The Environmental Implications of Marijuana Legalization in Canada
Guest Author: Ally Cunliffe (@ESS_Incubator)
With the new Canadian Prime Minister officially in charge, voters are expecting big changes when it comes to the country’s stance on marijuana, or cannabis. Justin Trudeau campaigned on a platform consisting of the promise to fully legalize and regulate marijuana, similar to alcohol and tobacco, emphasizing swift delivery of said promise.
This could certainly be viewed as a positive response to the ineffectual era of prohibition from an economical and criminological standpoint, but what about the environmental impact?
Cultivation and production of cannabis indoors is extremely resource-heavy, as these plants require several different energy sources to function year-round and on such a large scale. From lighting, water, and fertilizers, to air conditioning, dehumidifiers, and ventilation, the carbon footprint of an indoor grow operation is astoundingly high.
Here is an illustration of the breakdown of this energy usage, created from the data released in the above report, which details the exact sources of energy consumption during marijuana cultivation:
“Specific energy uses include high-intensity lighting, dehumidification to remove water vapor, space heating during non-illuminated periods and drying, irrigation water preheating, generation of CO2 by burning fossil fuel, and ventilation and air-conditioning to remove waste heat. Substantial energy inefficiencies arise from air cleaning, noise and odor suppression, and inefficient electric generators.”
The large quantity of lighting needed to operate an indoor cultivation project consumes a sizable amount of power (32% of all energy, as the chart above indicates). This subsequently leads to high temperatures within the facility, which then needs to be cooled with massive and costly air conditioning systems (26% of all energy). The cost of lighting and cooling a typical indoor facility can range from $5-10 per sq ft per month, depending on the size of the facility and the region in which it’s located, as Lift Cannabis notes.
So far 5 of the 20 mass production growers currently licensed in Canada appreciate all of this, and are now taking strides towards energy efficiency, cost reduction, and sustainability, through the switch to greenhouse facilities. Greenhouses take advantage of natural sunlight, reducing the need for lighting, and therefore reducing the amount of heat generated that then needs to be cooled. This results in a lower carbon footprint, and also lower operational costs for growers. Some of the pros and cons are outlined in this article, Canada’s Growing Number of Cannabis Greenhouses.
So that’s indoors, what about outdoors?
Currently, there are no legal outdoor grow operations in Canada.
The government changed regulations for legal operations on April 1, 2014, setting the bar quite high for any company wishing to produce cannabis, and disallowing outdoor operations.
According to the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), all buildings used for growing, storing, and processing must have secure “perimeters” set up around them that are monitored with video surveillance equipment. The video in turn must be monitored at all times by employees. Sites must also have “intrusion detection systems” installed and have secured entrances. Neighbours are also taken into consideration by Health Canada, as operations are required to have an air-filtering system in place to keep odours from escaping.
Now this is not to be confused with thinking there are no outdoor grow-ops, period. In fact, the illegal drug trade has numerous reasons for operating outdoors as opposed to indoors. For starters, it is exponentially cheaper to operate outdoors rather than indoors, without need for lighting, ventilation, etc. It is also easier to avoid police detection, as an outdoor grow-op won’t have abnormally high electricity bills, and in Canada where it snows, the heat from an indoor grow-op can actually melt the rooftop snow, making it extremely evident that something is afoot. Growers also have to be conscious of odours, as cannabis is relatively pungent, and neighbours can easily be tipped off. Growing outdoors alleviates many of these avenues for potential arrest and prosecution.
In turn, the environment suffers greatly.
The best studies regarding the impact of cannabis cultivation on the environment have come out of California, as that is from where 70% of the cannabis used in the United States comes.
California has the perfect climate for cultivating marijuana outdoors year-round, as does British Columbia here in Canada, with its large swathes of undeveloped mountainous land and temperate climate.
Because these operations are set up and run illegally, there is no oversight nor are there any regulations to adhere to, particularly with regard to environmental protection. The result is deforestation akin to the industrial logging generation, along with landslides on erosion-prone mountainsides as hilltops are leveled.
This grading affects the entire watershed below. Streams are clogged with soil from road and dam construction, while others are bled dry from diversions, decimating the salmon population. Water resources also become contaminated with chemicals, as growers attempt to protect their crops through the unregulated (because the grow is illegal) use of pesticides and anticoagulent rodenticides (rat poison).
