Considering the Environmental Costs of Cannabis

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

Cannabis is often positioned as the next frontier in green agriculture. In reality, much of the industry’s current direction is neither sustainable nor forward-thinking for the environment. The majority of cannabis’ exorbitant energy use stems from inefficient cultivation practices. Even a decade ago, growing cannabis created the carbon emissions equivalent to having three million cars on the road, and those figures no doubt have risen as more states have legalized.

It’s important to remember that cultivators did not start growing inside because sunlight ruins the plant. In actuality, they started growing inside to hide from the War on Drugs. Eventually, these cultivators realized they could “play God” when it came to the climate in the grow rooms but at an immense environmental cost.

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For years, indoor-grown flower was considered higher quality due to a facility’s consistent climate, but correlation does not imply causation. Many indoor growers are actually just manufacturing the same optimal climates that naturally exist in specific regions, particularly in California.

Given that U.S. cannabis sales are expected to reach $43 billion by 2025, cultivators must establish sustainable best practices to meet accelerating consumer demand without further exacerbating the climate crisis. Given the urgency of the situation, regulated companies should continue to bring cannabis out of the shadows and embrace more efficient means of cultivation to create a positive global impact.

The Not-So-Hidden Costs of Growing Without Mother Nature

While the environmental benefits of using greenhouses over indoor farming are well-documented within mainstream agriculture, there are still not enough cannabis-specific studies.

Indoor cannabis cultivation is linked with high energy consumption from lighting, HVAC and dehumidification. Due to the country’s piecemeal approach to legalization, markets with extreme climates or fewer renewable energy sources are usually left to cultivate within their state — resulting in immense environmental consequences. A 2021 study conducted by Colorado State University examining carbon emissions in over 1,000 indoor cultivation locations found that Midwestern states, Alaska and Hawaii had the highest levels of greenhouse emissions, while Florida and Colorado required the most resources to support dehumidifying and heating processes, respectively.

My organization, Glass House Brands, commissioned a study led by energy consultancy Seinergy to find out the environmental impact of our cultivation methods. We found indoor facilities consumed more electricity and produced more carbon emissions per square foot compared to cannabis grown in Dutch-style greenhouses, released less carbon and use less electricity than indoor facilities per unit of flower.

Indoor facilities require a tremendous amount of nonrenewable resources to power artificial lighting, air conditioning and dehumidification processes to produce consistent results. In ideal climates with the proper facilities, these resources are free and sustainable through Mother Nature.

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Unfortunately, it seems some local regulations are either disincentivizing or outright banning outdoor and greenhouse cultivation, further compounding unforeseen environmental consequences. Sacramento is an example of this, with outdoor cultivation banned and greenhouse only allowed by special permission. Ultimately, I believe cannabis should be grown primarily in the regions that are naturally conducive to it.

Examining the Benefits of Sunshine-Grown Flower

Simply replacing the sun with artificial lighting powered by non-renewable resources isn’t economically or environmentally sustainable. Considering that the industry annually spends over $6 billion on electricity and that energy and water account for roughly half of total operating expenses, this approach is hindering the growth potential of the entire sector. The consumer ultimately shoulders these costs, but it’s evident that industry stakeholders and the environment are also paying a premium.

From my perspective, cultivators should utilize sun-grown techniques as much as possible. Sun-grown techniques are more energy-efficient and provide the light spectrum that the plants evolved under to support their overall health and quality. A 2021 study identified the UV radiation present in sunlight as a key determinant in stimulating cannabinoid biosynthesis, while an earlier study from 2019 demonstrated how conventional indoor lighting systems provided inconsistent photon concentrations compared to sunlight.

As cannabis continues to become legal at the state level, cultivators can apply technological innovations to greenhouse growing at scale. In the future, I believe we can expect more investments in sun-grown technologies and synergies between cannabis and traditional agriculture to create high-quality products at a fraction of the environmental impact.

Call to Action for Consumers and the Industry

Companies should aim to prioritize sustainability initiatives in an industry that heavily relies on renewable and nonrenewable resources. Industry leaders should hold themselves accountable by self-reporting energy consumption, commissioning additional environmental studies, labeling sun-grown products and investing in consumer education. Eventually, cannabis companies could take after the airline and automotive industries by providing comprehensive annual sustainability reports.

Cultivators should not wait for regulators to mandate change — we share a collective responsibility to advocate for and implement more sustainable practices. As a nascent industry establishing its reputation within the global business community, this is an opportunity for cannabis leaders, entrepreneurs and advocates to lead by example. We can show how modern businesses can be good environmental stewards while creating exceptional products without compromising growth.

Pollution isn’t free, and these environmental externalities should factor into consumer choices. Cannabis consumers can vote with their wallets and pressure more brands and retailers to stock sun-grown products. In mainstream sectors, the ongoing sustainability push is driven by environmentally-conscious customers, and it’s time for cannabis consumers to assert their power as well.

These measures are the building blocks for a domestic legal industry that encourages cannabis cultivation in states naturally equipped for the job. Commodities and goods are produced in regions with a competitive advantage in the rest of our national economy. Just as we buy oranges from Florida and corn from the Midwest, I believe it makes environmental and economic sense to grow cannabis in regions where it thrives naturally — not in conflict with Mother Nature, but in partnership with her.

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