New York became one of only a few states to legalize recreational marijuana this year when it did so in March. Cannabis, both medical and recreational, is now legal in more states than unlawful, increasing state-regulated grow operations across the US.
Researchers from all across the country, including the Cannabis Research Center at the University of California Berkeley, are interested in learning more about how cannabis growing affects the land, environment. Wartenberg, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, is one of the authors of a recent publication that summarised all studies on cannabis’ environmental effects. “I was honestly astonished at how few I discovered. Of the research they were able to include in the review study, Wartenberg adds, “I assumed there would be more.”
According to Wartenberg, the lack of research on the environmental effects of cannabis growing is mainly due to two factors. Even when it comes to the things like their effects on mental health, investigating federally banned drugs is difficult. Because of the stigma associated with these drugs, scientific research on cannabis’s environmental influence did not become commonplace until roughly a decade ago.
Cannabis research is significant since it is not classified as traditional agriculture in terms of legislation, according to Van Butsic, study author and co-director of the Cannabis Research Center. “One of the reasons we undertake a study on cannabis is because it has a social and cultural background that is distinct from other crops,” he explains.
While research on the environmental effect of cannabis farming is still in its early stages, preliminary findings suggest that sustainability should be a vital issue in cannabis growing. According to Colorado State University research, one serving of THC emits far more greenhouse gases than a serving of beer, wine, or cigarettes. Indoor growth, which uses a lot of energy, is one of the leading causes of this gap.
The researchers highlighted six primary categories to examine the environmental implications of cannabis in Wartenberg’s review paper: air pollution, pesticide usage, water consumption, energy consumption, land cover change, and water pollution.
According to the study, some of these effect areas, such as water usage and land usage, apply to all crops. Cannabis, on the other hand, is frequently grown indoors due to its ease of cultivation almost anywhere. Indoor farming accounts for 80% of Colorado’s annual cannabis production of one million pounds. Farmers might expect a more significant burden on energy usage when growing plants without natural sunshine than when using outdoor or mixed-light approaches.
The utilization of energy for lighting and air circulation is a significant challenge with indoor gardening. According to recent research, indoor cannabis growing is on its way to becoming a substantial source of greenhouse gases in the United States. The cannabis sector in Colorado produces 1.3 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the state. According to the research authors, that’s nearly the same amount of emissions as the state’s coal mining. According to the same study, greenhouse gas emissions from cannabis production vary by area in the United States, with cannabis cultivated in the Mountain West, Midwest, Alaska, and Hawaii emitting the most. The moderate weather of southern California and the coastal regions, on the other hand, make for less demanding growing locations.
Growing cannabis has also been proven to have an influence on air quality in other research. Biogenic volatile organic compounds, or BVOCs, are gases that cannabis plants, like other plants, release. A study conducted in Colorado in 2019 looked at how much BVOCs are created by cannabis grown indoors. These chemicals are precursors to the creation of ozone, and research has found that indoor cannabis production in Colorado may increase ozone pollution. Because ground-level ozone promotes coughing and respiratory irritation, additional research is needed to see if indoor cannabis production poses any unique air quality problems.
Because illegal or trespass farming is done without governmental permission, quantifying the total environmental effect of cannabis growing is challenging. It’s impossible to estimate how many illicit farms exist in any one state. Butsic says it’s still a lot in northern California. “Over two-thirds of the farms in northern California, where we’ve done the best grain research and the most study, are not permitted,” he adds.
Butsic claims that the illicit growth of a business isn’t always detrimental to the environment. Many farmers have been in business for decades and cannot afford to spend money on the permitting procedure. However, unlike an authorized location in California, an unlawful grow facility is not subjected to the same pesticide testing. Pesticides in legal medical or recreational cannabis are measured in different ways in different states, and the results are inconsistent. Dangerous rodenticides have been discovered in animals around trespass cultivation sites in the past. There is also little study on the effects of pesticides used on cannabis on human health because such chemicals might directly affect the lungs when smoked.
When talking with lawmakers, the Berkeley organization and other organizations like the Cannabis Certification Council aim to emphasize sustainability and environmental implications. The Cannabis Certification Council has launched a #Whatsinmyweed campaign to encourage customers to pay greater attention to how their marijuana is grown and delivered. Consumers can also check for existing third-party environmental certificates on the group’s website.
However, with state-by-state cannabis legislation and a huge number of illicit grow operations, the energy, pesticide, and water consumption of growing operations as a whole will likely stay hazy—at least for the time being.