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For six years David Rice grew marijuana indoors. There’s a certain security in being able to grow crops year round. For illegal growers, there’s an additional sense of security: keeping your crop out of sight of the authorities. But for Rice, who was growing pot legally for medical marijuana patients, that wasn’t a consideration. So when he decided he’d rather work outdoors, Rice moved his plants to a greenhouse. And now, he says, there’s no going back. “As soon as I walk back into a warehouse now or a grow room, it just seems completely foreign and unnatural to be growing a plant in this sterile factory,” Rice says. Rice is co-founder of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association, making him one of the Northwest’s biggest advocates for moving marijuana production outdoors. One of the main reasons he’s so passionate is the energy savings he realized after making the switch.
Growing cannabis indoors requires a lot of energy: lights to get the plants to grow faster, dehumidifiers, heating equipment. A recent study by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council found that in 20 years indoor marijuana grows could need the same amount of power as 60,000 homes. That’s equivalent to a city the size of Pasco, Washington.
Massoud Jourabchi is heading up the power council study. He compares indoor marijuana growing to the region’s most electricity-consuming industry of the last century. “Production of cannabis could be more energy intensive than the aluminum industry, pound for pound,” Jourabchi says. He says the industry could lighten its energy footprint by using solar panels or LED light bulbs. Some indoor growers are considering it while that technology is still being tested out. Rice says he thinks moving marijuana farms outdoors could actually reduce energy usage in Washington because some energy had already been sucked up from the black market. “Regulate this with the idea that here’s the opportunity to shave off 1 percent of Washington’s electrical power use. Boom. Like that. All we have to do is shift marijuana production outdoors,” Rice says. That black market is one reason many growers are so used to indoor marijuana production, says Stephen Jensen, who owns Mountain High Organics, a new outdoor marijuana farm north of Spokane. “The mentality of the industry has grown up around indoor. Security reasons and stealth reasons, legality reasons,” Jensen says. Jensen says now is the time for the industry to figure out how to become more sustainable. One reason: More growers will continue to open farms in the Northwest. Growers in Oregon will soon face some of these same choices. Oregon voters decided last year to legalize recreational marijuana. The state will begin accepting licenses for growers by next January.
Even if Northwest marijuana growers can reduce their energy footprint, there are other environmental sins by the industry that need atonement. Studies have linked illegal pot farms in Northern California to water stolen from rivers and creeks,pesticides that have harmed salmon, and wildlife deaths caused by rat poison. Jensen says that’s not how legal outdoor grows would be run. “In California it was kind of do what you have to do and not get arrested. It’ll be a totally different scenario when people are growing legally,” Jensen says. In a small room on the Emerald Twist marijuana farm in Goldendale, Washington, several workers sit around a white table, scissors in hand, scales set to carefully measure out grams. This is the second year growers at Emerald Twist have produced marijuana under Washington state’s law legalizing recreational cannabis. Jerry Lapora, the marketing director for the farm, says they’re trying to make Emerald Twist sustainable by growing organic buds outdoors. “We have a couple different growing styles out here,” Lapora says.
Lapora does use a few light bulbs in his nursery and greenhouse, but he says the farm mostly relies on sunlight. Beds of tilled soil are mixed with compost and hidden behind tall red fences. “This is kind of an experiment to grow in the soil. Never grown in the soil out here,” Lapora says. He says it will give the plants a distinct flavor, like wines grown in different regions, but more importantly, he says, it will save a ton of energy. David Rice says it will be difficult to move marijuana farms outdoors in the Northwest. “Sun grown production becoming a dominant method of production faces some very unique and distinct headwinds from incredibly low power rates and the cap on square footage,” Rice says. That cap limits the area that growers in Washington can devote to pot production — regardless whether it’s an indoor or outdoor operation.
At Emerald Twist, Jerry Lapora says tests show that growing marijuana indoors or outside doesn’t affect the levels of THC — that’s the chemical that gets you high. But he says indoor plants do look nicer. “So if we’re going to suck the grid just so we have pretty looking flowers,” he says, “it just doesn’t make sense to me.”