To say that the legal marijuana industry is on an upward spiral is a gross understatement. There are now nine states (plus D.C) where it is legal to use weed on a recreational basis, and 29 states where it is allowed for medicinal use. Marijuana has officially gone mainstream with anywhere between 30 million and 55 million adults currently using for one reason or another.
Also, 56% of Americans now believe that smoking weed is socially acceptable, and retail sales of cannabis was around $6.5 billion in 2017 – a figure set to grow to an astounding $30 billion by 2021. If marijuana becomes legal everywhere, the sky is the limit. Obviously, however, the demand for cannabis means the growth and production of weed products now have to happen on an industrial scale, and as is the case with any product that attains ‘mass produced’ status, there are positive and negative aspects to consider.
“They Took Our Jobs!”
In this instance, ‘they’ relates to the technological advances employed by companies such as Convectium, who believe that automation is the way forward. Convectium specializes in filling vape cartridges, and can fill 100 of them in 30 seconds with machinery. In contrast, a company relying on human labor may take an hour to fill 100. According to Danny Davies, a managing partner at the company, demand for Convectium’s machines has increased five-fold.
Also, employees known as ‘trimmigrants’ have one of the toughest jobs in the industry; each summer, thousands of migrant workers come to Northern California to work as ‘trimmers’ once the weed gets harvested. It is hard, honest work that involves pruning the buds with a tiny pair of scissors to remove the leaves before the buds go on sale.
Unfortunately, a lot of the work is classified as ‘black market,’ and it pays anywhere between $100 and $300 for what can be up to 15 hours of work in a day. However, it’s assumed that a high percentage of these “trimmigrants” will lose their jobs to faster, more efficient robots as machinery takes the place of hand-trimming. Bloom Automation, for example, a company based in Boston, utilizes a trimming machine that costs $20,000. The machine uses cameras and computer vision to trim branches at warp speed — one of these machines can process an 18-inch branch in just four minutes.
On the one hand, the work performed by laborers, especially the trimmigrants, is tough. One blogger decided to try his hand at trimming in Northern California, and received about $1,000 a week after food (and booze) expenses for his trouble. He wrote that within a few days, your hands are calloused, your wrists ache, your back feels crippled, and each day merges into a green haze. Also, he wrote about the sad but true fact that some of the workers were illegally trafficked and poorly treated.
On the other hand, however, it’s obvious that a lot of these workers need the money to survive, and thus they will have to find employment in another industry. Such jobs are hard to find, and will probably pay even lower wages.
Scaling Up Means a Higher Carbon Footprint
The growth of the marijuana industry means that giant farms were inevitable. In June 2016, GFarms announced its intention to create a 100,000 square feet growth facility in Desert Hot Springs, California. Yet remarkably, even this huge site was soon dwarfed by the behemoth announced by AmeriCann in Massachusetts. At one million square feet, it is by far the largest marijuana growth facility in the United States, and the company has since received approval to expand by an extra 30,000 square feet.
Yet even this is chump change compared to the facility announced by Bright Green Group in New Mexico, which broke ground in February 2017. When it is finally completed, the greenhouse and associated research facility will cover an incredible six million square feet – the equivalent of 100 football fields! It will have room for an extraordinary 40 million medicinal plants.
While this is all fantastic news for weed-lovers, it also leads to a real problem for environmentally conscious folk, given that the marijuana industry is by far and away one of the most energy-intensive in the world. It often requires 24/7 indoor lighting rigs, ventilation, air-conditioning systems, and heating. Back in 2016, a study by Evan Mills revealed that legal indoor weed-growing operations account for 1% of America’s total electricity use; a cost of $6 billion per annum. Moreover, that level of consumption produced 15 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, which is the equivalent of three million cars.
Bear in mind, though, that these statistics are from before the announcement of the new giant growth facilities – a 2014 report by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Oregon suggests that within 20 years, the marijuana industry could have the combined electricity demands of a small city.
On the plus side, though, cannabis growers understand the need for more energy efficient practices, and are now taking steps towards a ‘greener’ way to grow. However, they must be wary because significant changes could irrevocably damage the quality of the crop.
A simpler solution is to grow outdoors – a practice that would be far cheaper in the long term. One Washington-based cannabis grower, Solstice, points out that indoor growing could cost up to $500 a pound, while outdoor growing may cost as little as $50. The downside, of course, is that outdoor growing means you’re at the mercy of the seasons (and weed-eating insects).
Final Thoughts on Supersized Cannabis Production
No matter the industry, scaling up always presents a unique set of challenges and as marijuana is set to grow exponentially within the next decade, growers have to consider the environmental and human impact of their business. The United States is a huge land mass, and finding available land shouldn’t be a problem in states where it is legal to grow marijuana. We just need to ensure that it’s done in a responsible, environmentally-friendly way.
And finally, as the legal restrictions on weed become more and more relaxed, we should witness an improvement in both the quality of the herb that is produced, and the quality of work that’s needed to produce it. Right now there is the relatively significant matter of poorly paid and badly treated employees (which is a problem in every industry), but this should improve once weed becomes “more legal” and more tightly regulated within the industry. Cannabis is a fledgling business right now, but we are confident that all of the problems associated with meeting a massive supply and demand will ultimately be solved.