For Illinois residents, the new decade also marked a new era — one of legal recreational marijuana.
As of January 1st at 6:00 am, marijuana became legal for recreational use in the State of Illinois, making it the 11th state to do so. The new law will bring Illinois much-needed revenue from its new marijuana industry and give over 116,000 (majority black and brown) convicted people a chance at getting pardoned.
But how does legalization affect the environment? To answer this question, we’ll dive into the overall environmental toll of marijuana, alongside how legalization can help.
The Environmental Impact of Marijuana
It may be obvious that any drug that releases smoke must be somewhat harmful to the environment. But marijuana (although incredibly beneficial for medical, social, and economic means) is probably worse for the environment than you think.
One major problem has to do with how it’s grown, a process that requires a lot of water and electricity.
The Steep Demand for Water
Water accounts for a lot of the environmental burden of marijuana production. That’s because a mature marijuana plant usually requires 23 liters of water per day. That’s 10 liters more than a wine grape plant’s daily water intake. This high demand for water becomes increasingly harmful for the environment in drier regions–like California, where 60 to 70% of the US’s weed is grown.
All this water adds up. In one growing season, just one square mile of outdoor marijuana plants will probably use up over one billion liters of water. That’s about six gallons of water per plant, per day for every day of the summer.
But even beyond water, the electric bill for marijuana production is staggering.
The Industry’s Energy Consumption
Let’s take a look at indoor growing, a process which more efficiently produces marijuana than outdoor agriculture. Although indoor growing can produce more marijuana per harvest and offers shortened grow times, the high-intensity light bulbs required to simulate sunlight need a lot of energy.
And to further power indoor harvesting, operations require humidifiers, heating, ventilation, and water storage.
This all makes an indoor marijuana operation eight times as energy-demanding as an average commercial building. When you look at all of these operations combined, they take up a whole lot of energy.
We’re talking 1% of the annual total energy consumption in the US. One whole percent.
That’s, well, a lot. That’s as much as the electricity used by every computer in every house or apartment in the US annually. All this amounts to 17 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.
Environmental Consequences of Growing Marijuana Outdoors
But growing marijuana outdoors also has its environmental consequences. As with every agricultural crop, farming marijuana can lead to the cutting down of trees, unnatural diversion of water streams, and the destabilization of local ecosystems. And when cannabis farms use pesticides and rat poison, they endanger animals.
Moving more operations into greenhouses could curb some of these problems, but will nonetheless still require a lot of energy.
To add on to these environmental taxes, the impacts of cannabis transportation and smoke pollution must also be considered.
How Marijuana Legalization Can Help
These consequences may seem dire, but it’s important to remember that marijuana is just like any other agricultural crop. And crops, by nature, tend to do more harm than good for the environment. But we need them nonetheless.
“Letting regulators and the public see [marijuana] as an agricultural crop is really key,” said Prof. Jake Brenner, who has researched the environmental impact of cannabis agriculture.
“We treat it like a medicine,” he continued. “We treat it like a drug, but we don’t treat it like what it is — which is a regular old agricultural crop with a fleet of environmental implications.”
So how we can make the cannabis crop as environmentally efficient as possible? The first step may be legalization — and therefore regulation.
Regulation, Regulation, Regulation
Let’s admit it. With legalization, the agricultural world of cannabis will become more and more regulated. And that’s for the better when we’re talking about environmental footprint.
Right now, illegal operations can rely on illegal methods of energy and water consumption. This has become a major issue, with some operations taking water directly from rivers and streams to nourish their plants.
This process harms wildlife, as it reduces oftentimes already-low water levels. Low water levels increase the temperature of the water, which can place additional stress on fish and amphibians. And illegally funneling water straight from streams can also dry out sections completely.
With legalization, more and more marijuana cultivators will need to rely on environmentally safer ways to water their plants, such as with collected rainwater.
Legalizing recreational marijuana also encourages more operations to move into greenhouses, since they won’t have to worry about being covert. And using greenhouses will minimize the consequences of outdoor marijuana harvesting.
Marijuana Legalization Empirically Leads to New Environmental Regulations
Luckily, legalization has already led to environmentally-friendly regulations for marijuana cultivation. For example, in 2015, the county government of Boulder, Colorado ordered that all cannabis growers must use 100% sustainable and renewable energy.
But although state-wide legalization, like in Illinois, is leading the way to a more eco-friendly marijuana industry, more must be done.
The next steps require further regulation and institutional encouragements for the marijuana industry to prioritize energy efficiency. This way, people can enjoy marijuana recreationally while not taking a toll on the environment.