Legal recreational marijuana is now on sale in a handful of states. And consumers are just starting to look beyond their (or their budtenders) fascination with THC levels and attractive buds.
Consumers with an eye for eco-friendly products are starting to ask many of the same questions about how their marijuana is being produced that they routinely ask about the foods they purchase. And this makes a whole lot of sense--after all, marijuana is not just a drug, it is a plant. And like other produce items we purchase for consumption, we may be concerned what went into growing it--fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides--before putting it to our lips.
The Number of Pesticides Approved
For Burning or Inhalation: Zero
Consumers would be wise to learn more about the origins of their weed. Smoking pot or inhaling cannabis vapors receives a special pass from our bodies. Unlike our stomachs, lungs are not designed to filter toxins before letting them into the blood stream. Stomachs provide several layers of filtering--physical barriers, chemical degradation, and finally a pass through the liver to protect us from a whole bevy of toxins. Our lungs gladly accept whatever is inhaled which explains the almost instantaneous effects we feel from smoking.
Thus, synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides used to grow conventional marijuana get direct access to the body and brain. Which is a huge concern since there are no products--organic or not--that have been tested and approved on a smokable product like cannabis. Needless to say, the chemical stew produced by setting these products aflame and inhaling them into one's lungs can't be a comforting thought.
The 2 Big Green Questions
You Should Ask Your Budtender
#1 - Is this cannabis organically grown? This is the most obvious question. Like any other agricultural product, there should be organically produced marijuana, right?
Actually, the answer is not a simple one. The term "organic" is controlled by the USDA, a federal agency. And since it is a federal agency and cannabis is still a Schedule 1 controlled drug, the USDA is not allowed to weigh in on the production of cannabis. So if a grower says their pot is organic, this is not accurate.
Marijuana can be grown to an organic-like standard using the same fertilizers and pesticides that are approved for use on organic fruits and vegetables. But how are consumers to know if a grower is being truthful in representing their products without USDA organic certification?
"There is plenty of misrepresentation of recreational marijuana products as organic right now in Colorado and Washington," says Chris Van Hook of Clean Green Certified and expert in organic certification. "Not only is it inaccurate, but it is bad for the industry as it leads to a credibility gap and consumer confusion."
The solution in the near term can be found in third-party certification services that apply organic standards to pot growers and back it up with testing and verification. Clean Green Certified and Certified Kind are the two main agencies offering comprehensive certification on par with USDA standards. Ask your budtender to point out products that carry these endorsements, or to start carrying them in their stores.
#2 - Is this cannabis sustainably grown? We expect to know a lot about our food these days. Was my beef fed corn or grass? Are those eggs from caged, cage-free, or pastured chickens? Was that pork raised humanely and sustainably? Are those blueberries from a local farm, or from Chile? But what about my marijuana?
Steve Kessler, owner of Paper & Leaf--a recreational cannabis retailer on Bainbridge Island, Washington--says, "Our customers are regularly looking for natural sun grown product. Environmental impact plays a huge role in our customer's decision making." Kessler continues, "Producers like Green Barn Farms recognize that there is a market for environmentally friendly, safe and sustainably grown cannabis. And our customers get it."
However, unlike the Paper & Leaf experience, venturing into most retail marijuana stores in Washington or Colorado yields few answers on how green their growers are. As described above, organic standards are not well known, retailers are not versed in green issues and consumers are still starry-eyed over the prospect of buying legal weed, regardless of its source. But it turns out, the sustainability question for marijuana is a huge one.
"Quick--name one commercial fruit or vegetable crop that is grown indoors under artificial light. Struggling to name one? No worries, because there isn't one," says Scott Masengill, owner of Tumbleweed Farms, a marijuana farm in Prosser, Washington. "Growing plants indoors seems to defy all logic," he continues. "Looking beyond the obvious--it's a plant evolved through the millennia to prosper outdoors in soil and under the sun--what economic or environmental sense is there in cultivating in a warehouse?"
Turns out growing marijuana indoors is a legacy left over from decades of illegal, covert cultivation designed to hide grow operations from sight. When marijuana was legalized in Colorado and Washington, the new industry's growers replicated cultivation systems that they knew best, only on a much larger scale. And that is very bad news for the environment.
"The perception that outdoor cannabis is inferior to indoor is based on years of illegal backwoods guerrilla operations trying to grow marijuana under hostile conditions," Aaron Dunlap from Cascade Growers in Twisp, Washington. He continues, "Modern greenhouses are now producing sustainable marijuana that looks and tests as well as indoor without the environmental penalty."
By some estimates, more than 1% of the entire electrical use in the U.S. goes toward growing cannabis indoors. In California--home to the nation's best outdoor growing conditions--more than 3% of the state's electrical use is dedicated to indoor cannabis production. Producing a single pound of cannabis indoors, releases more than 4,600 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. What environmental impact will cannabis production have if it is legalized nationwide?
"The new recreational cannabis industry is in a unique position. We have the opportunity to create a new industry from scratch and to get it right from the start," states Jerry Lapora of Emerald Twist, Washington state's first Clean Green Certified cannabis farm. "One that is both all natural and sustainable, rather than one that negatively affects our environment. Let's hope both producers and consumers see the value in that."
So what is the difference between indoor and outdoor cannabis? The consensus is that indoor marijuana tends to look superior. Tighter flower density and lighter color are what most budtenders will point to. However, testing has shown that the THC levels between indoor and quality outdoor are quiet similar. In fact, some will argue that due to the sun's full spectrum of light, most outdoor products produce a better high and more terpenes than their light-challenged indoor counterparts.
Indoor cannabis is also significantly more expensive to grow due to leasing of warehouse space and massive environmental control costs, not to say anything about the costs of lighting. Indoor cannabis production is estimated to cost between 50% and 75% more than outdoor production. At some point, the prices consumers pay at the stores will reflect that difference.
"If the only difference between indoor and outdoor cannabis is the looks, one should ask if the environmental costs and higher prices to consumers are worth it," Lapora says. "For our planet's sake, let's hope people make the obvious green choice at the stores."
About the author
Brian Crawley manages a cannabis farm in the Northeast corner of Washington State. His farm, Mountain High Organics, is part of cooperative of recreational outdoor cannabis farms called Green Barn Farms. They farm and process Clean Green Certified and Sun Grown marijuana products.