As if America's legalization project didn't have enough on its plate: social, political and legislative hurdles. Fighting stigma. Banking issues. The spectre of Big Cannabis swallowing cottage producers. But there's another, massive problem that the industry hasn't yet tackled: what legal cannabis could do to the planet.
"If marijuana producers continue to use energy at current rates, their electricity use in the Northwestern states alone will nearly double from 130 megawatts in 2015 to 237 megawatts in 2035," according to new data from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. It's estimated that 1% of America's energy consumption is now attributable to legal growing operations.
To grow plants on the scale necessary to supply both medical, and recreational markets requires a lot of energy: and we mean a lot. According to some estimates, producing enough cannabis for a single joint takes an amount of energy equal to burning a lightbulb for 25 hours straight. All this energy-gobbling translates into problems for growers, but also into high prices for consumers.
Growing indoors increases power consumption
"High energy costs, which can account for as much as half of the total wholesale price, are driven by the electricity required to grow the plant indoors," according to a New Frontier Financials report.
Growers are also required to "manage the intense heat generated by conventional indoor cultivation lights, and operate all the ventilation, cooling, water and humidity management systems required to maintain optimal growing conditions for the plants." That adds up to serious energy problem - one that not all municipalities are on track to address.
How will marijuana cultivation affect climate change?
As RYOT News' Brian Klonoski points out, Seattle City Hall continues to roll out its Climate Action Plan to make the city carbon neutral by 2050; and the City Council's zoning proposal, "would allow indoor grows up to 50,000 square feet, or more than an acre, in the city." The Action Plan, while it focuses on reducing greenhouse emissions and minimizing building energy use, doesn't mention how the legal marijuana industry will impact those goals.
Cannabis' energy problem isn't going away. In fact, with one in 10 Americans reporting they've used cannabis within the past year - a population that's getting larger all the time - the already-massive demand for consistent, reasonably-price cannabis will grow, as well.
As governments get wise to the environmental impact of large-scale growing operations, regulations surrounding growing operations are bound to change - and entrepreneurs will, and in many cases already are, stepping up to the plate with greener, more sustainable high-intensity lamps, dehumidifiers, fans, carbon-dioxide generators, and air conditioners necessary to meet the needs of large-scale growers without killing the planet.
And if all that fails? Maybe we'll see a renaissance in sun-grown marijuana, which mean less of a carbon footprint - and that's been working out just fine for thousands of years.