Marijuana’s Legal Status Impacts the Environment


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A trespass grow site raided by authorities. Image by U.S. Forest Service

California legalized medical marijuana back in 1996, followed by several other states over the next decade. Over the past couple of years, Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska and Washington DC took the next step, fully legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

Following the current trend, it’s quite likely that pot will be legal federally or at least in the majority of states in the not-so-distant future. Given the devastating effects of illegal marijuana growth on the environment (particularly in California), this begs the question of what will happen as marijuana cultivation expands to meet growing demand as marijuana is legalized.

Will a surge in production outpace the regulations? Or will taking pot growers out of the shadow economy and into the mainstream force the underground industry to clean up its act?

Marijuana Trespass Grows and the Environment

Since not many illegal growers are foolish enough to cultivate in their own back yard, trespass grows, where marijuana is grown on public land (including national parks), are common. Over a third of marijuana seized nationally by law enforcement can be traced back to trespass grows in the state of California alone.

Since the point of trespass grows is anonymity, it’s no surprise that these growing operations don’t use best environmental practices for cultivating their crops. These grow sites tend to be strewn with litter and contaminated with restricted pesticides, rodenticides and chemical fertilizers.

Clearing trees and constructing illegal dams and irrigation routes is also commonplace, as well as extreme water usage. This is particularly troublesome in California, which is already struggling with water shortages due to drought conditions. Outdoor marijuana grows use about 60 million gallons of water on a daily basis during California’s growing season. Lack of stream water and sediment from deforested slopes are a threat to salmon and other fish in proximity to grow sites, and larger animals die off either from direct poisoning or eating poisoned rodents.

Marijuana Indoor Grows and the Environment

There’s good reason why police look to unusually high energy usage as a clue for finding illegal indoor marijuana operations; grow lights and heat lamps use a lot of energy. So much energy, in fact, that they have a telltale glow in infrared images of a neighborhood. The resident of a house in the Netherlands was busted after police noticed that his was the only property in the neighborhood where snow and frost were mysteriously missing from the roof.

Since about a third of the marijuana grown in America is grown indoors, the energy usage adds up in a major way: Growing just four plants indoors requires as much electricity as running 29 refrigerators. Another startling statistic is that 4,600 pounds of CO2 is released into the atmosphere for every pound of marijuana grown indoors.

The Impact of Legalization

Legalizing marijuana reduces the incentive for trespass grows. Without the threat of prosecution, producers choose to grow wherever it’s cheapest (just like any other crop) rather than in pristine national parks. They also have to meet existing environmental standards.

For example, Washington state did an environmental review process (SEPA) for the rules governing marijuana licensing. Under SEPA, local permitting agencies may require producers describe environmental impacts of their growing operations. Producers may need to obtain a water quality permit, air quality permit, and in the case of outdoor growing operations, a forest practices permit.

They are also subject to regulations on chemigation and fertigation (fertilizer and pesticide use through an irrigation system), water resources, solid waste handling, and hazardous waste management. And in Colorado, the government brought transparency to the market by requiring pot vendors to list all farm chemicals used during cultivation on the packaging.

Indoor cultivation of pot requires a lot of energy. Image by kconnors

Legalization would also make indoor grows less common, as more growers would choose to use natural sunlight rather than racking up large energy bills from running indoor grow lights. However, it would not eliminate indoor growing completely since restrictions on legal growing methods require plants to be grown in a “fully enclosed and locked space, whether indoors or outdoors,” and that’s easier to achieve indoors.

Regulations, Black Market, and Marijuana

These regulations help keep pot off of the black market and reduces the need for pesticides, but does not help reduce energy use or emissions. Which brings us to the point of why the black market exists – it is solely created by pot’s status as an illegal drug federally and in the majority of the states. As long as marijuana is illegal anywhere in the U.S., there will be incentive to supply that demand and grow illegally even it states where it is legal.

Furthermore, Washington and Colorado are the only states so far that specifically regulate how marijuana is grown. This means that we’re currently in a transition period where we’re waiting for regulations to catch up with a newly legal substance/crop.


Legalizing Marijuana for Greener Pot

The impact of legalizing marijuana growth on the environment could potentially get worse before it gets better, but ultimately would be more beneficial than harmful to the environment, which is good news as the expansion of legalization appears to be imminent.

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