Is Marijuana Bad for the Environment?

Say what!? There’s no way that weed – good old, natural, healthy, organic weed – could be bad for the environment…. could it?

Well, according to some folks in the industry, it could – especially considering the fact that cannabis production is expected to increase exponentially in the coming years in order to meet the demands of a vastly growing market.

In this article, we take a look at some of the environmental concerns that large-scale marijuana crops – and mass cannabis production facilities – can potentially give rise to. We’ll also talk about why we haven’t heard much of these potential concerns from traditional news outlets, and go over a few hypothetical legislative scenarios that would likely be able to reduce the environmental harm of large-scale cannabis production.

Does Supply and Demand Equal a Cause for Concern for Marijuana Environmentalists?

Basically, the idea that marijuana is “bad for the environment” is simply stemming from the fact that we’ve seen such a massive demand for the product in the last several years. When Colorado legalized marijuana back in 2014, for example, it took the majority of manufacturers several years just to catch up to the “demand” portion of the supply and demand ratio – that is, it took them years until they were able to keep their shelves adequately stocked on a day-to-day basis.

Canada is facing this same exact problem currently, though it is going to witness it on a much, much larger scale when they legalize marijuana nationwide later this year in July 2018.

As of June 2017, for example, there were only around 170,000 medical marijuana patients in Canada, and even then many of the legal dispensaries in the country were having a hard time maintaining a steady and reliable supply of product. When weed becomes legal throughout the country later this summer, though, it’s estimated that that 170,000 number will jump to well over 6 million people – and the folks who are trying to figure out how they’re going to supply that many people with weed, are starting to get a little bit antsy.

“We are going to have a supply shortage. I’m highly confident of that,” says Aaron Salz, an investment analyst and consultant to some of the country’s largest growers.

He also says that current suppliers simply won’t be able to grow their operations fast enough to be able to meet the rise in demand – according to him, Canada’s 45 legal growers (as of June 2017) are currently only producing about 87 tons (175,000 lbs) of marijuana. By the time this summer comes around, that number is going to have to be about 8 times larger (about 725 tons) if they expect to come anywhere close to meeting the new cannabis demand.

Of course, these projections have been putting some environmentalists on red alert, given the fact that marijuana production is going to likely increase by exponential values in the coming years and decades. But does this really mean that the plant itself is bad for the environment?

Not quite, when we actually break it down and look at the figures.

Cannabis Plants Are Actually Very “Environmentally Friendly”

No matter how you look at it, it seems ludicrous to label any plant as being “environmentally unfriendly” – the statement itself is actually self-contradictory.

However, this hasn’t stopped several high-profile news outlets from putting out articles claiming cannabis to be “a regular old agricultural crop with a fleet of environmental implications.”

One of the prominent figures they have been using comes from a recent (2016) report for the Oregon State Legislature, which claimed that a single mature cannabis plant can consume nearly 23 liters of water in a single day. While likely true, this figure in no way represents the standard or “normal” amount of water that every single mature weed plant needs to grow. In fact, it’s likely a significant outlier to a much more representative number. It would be like saying, ‘well an adult human being can drink up to 30 gallons of water in a day, so we’ll assume that’s how much water every adult human should be drinking.’

In all reality, the cannabis plant is actually very easy on the environment compared to other textiles like cotton.

According to the Stockholm Environment Institute, for example, hemp (which is of the same species as other marijuana strains) only requires about half the amount of land (per ton of finished textile) to grow to maturity than does cotton.

Also, the same report (which is widely known to be the definitive investigation on water, land, and energy requirements for various crops) states that cotton requires about 50% more water to grow per season than does hemp, which actually grows to maturity with little irrigation (how do you think it got the nickname “weed”?).

And moreover, it’s widely known that cannabis plants are very good in terms of revitalizing soil; whereas most plants (including cotton and the majority of food crops) deplete soil of their vital nutrients, hemp actually replenishes it:

“[Hemp] revitalizes the soil it grows in, both by aerating the soil and through the deposit of carbon dioxide into it. This makes [it] ideal for crop rotation – the crop that follows in the soil [that] hemp grew in, will develop better than if hemp had not been used.”

So Why Are People Saying that Cannabis is Bad for the Environment?

In short, it’s incredibly ignorant to make a blunt statement like “marijuana is bad for the environment.” In all truthfulness, the plant is very stable from an environmental perspective. Compared to most other crops, in fact, it requires minimal maintenance and is far better for long-term soil health.

That being said, it is true that our increased demand for the plant will have a negative overall impact on the environment – especially considering that Canada will be doing the majority of its cannabis production indoors (where massive amounts of electricity will be used on light sources, fans, humidifiers, irrigation, harvesting, etc).

However, now that marijuana is finally starting to see the “light” (no pun intended) in terms of legalization, what we need to start doing is replacing it with other crops that are far more detrimental to the environment – or in other words, crops that require far more land, water, and energy for production.

For example, if we were to replace even a small portion of the cotton textile industry with hemp textiles (hemp is an incredibly self-sustaining material for clothes, rope, etc), we would quite easily (and quickly) be able to offset the inevitable energy increase that is going to result from the increase in marijuana demand and usage.

And of course, we could do the same thing with a host of other energy-demanding crops as well, given the fact that the cannabis plant is estimated to be used for more than 25,000 different products across dozens of different industries (including the agriculture, textile, recycling, automotive, electronics, furniture, food/nutrition, paper, construction, and personal care industries).

And lastly, once cannabis production does begin at the large scale/industrial level, it would be wise for legislators to mandate that the majority of crops be grown in naturally-suitable climates (i.e. in the U.S. south, east, and midwest, or in Canada’s moist coastal regions), rather than in arid desert regions like California and Texas (which oddly enough is where the majority of cotton is grown).

In short, it is downright foolish to claim that cannabis is bad for the environment. On quite the contrary, with a little planning, insight, and environmental strategizing, implementation of the crop – even on large scale levels – could be one of the best things that we humans have ever done for the environment.

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