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Growing the stuff is bad for the environment. Photo: Bob Doran

Growing the stuff is bad for the environment. Photo: Bob Doran

In California, one of the eight US states where recreational marijuana usage is legal and, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the source of between 60 and 70 percent of all marijuana in the United States, years of scant environmental oversight have seen clear-cutting, pesticides and water diversion in the name of growing it, making it notorious amongst environmentalists. Kathryn Phillips, director of the California chapter of the Sierra Club, described the environmental impact of cannabis as the ?dirty little secret of that industry.?


One example is energy: think of the air-conditioners, dehumidifiers, high-intensity lightbulbs and ventilation required of marijuana cultivation. One square foot devoted to this purpose uses four times as much energy as a square foot of hospital, eight times as much as a commercial building and 20 times as much as a place of religious worship. Growing it is one of the most energy-intensive industries around: one percent of all the energy consumed in the United States goes on legal marijuana cultivation at a cost of around $6bn a year, and the cultivated acreage continues to rocket.

Outdoor marijuana cultivation is possible in two of the eight states where recreational marijuana is legal, which slashes the energy requirement, but growing it goes faster when continual illumination is provided, even at night, and there are also issues of security and pesticides spreading to adjacent fields. Greenhouses are something of a halfway house. If the drug is illegal, things are worse, with diesel generators employed to avoid that telltale excessive electricity usage.


With water, things came to a head in the drought of 2015. Cannabis is an exceptionally thirsty plant, consuming as much as five gallons of water a day ? around twice as much as California’s vaunted grapes. Farmers of more established crops sometimes collect water during the rainy season and use it in summer and autumn, but marijuana growers routinely flout water laws, with streams and rivers diverted, usually for good. This can threaten the survival of certain animals which might already be officially endangered. Scott Bauer, a biologist for California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, described marijuana cultivation as ?probably the No. 1 threat? to salmon in the region.

What to do?

One way forward is for cannabis consumers to treat the drug as they would meat or vegetables: as Amy Andrle, who manages a cannabis dispensary and is a founding member of the Organic Cannabis Association (OCA), put it, what is needed is to make ?organically grown? a tagline along the lines of wild-caught fish, pesticide-free vegetables and free-range chickens. Official organic certification from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is not available because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.

The Cannabis Certification Council (CCC), formed by a merger of the OCA and the Ethical Cannabis Alliance, aims to certify cannabis products as organically grown, which its Executive Director, Ashley Preece, admits has been tried by almost a dozen other organisations. The CCC is working to USDA and European organic standards to come up with a nationwide pilot programme for growing it organically.

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