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How Conscientious Consumerism Could Re-shape the Marijuana Industry

Organic labeling transformed the food industry, why not the marijuana market?

Environmentalists have long since perfected the art of shopping as a political act. We’ve got cruelty-free beauty products, pre-packaged organic meals, fair-trade beverages, and organic clothing. We know how to create a lifestyle that, at least in some fashion, reflects the values we want to live. (Though, as Annie Leonard points out in The Story of Change, conscientious consumption will never be sufficient for political change.)

female pot plant Photo by Flickr user BlazenhoffIndoor marijuana cultivation is one of the least efficient industries in the world. Producing an average
joint, which usually weighs less than a gram, releases 4,600 times its weight in carbon emissions.

But while more and more people are conscious of the environmental impact of the way we eat, far fewer of us consider the environmental and social costs of the drug that makes us lust so hungrily for our cruelty-free snacks in the first place. That’s right – marijuana has an ecological and social footprint, and it’s time to change that.

By now you’ve probably heard stories about massive pot growing operations in national forests causing serious environmental damage. Growers clear away native vegetation in sensitive areas, use chemical herbicides and fertilizers that contribute to eutrophication of watersheds and water pollution, and leave massive piles of trash, PVC pipes, and pesticide behind them. Just this week, officials with California’s Fish and Game Department warned that pot growers’ use of pesticides is sickening and killing wildlife, including the endangered Pacific fisher, a weasel native to the West Coast’s old-growth forests.

There are also the horrible human costs that come with a black market economy. I mean, the Drug War and its attendant casualties. Last week, San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit wrote a powerful Apology to Mexico in which she reminded US smokers of our complicity in the deaths of tens of thousands of people in drug cartel-related violence in the last decade. There’s no denying it: your average street-pusher or hook up has no idea where their weed came from, and its trail may very well lead back to a pile of decapitated heads south of the border.

Yes, yes, I know what you’re about to say: marijuana legalization, and legitimate decriminalization, would help address those issues. That’s what all the signs were about during the protest outside President Obama’s Oakland speech on Monday.

But here’s the thing. Even the weed grown by your friendly neighborhood pot grower has a serious ecological impact, especially if it’s grown indoors.

According to Evan Mills, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, indoor cultivation comes with a real carbon footprint. The carbon footprint of an average joint (rolled from marijuana grown indoors using 1000-watt High Pressure Sodium lamps 17 hours a day for two months) is two pounds of CO2. Producing that same joint, which probably weighs less than a gram, releases 4,600 times the joint’s weight in CO2 emissions. In fact, indoor marijuana cultivation is criticized as one of the least efficient industries in the world (measured in energy required to create economic value). At 19 kBtu’s per thousand dollars of shipment value, indoor marijuana cultivation is more inefficient than the petroleum and coal extraction industry and metals extraction industry (6 kBtu’s and 9 kBtu’s per thousand dollars of shipment value, respectively) combined.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

From an environmental standpoint, sun-grown marijuana is clearly superior. It doesn’t require the massive energy output of thousand-watt lamps, air conditioning systems, or humidifiers, and emits a fraction of the CO2 that indoor grows release. So if you’re a 420-friendly environmentalist, the choice is clear: for a clean conscience, buy ganja grown outdoors by people you can trust

Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done. Buying weed that consumers know is grown outdoors is difficult at dispensaries and nigh impossible on the black market. Many dispensaries don’t advertise their medicine’s provenance, and may not know themselves how their product was produced.

Under existing market conditions, a joint rolled with marijuana grown outdoors, in the lush heat of the Southern Humboldt/Mendocino sun and with a fraction of the carbon footprint, is sold as an equivalent product on the black market and in many dispensaries, and is worth less to wholesalers who value THC-content and aesthetic uniformity over a crop’s environmental footprint. These economic realities, coupled with fears of federal law enforcement retaliations against blatant outdoor grows, have been pushing marijuana grows indoors for decades, where carbon footprints are mightier than Shaquille O’Neal’s slippers.

It is high time that the rules governing the economic value of marijuana crops in states with medical laws be amended, enabling sustainable, low-impact grows and family homesteads to gain a premium price for their environmentally conscious bud.

But how do we, as consumers, initiate such a change?

One way for consumers to lobby for change is by pushing dispensaries to advertise the method of origin of their marijuana, an easy alteration that many dispensaries and collectives have begun making already. Tea House Collective, a Berkeley, CA-based collective that sources its weed from Humboldt growers, is well-known for marketing sun-grown marijuana and claims on its website that it only buys from growers who adhere to strict, organically-inspired cultivation methods. (Marijuana cannot legally – as of now -- be declared “organic” by the USDA or other certifiers due to the federal prohibition.) Nudging local dispensaries and collectives to do the same can be as easy as demanding sun-grown marijuana at your local dispensary, talking to owners or staff about whether their dispensary is implementing growing standards, and leaving harsh reviews on websites and internet forums like for dispensaries that can’t or won’t offer sun-grown products. Dispensaries are just like any other retailer – their prerogative is customer service, and if enough customers are unhappy with the way they do business, substantive change can and will happen.

The wave of the future for sun-grown, sustainable marijuana growers, however, is undoubtedly third-party certification. We’ve got fair trade coffee. So why not fair trade herb?

While there are many factors that have propelled the success of the organic food movement in the United States, third-party certifiers such as California Certified Organic Farmers [CCOF] have been instrumental in laying the groundwork for a thriving sustainable foods movement. While second-party certifications – such as assurances from collectives like Tea House that its member farmers are using best practices to cultivate their bud – are useful to consumers, third-party certifications are essential for creating and enforcing industry-wide standards in sustainable marijuana cultivation.

Such a system would not only alleviate the conscience of dope-smokers aware of marijuana’s ecological externalities, but could incentivize sustainable practices for marijuana growers who aren’t motivated simply by altruism. A simple “eco-grown” label for sun-grown pot could shake up the entire industry, transforming low-value outdoor weed into a desirable, boutique product. Much as consumers are willing to pay a market premium for produce with a USDA organic label, “eco-grow” labels would allow green-thumbed marijuana growers to receive compensation commensurate with the value consumers put on high-quality, environmentally sustainable goods. That 15 to 20 percent premium may look awful sweet to pot growers considering the switch to more sustainable growing techniques, and may even convince growers who don’t value environmental sustainability to change their growing habits in order to gain access to this lucrative market, just as CCOF has made organic farming methods attractive to many “conventional” farmers.

Someday very soon, we could have a choice about the environmental, ecological, and social impacts of our weed, just like we do for food. Indeed, marijuana dispensaries with rich, varied menus displaying salmon-safe hash oil, organic eighths, and sun-grown edibles produced by small, sustainable local farmers is not only desirable, but necessary if marijuana is to crawl out of the shadows of pseudo-legality.

Readers of Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan will be familiar with the idea that eating is, in and of itself, an agricultural, ecological, and political act. Smoking marijuana, a crop as semiotically rich and socially important as any cereal or legume, is also an act of political and ecological consequence. Balancing the ecological and social externalities of the decision to smoke pot is the next great leap forward in the acceptance, normalization, and ecological mitigation of marijuana use.

Robert Rogers
Robert Rogers is an intern at the Mattole Restoration Council, a wildlife restoration non-profit located along the Mattole River in Northern California. He is currently a senior at San Francisco State University studying natural resource management and journalism, and solemnly swears that he has never smoked weed, like, ever.

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