We live in an exciting time to be a cannabis enthusiast. More countries are preparing to open up recreational use, and we are beginning to see the first glimpses of a global cannabis industry.
As we move away from prohibition, new challenges arise. Testing cannabis (link to testing article), social implications, and environmentally conscious solutions to the commercial production of cannabis all need to be addressed as the industry matures. Producing and selling cannabis in a safe, legal market presents unforeseen environmental issues that need to be resolved before global cannabis companies are given the opportunity to truly scale.
More countries are preparing to open up recreational use, and we are beginning to see the first glimpses of a global cannabis industry.
Environmental Challenges in Cultivating Cannabis
Growing a few cannabis plants in a personal garden has little to zero environmental implications.
Cannabis is a regenerative plant, in some cases leaving the soil in better condition after a full lifecycle. The environment is becoming a factor when massive amounts of cannabis are grown in one area or throughout a specific region.
Cultivating cannabis presents environmental challenges for both outdoor and indoor growing environments. In Northern California, cannabis farmers have produced large-scale grows for decades both under regulations set by the state and by black-market growers. Dutch cultivators primarily operate indoors illegally without any government oversight.
Both situations expose the need for more legal opportunities to grow cannabis and a comprehensive plan to promote sustainable farming practices.
In most cases, growing cannabis outdoors requires deforestation. Compared to the clear-cutting of trees for wood products, the impact is seemingly insignificant. While the area affected is much smaller but ‘on a per-unit-area basis, the cannabis grows resulted in 1.5 times more forest loss and 2.5 times greater fragmentation of the landscape, breaking up large, contiguous forest into smaller patches and reducing wildlife habitat,’ according to Science Daily.
Cannabis plants need a lot of water. The general rule of thumb is every pound the plant produces requires about a gallon of water per day. The gallon per pound metric requires context; for example, plants in the early developmental stages need much less water, and plants grown in hotter climates need more water.
As global temperatures rise, cannabis plants will need more water. Commercial grows require an incredible amount of water per day, putting a strain on the natural ecosystem, especially in areas like the West Coast suffering from historic droughts.
Outdoor and indoor grows both require electricity. Even when the sun is utilized, growers use irrigation systems, fans, and electronics to monitor their crop. While the energy consumption isn’t near what is required by indoor operations, the environmental impact is commonly overlooked.
Growing cannabis indoors requires hours of artificial light. According to Cannabis Business Times, weed-grown indoors has declined 20% from 2016 to 2020. While the decline shows the US and Canada are moving towards growing more cannabis outdoors, companies only using warehouses or indoor facilities are still at 60%.
The commercial cultivation industry in the Netherlands is almost exclusively done indoors. The first reason is it remains illegal growers must operate in secrecy. An undesirable climate also limits the ability to grow consistent, high-quality cannabis outdoors.
The Black Market
Until the entire world legalizes and regulates the cultivation of cannabis, we will have a thriving black market.
In California, growers can make much more money growing on public land, using banned pesticides and fertilizers to maximize yields, and selling their product in less progressive states with cannabis bans still in place.
Dutch growers are also tempted to cut corners to produce as much cannabis as possible, but they are legally in a strange position. While buying cannabis at a coffee shop is tolerated, the production and wholesale remain illegal.
The United States currently bans cannabis crossing state lines for any reason. If cannabis is legalized federally, areas like Northern California would have the opportunity to scale cultivation because they can grow high-quality cannabis outdoors. If this were to happen, the impact on the environment would be detrimental, and California could dominate the cultivation market in the US.
Borders present many challenges to regulators and businesses. While they benefit small businesses in legal markets, growing cannabis outdoors in the Northeast is challenging and forces growers to consume more resources.
The EU is in a similar situation; however, the legal industry is not nearly as evolved as North America. The Mediterranean countries could serve as a cultivation center, but they would be faced with limiting the environmental impact of growing the majority of Europe’s cannabis.
Rampant Waste in Retail
Once cannabis is cured or manufactured into a concentrate, more environmental issues arise for the budding industry. Excessive packaging and child-proof containers add to the environmental burden of producing cannabis.
Individual packaging plagues the cannabis industry. Brands struggle to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive market. Since ultra-potent cannabis is the industry norm, companies use unnecessary packaging to create brand awareness. The most prominent example is the resealable mylar pouches by industry heavyweight Cookies.
Child Proof Containers
On top of cannabis companies feeling the need to package individual tinctures, small amounts of cannabis, and edibles, most regulatory agencies require the products to leave the dispensary in bulky plastic containers.
Single-use plastic is mandated by law for most recreational and medical cannabis companies. While alternatives are being produced, nothing has been developed affordable enough for dispensaries while meeting government regulations and easily kept from pets or children.
The Next Generation of Cannabis Entrepreneurs
We will soon reach a point where kids reach adulthood only knowing a world where recreational cannabis dispensaries occupy every square mile. The youth will be tasked with figuring out how to grow cannabis sustainably and create packaging solutions that put less of a burden on the environment.
In many areas, the fight is still getting public access to safe cannabis products, but in markets like the US and Canada, new challenges are presenting themselves. The cannabis industry is far from sustainable, but we have faith in the ingenuity of cannabis entrepreneurs and the future generation.