Cannabis & Climate Change

As cannabis becomes ever-more popular and legalisation occurs across the globe, we have to question how cannabis cultivation needs to change in an ever-warming world.

At present, the cultivation of cannabis is not particularly green for a number of reasons. Indeed, back in 2011, Evan Mills of the University of California estimated that indoor cannabis cultivation across the US represented 1% of the total energy use across the country, with Rolling Stone pointing out that this number is likely even higher now in 2020. But where is this excessive energy use stemming from?

Areas of concern

Cannabis can be grown in a number of ways, however growing cannabis indoors means that the conditions for bountiful growth can be fully controlled, which is obviously preferable for companies looking to make a large profit. When grown indoors, as is largely the case across the US, a number of fossil-fuel draining processes take place. The most obvious way in which energy is used in the growing process is through the bright lighting that is almost constantly shining on the plants. Air conditioning, dehumidifying, irrigating and pumping carbon dioxide into the growth environment also contributes to the high consumption of energy, but the role these processes have to play in the production of healthy and abundant crops is deemed more important to most companies than the environmental toll these processes incur.

Another area in which the industry could lessen its currently large carbon footprint is through attempting to minimise the excessive, often single-use plastic packaging being used for products. However, there is a major legislative stumbling block preventing progress in this case. Packaging for cannabis products has to include a great array of explanatory and warning language to ensure the consumer is fully aware of the safety and risks of the product they’re about to consume. This information includes information about the company that produced the product as well as test results, whilst the packaging itself must be child-resistant – all these factors contribute to the packaging typically needing to be large and wasteful.

How the industry can improve

With a lot of the negative environmental impact of the industry emanating from the indoor growing facilities illuminated in fossil fuel draining light, an obvious solution would be to grow cannabis outside. While many states have strict regulations surrounding this, if possible, growing outside can drastically cut the energy consumption of companies as artificial lighting and fans are no longer required. Indeed, in California’s ‘Emerald Triangle’, many producers are immensely proud of this outdoor cultivation process and cite it as the main factor behind their cannabis’ high quality. However, in many states with colder climates, this outdoor growing may not be a viable option.

However, if this outdoor growing is not possible, there are still more eco-conscious routes of cannabis cultivation that could be adopted, particularly as solar powered lighting becomes a more realistic option. For instance, Canndescent, a Californian cannabis company, has shown that commercial-scale, solar-powered production is possible. With time, hopefully more companies will follow suit and adopt more sustainable options like this whilst being able to maintain a profitable yield.

The Wider Context

While, undoubtedly, the energy usage from cannabis cultivation could be vastly improved as it stands currently, we shouldn’t forget that this energy consumption issue is largely the same with many other commercially cultivated crops.

As noted in The National Geographic’s ‘Marijuana Medicine’ Issue:

‘Cannabis contributes to climate change – but so do other plants. Ultimately, many different crops, including alfafa and almonds, are both water-thirsty and grown in dry areas, making cannabis part of a much larger puzzle.’

As such, perhaps while we should not be so quick to cast judgement on the cannabis industry over and above other crop cultivators, we should nonetheless remain hopeful that cannabis companies will increasingly adopt more innovative and environmentally friendly cultivation options to reduce their carbon footprint as we become a more global-warming conscious society as a whole.

For more in depth information on medical cannabis, UK policy and the conditions medical cannabis can treat, we recommend accessing our in depth modules available on our website. Here, you can find up to date information on cannabis based medicinal products and how best to prescribe them. You can also explore our news section and evidence base for the latest information on this ever-changing area of research.

We urge anyone considering the use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.

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