birthday when he heard the mechanical roar of helicopters swarming towards his family’s Humboldt County, California home. The choppers hugged close to the ground; Allen could make out the troops’ eyes as his mother ushered him into their family car and peeled down the road from their house. Allen's parents, a schoolteacher and early tech industry worker, supplemented their income by growing and selling marijuana. Now 31, Allen serves as the executive director of the Emerald Growers Association (EGA), a cannabis trade group that works closely with California’s farmers and regulators on public policy. EGA not only promotes economic vitality and social conscientiousness, but they also advocate for eco-friendly practices in the new, wildly unregulated marijuana market.

While Allen’s experience facing off with government helicopters in Humboldt County in the early ‘90s was traumatic, it was nothing unique. Humboldt, along with Mendocino and Trinity Counties, make up Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, so-called for the prolific amounts of marijuana grown and sold beneath the landscape’s looming redwoods. More than $27 billion worth of illicit marijuana was seized from the area between 1983 and 2006. But in recent years, news out of the Emerald Triangle has centered less on judicious law enforcement and more on illegal backcountry growing practices that devastate the environment.

“Here we are in the 21st century with a multi-billion dollar industry that’s finally coming online, and as it comes online, we want to make sure our values are embedded in it,” said Allen. Co-author of a best practices guide to growing environmentally sound marijuana, Allen takes a measured, practical approach to what has become a surprisingly dirty business, pushing for regulations that would stem the damage from the guerrilla and black-market grow operations. Worst practices divert precious water from parched salmon runs and spew CO2 into the atmosphere with diesel generators. But these practices, prevalent among smaller growers, are only symptomatic of the herb’s bigger green problem: even with stringent regulatory laws in places like Colorado and Washington, large-scale marijuana production is energy-intensive and leaves a giant carbon footprint.

According to a 2012 peer-reviewed study from by researcher Evan Mills, marijuana accounts for $6 billion in national energy costs, or one percent of total energy consumption. Given the energy costs of indoor grow operations associated with lights, water, and HVAC systems (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning), smoking a single joint is like releasing three pounds of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. Producing one kilogram of processed cannabis yields 4600 kg of CO2, or the equivalent of driving across the country 11 times in a 44-mpg car. The Nation translated those numbers: the carbon footprint of a single gram is “the same as driving 17 miles in a Honda Civic.”

These environmental costs will only increase as more states establish markets—like D.C. and Alaska, which both recently legalized recreational use (although buying weed in a dispensary in either place is still a ways off). One of EGA’s goals is to help bring farmers out of the shadows and into a new paradigm in which comprehensive public policy might protect river basins and set limits on some of the industry’s environmental excesses. Treating cannabis like any other agricultural product, they say, will force cultivators to adhere to regulations, providing critical oversight and locking positive licensing requirements into place.

But regulation alone may not be able to address all of marijuana’s green problems, especially if the laws are unsustainable. At first, Colorado’s medical growers were required by law to grow in huge warehouses, which drove five-figure (or more) monthly electrical costs. Growers in Colorado and Washington are now investing more and more in greenhouses, which are in hot demand and could decrease emissions per kilogram tenfold.

Still, sustainability is on the radar for the industry in 2015. “With a lot of companies that have been consolidated over the last hundred years, the concepts of corporate greed have become entrenched,” said Allen. “Here, we’re kind of starting from scratch. We went from really heavy-handed prohibition to a free-for-all market, where profit drove everything, and now I think we're transitioning into the era of values-driven commerce.”

This year, the National Cannabis Industry Association’s Cultivation Management Symposium features sustainability as a major talking point. Surna, a Boulder, Colorado cannabis-sector manufacturing company, is one the primary sponsors of the event. Their products are billed as more efficient and controllable than alternatives. Traditional warehouse-based marijuana operations use hundreds of lightbulbs and retrofitted HVAC systems that gobble up tons of energy and often manage loads far greater than they were originally designed for. According to Surna’s Katie O’Block, using their water-chilled cooling and dehumidifier systems instead of HVAC yields an average 30 percent cost reduction, translating into a smaller carbon-footprint for its users. They’re also rolling out a high-tech reflector in the coming months that will reduce the electrical costs of lightbulbs by transferring and rejecting heat more efficiently through water.

In a way, the struggle playing out in the cannabis industry is actually similar to the frequent tension seen in Silicon Valley between public policy and private innovation intent on “disrupting” the status quo. But because the status quo for marijuana is only now becoming established, many imagine an eco-friendly industry for the future.

“The war on pot is over,” said Allen, a lifetime veteran of the conflict. “We are starting to write the terms of this industry state by state, county by county, and we want to make sure that the farmers who fought that war, who were on the front line, are still part of the conversation.”

Surna cooling and dehumidifying system

But that's perhaps one of the biggest qualitative differences between the marijuana industry and Silicon Valley’s disruptors: the former was created by a group of activists and farmers like Allen and his family, who harbored a vision of a world in which using marijuana wouldn't be a crime. They persisted through persecution, to reach a moment when markets in Colorado and Washington are taking off. Their vision can now be complemented with technology from businesses that could make their environmental future sustainable.

“The activists really are the people that are driving all this change forward, and that’s so important to remember,” O’Block said. “Business wouldn’t be able to happen without the activists. They’re the ones who got this whole movement going. They’re the people who blow into the conch shell for all of us to come forward.”

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