These rodenticides obviously eliminate the local rat population, however other animals are also being caught in the crossfire. A study published in 2012 by a team of University of California Davis veterinary scientists documented that rodenticides were being found in the tissues of fishers — cat-sized, weasel-like animals that live in rugged portions of the southern Sierra Nevada. The fisher is considered a ‘Sensitive Species’ in the western United States by the U.S. Forest Service, and is also a candidate for ‘Endangered’ listing. UC Davis states in a news release
“While some fishers have died from either directly consuming flavored rodenticides or by consuming prey that had recently ingested the poisons, exposure may also predispose animals to dying from other causes. Exposure to lower doses or to combinations of the poisons results in slower reflexes, reduced ability to heal from injuries, and neurological impairment. This leads to death from other causes, such as predation or road traffic. Fishers in the southern Sierra Nevada are highly susceptible to pesticide exposure because their diet consists of small mammals, birds, carrion, insects, fungi and other plant material. Numerous dead or dying insects and small mammals are often found in the vicinity of illegal marijuana sites.”
Harsh chemical herbicides are also sometimes used during the takedown of illegal outdoor grow operations by law enforcement, as they produce quicker eradication of the plants.
So what does legalization mean?
Legalization paves the way for numerous changes beneficial to the environment. In Colorado, legalization has motivated growers to think long-term, investing in sustainable technological solutions to cut land, water, and energy costs. Growers are experimenting with LED lighting, which is both more energy and cost efficient than the standard alternative.
Legalization may also impact the MMPR, or a new set of regulations could be established, since the production will not only be for medical purposes. These new regulations could potentially open the door for licensed outdoor grow operations. There are significant cost and environmental benefits to outdoor cultivation, despite the issues described above. Those issues only truly exist due to the lack of regulation and oversight of illegal cultivation — legalized producers could be required to perform environmental impact assessments prior to land development, and strict regulations could be enacted to ensure minimal damage to the environment.
The inevitable criminological impacts of legalization could also be beneficial to the environment. With the supply and demand of cannabis upended, illegal outdoor growers will be forced to close down (or at least scale down) operations. The availability of cannabis to the masses is said to be similar to cigarettes and alcohol, therefore decreasing, if not almost entirely eliminating, the need for illegal cultivation and distribution.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the legalization of cannabis directly impacts how Canada produces hemp, and hemp is widely thought to be one of civilization’s greatest salvations, the world’s premier renewable resource.
Hemp has been the source of food and fibre for the past 10,000 years. Hemp fibre has been used to make clothing, ropes, and paper; the grain has been stewed, roasted, and milled for food; and the oil derived from the grain has been used for cosmetics, lighting, paints, varnishes, and medicinal preparations. There are no registered pesticides associated with hemp, and the crop can be grown chemical free, which is phenomenal for the environment.
Like marijuana, industrial hemp belongs to the species Cannabis sativa L. However, unlike marijuana, it only contains small quantities of the psychoactive drug delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Nevertheless, the cultivation of both marijuana and industrial hemp were banned in Canada in 1938.
Read More: Why was Cannabis banned in Canada?
Since 1994, a small number of Canadian companies, as well as Canadian universities and provincial governments have researched industrial hemp production and processing. Due largely to their initiative, the 60-year ban was lifted and the commercial cultivation of hemp was authorized in Canada in 1998. The Industrial Hemp Regulations came into effect on March 12, 1998, and cover the cultivation, processing, transportation, sale, provision, import, and export of industrial hemp.
Despite hemp not being outright banned anymore, it is still heavily regulated and controlled due to its association with marijuana, much to the chagrin of farmers. Because hemp is classified taxonomically as Cannabis sativa, Canada’s hemp production is regulated by Health Canada, and producers and manufacturers who want to work with hemp must obtain licenses from Health Canada. There are only 27 varieties legally authorized for cultivation, which could change (increase) with federal legalization, as could the number of farmers allowed to grow the crop.
Hemp is also carbon neutral. It grows quickly without excessive need for fertilizers or pesticides and absorbs CO2 just like any other plant during photosynthesis.
The impact of legalization of cannabis (in all its forms) on the environment cannot yet be quantified, though it will certainly be intriguing to witness unfold.
What are your thoughts? Share with us in the comments!