Cannabis legalization initiatives are statewide public policy experiments, lacking roadmaps for successful implementation that mitigates potential social, economic, or ecological shortcomings. This five-part series will offer an in-depth analysis of the environmental harms existing under current initiatives, with an emphasis on Washington I-502. This series will analyze three primary causes of environmental harm: packaging waste from cannabis products; pesticide, insecticide, and herbicide contamination; and lastly, the high energy requirements necessitated by certain types of grow operations. Subsequently, pats 2, 3, and 4 will further examine potential solutions to the three aforementioned conflicts, before ultimately being concluded in the fifth article.
There is no doubt that the model of cannabis criminalization that trademarked the 20th century likewise shared numerous environmentally destructive characteristics. For example, early DEA raids targeted outdoor grow operations because they were easily discernible from the air. The resulting adaptation of indoor grow operations demanded vast amounts of energy, which was derived, nearly exclusively, from fossil fuel sources. Additionally, the lack of agricultural regulatory oversight implicit in prohibition prevented any provisions restricting the use of dangerous or harmful pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides. Legalization is a superior model of cannabis governance, because it allows the opportunity to oversee, regulate, and therefore eliminate the aforementioned concerns.
In 2018, dispensary shopper Remi Robichaud of Nova Scotia used a gram scale to weigh his purchase from a cannabis dispensary. He also weighed the plastic packaging that came with it. The findings? A single gram of cannabis came packaged with nearly 70 grams of plastic waste! The Santa Fe Reporter states that “the cannabis industry produces at least a billion units of plastic waste annually.” In Washington State, plastic cannabis packaging containers are so abundant that they have clogged gutters and sewers, and have reportedly been found bobbing in the Puget Sound waters. Unfortunately for environmentally-minded cannabis shoppers, even “recyclable” packaging often ends up occupying space in landfills. Strict legal regulations generally encourage the abundance of packaging, by mandating that products are tamper-proof and child-proof, with an avalanche of visible warnings. While this regulation exists for a good reason, it adds another layer of complexity when producers attempt to adapt to the demands of zero-waste packaging.
Pesticides, Herbicides, Insecticides
The cultivation of cannabis attracts potentially predatory insects, like all other flowering plants. Spider mites, aphids, inchworms, and caterpillars are of primary concern. Without an oversight body, the application of pesticides to control insect contamination was subject to the whim of the grower. While modern growing techniques have greatly reduced the need for most pesticide ingredients, the use of these chemicals persists even under current models of legalization. The experimental nature of cannabis public policy results in vastly different rules governing the use of pesticides, even between neighboring states. In part 3, we’ll look at how mandatory testing requirements vary between California, Oregon, and Washington with regard to approved pesticides for use in the cultivation of cannabis.
As cannabis shifted from outdoor farms to indoor operations, it exacerbated the need for fossil-fuel based energy sources to power lighting, fans, and other electrical equipment. A statement from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC), reads “indoor commercial cannabis production can consume 2,000 to 3,000 kilowatt hours of energy per pound of product.” Unfortunately, many of the high-energy methods of cannabis cultivation are still persistent under legalization, even though they can be rather costly. In section 4, we’ll look at the energy requirements for growing cannabis indoors, and the steps some producers are taking to mitigate their carbon footprint.
Collectively, these three issues represent the primary environmental concerns facing the regulatory future of legal cannabis. Solutions are often costly- prohibitively so- and require adaptations of methodology and policy. With any luck, the future of Washington’s “green rush” will only become more “green” with the implementation of regulations that minimize or completely eliminate the environmental footprint of the modern cannabis industry.