Organic Weed? Marijuana Growers Go Green

An industry long haunted by negative connotations and a lack of sound research finds new opportunities in sustainability.

In the U.S., one square foot of indoor marijuana cultivation uses four times more energy than the same space in a hospital, eight times more energy than a commercial building, and 20 times more energy than a center for religious worship, according to a study by Lewis and Clark College.

But a rising number of people in the fast-growing cannabis industry are trying to reduce their environmental footprint, from energy to water to pesticides. Still, a lack of research and regulation has left an industry that is on track to post $20.2 billion in sales by 2021 in a tough position. (Learn about the science of weed.)

In National Geographic magazine’s June 2015 edition, Editor-In-Chief Susan Goldberg wrote about the growing number of states that had legalized marijuana for medicinal and recreational use. At the time, less than half of the states in the U.S. had legalized the substance for medical use. Now, medical marijuana use is legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

Despite that expansion, this line by Goldberg still remains relevant: “The disconnect between the willingness of some states to regulate, sell, and tax marijuana and the federal reluctance to allow research to progress leaves an increasing number of people without the knowledge to make informed, science-based choices."

Scientists Wanted

This lack of information is evident in the relatively lax process of cannabis testing, compared to prescription drugs or foods. Marijuana growers are testing less than 0.01% of their product for potency and microbial growth. Few facilities choose to test more often, seeing it as an unneeded expense.

In cannabis-friendly Colorado, the rule of “process validation” means that a facility is able to check their growing process by taking just one sample from six harvest batches, each one week apart. Then they are not required to test for a full year.

Revalidation is necessary only if the facility makes changes to their growing process, such as adding a new nutrient, or replacing a less efficient light.

“Currently, there are labs that will manipulate the samples in order to inflate the THC concentrations,” says a laboratory owner who asked not to be named.

“With limited testing, and the desperation to maintain and appease their clients, a lot of the value of laboratories has been lost,” the owner said. “For example, the state knows that a husband owns an extraction facility and his wife owns the testing lab but does nothing about it—for medical testing it seems like a conflict.”

The same source explained that these problems may be solved if cannabis were legally treated like a more typical medicine or food product—with closer to 1% of all product being tested. (Learn about the Trump administration's evolving policy on medical marijuana.)

But cannabis is still considered a federal Schedule I drug as a result of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, and that makes it a challenge for researchers at universities or other institutions to get permission to study or test it. Other drugs in this category include heroin, peyote, and the club drug ecstasy.

In mid-April, Florida House of Representatives members Matt Gaetz and Darren Soto proposed a bill to move marijuana down to a Schedule III substance, which would put it in the same category as Vicodin, and would make it much easier for laboratories to conduct testing.

Going Organic?

The lack of cannabis testing makes it harder for the industry to do quality control. But some professional growers are doing what they can.

Amy Andrle runs a dispensary called L’Eagle Services with her husband, John, where they cultivate high-end cannabis products. Andrle is based in downtown Denver, Colorado—the state with more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks and McDonalds locations combined.

Andrle, also a founding member of the Organic Cannabis Association, says L’Eagle only offers what she calls “100% clean cannabis.” But since the crop is not legal federally, growers can’t take advantage of official organic certification from the USDA, such as poultry or corn.

This can make it harder for growers like Andrle to make a distinction for their customers. “There is no real, national, universal seal of organic certification. It doesn’t exist right now,” says Andrle.

But that’s exactly what the Organic Cannabis Association is trying to develop.

“We want to apply this [certification] on a national level because of how many states have been jumping on board with legalizing the crop for medicinal use,” she says. “In the absence of organic standards and organic certification, there’s no real way for the consumer to tell the difference.”

Andrle wants to change the way people buy marijuana, starting with the way they perceive it. She hopes to dispel some of its past stigma. And the crowd she’s trying to attract?

“Whole Foods shoppers,” she says.

She hopes cannabis consumers will start thinking of those products the way they would meat or vegetables. “Each item has a different tagline you look for,” Andrle explains. “For fish—you look for wild-caught, or for vegetables that they were grown pesticide free. You look for free-range chickens or pasture-raised eggs. We don’t have that same tagline to seek for cannabis right now and that’s what we’re trying to develop; because I think that shoppers are going to start looking for that same criteria.”

In early June, the Organic Cannabis Association merged with fellow non-profit the Ethical Cannabis Alliance. A result was the formation of the Cannabis Certification Council (CCC), which hopes to independently certify cannabis products as “Organically Grown” and “Fairly Produced.”

“We are in a unique period where the cannabis industry does not have federal oversight,” says Ashley Preece, newly appointed Executive Director of the CCC. “There are nearly a dozen organizations that have tried to create for-profit standards, but they have failed to do it in an ethical way.”

Preece says they will be working from USDA and European organic standards and will then review the guidelines with a technical advisory council. After that comes a national pilot program.

“Producers and processors will have a way to differentiate themselves from competitors who are not taking the extra steps for ethical cannabis production. Additionally, the certification will give consumers a way to be assured that what they’re putting into their bodies is safe, clean, and supporting their local communities,” says Preece. (See why Pygmies are dealing weed to survive.)

Trail Blazing Energy Efficiency

Ever since voters in Colorado and Washington started blazing a path for the legal recreational use of marijuana in 2012, growers have been looking for innovative ways to cut down on their often considerable energy costs. A 2012 study found that indoor cultivation of cannabis for medical use was responsible for about three percent of California's entire energy consumption—and the acreage has soared since then.

Siobhan Danger Darwish has been growing cannabis in Humboldt County, California, for over 15 years. The farm she and her husband own and operate, Blessed Coast Farms, received a commercial cannabis cultivation permit in June of 2016—the first official permit of its kind in the state.

Darwish says she doesn't use any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and that she tracks her water usage carefully.

“We believe that sustainability extends to setting a high standard for conduct, and we are working to show the community that the emerging legal cannabis industry is contributing to society, not taking from it,” says Darwish.

The legalization of cannabis also means that rural farmers like Darwish are no longer required to hide out in the mountains in order to cultivate their crops. Not having to conceal their grows means less fragmentation of forested land, as well as increased accountability regarding the production of the final product. And outdoor cultivation slashes energy needs by eliminating the need for lighting.

For warehouse growers like Amy Andrle, sustainability is even more technical, and sometimes more costly. L’Eagle Services updates their entire HVAC system every 12-18 months, which Andrle says is the pace of innovation in the industry.

LED lights are used for plants in the “vegetative state,” but are not yet an efficient replacement for standard lighting in the “flower room” where the plants set their buds and are harvested. Swapping standard lighting for LEDs in the largest parts of her warehouse has already lowered energy costs by 70% overall.

She and other Denver-based warehouse growers rent their space from the city, so what used to be abandoned, dilapidated buildings are now thriving businesses that are revitalizing neighborhoods and bringing in jobs. Paying for the constant building renovations comes out of their own pockets.

“The cannabis industry essentially started in 2009, which means no research, no innovation, could have legally been done prior to that,” says Andrle. “The fact that we’ve come so far is actually a testament to how hard people are working to get things done.”

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