Despite a tumultuous cultural and legal history in the United States, Cannabis support has risen to a record height.  In October of 2016, this poll showed that 60% of Americans support the use of legalized pot, representing the highest percentage of support in 47 years. This increase in demand requires an increase in supply, but as with all things, the resources needed to ensure production are finite and environmentally costly. That’s where understanding the industry’s carbon footprint comes in.

Supply and Demand

As of November 8, 2016, nine states (Alaska, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington) allow the use of recreational marijuana, and 28 states have a comprehensive medical marijuana program.

Based on surveys conducted between 2013 and 2014, 14.9%, of the population in California, or 4, 633, 000 Californians, age 12 and older admit to using marijuana.  15.6% of Michiganians, or 1, 304, 000 people, ages 12 and older self-reported the use of marijuana.  Those two states represented the largest amount of users in the country, but the real numbers could be much higher.  What those statistics definitely reveal is that a lot of people are consuming marijuana.

Cannabis’ Carbon Footprint

That’s where understanding the industry’s carbon footprint comes in.  A carbon footprint refers to the tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) generated to directly or indirectly support human activities and life.  The best way to determine a carbon footprint is to calculate the CO2 emissions based on the amount of fuel required to sustain human activity over a given timeframe, usuman watering plants, carbon footprint of cannabis ally a year.

Talking about carbon footprints can get terrifying really quickly, but that’s a good thing.  People should probably be terrified.  Sea levels are rising, precipitation patterns are changing, plants are growing in the wrong places, animals are dying out…  the effects of human induced climate change are indisputable, and, after examining the massive carbon footprints so many human activities require, the reason for our environment’s escalating degradation is apparent.

How Big is the Carbon Footprint?

While it may be easy to assume that the proponents of the legalization movement would have had all of this environmental collapse business at the forefront of their minds, the evidence makes it clear that they did not.

Yes, the legalization of marijuana presents a host of economic and social benefits and is definitely a move in the right direction. It has also been excessively detrimental to the environment.

To be absolutely scientific about this, cannabis has a Godzilla-sized carbon footprint and has generally treated the environment the way Godzilla treats skyscrapers

This 2012 study found that marijuana production requires energy intensive practices, costing the US about $6 billion annually.    A kilogram of marijuana releases roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere as 3 million U.S. cars.  Another stunning finding is that a single marijuana cigarette reproduces the same amount of CO2 emissions it takes to power a 100-watt lightning bulb for 17 hours.

Carbon Calculator: Indoor Vs. Outdoor

There are two ways to grow marijuana: inside or outside.  Both ways have demonstrated poor sustainability practices.

Marijuana grown outdoors is subject to over 200 types of pesticides and other contaminants including metals, toxins, fungicides, fungus, mold, mildew, bacteria, and other chemicals.  In addition to posing risks to the human nervous system and being linked to cancer, pesticides and other contaminants can devastate the ecosystem and have already been indicted in the nationwide decline of honeybee populations, the mass deaths of bats, and sex change in male frogs.

You read that right.  Male frogs exposed to certain pesticides can become females.

Indoor grown marijuana isn’t necessarily a better alternative, though.  In fact, indoor marijuana cultivation can take an even greater toll on the environment given its use of high-powered light bulbs, dehumidifiers, carbon dioxide generators, and ventilation systems.  In Humboldt County, a marijuana growing hub in California, one estimate indicates that indoor grows account for 10% of the entire country’s electricity use, or the male frog, carbon footprint equivalent of what it would take to power 13,000 homes.

Clearly, the cannabis industry has to figure out how to become more sustainable.   Criminalization does make it more difficult to regulate energy consumption, but legalizing the plant won’t solve the problem without intervention specifically designed to help growers reduce their carbon footprint, and that won’t happen until environment sustainability becomes more important to government officials and civilians than turning a profit.  Happily, segments of the marijuana industry are actively trying to lighten the impact marijuana production has on the environment.

What is Clean Green Certified?

Even though marijuana’s federal legal status makes it impossible to be officially labeled “organic” (that prized title can come from the USDA alone, and the USDA doesn’t recognize marijuana as a legitimate crop), Clean Green Certified, an unofficial organic certifier, awards producers of cannabis “cultivated using sustainable, natural, and organically-based practices” with certification consumers can trust.  Clean Green Certified models international and national organic and environmentally friendly program standards, requiring third-party lab testing and onsite inspections.  Additionally, in order to receive certification, cannabis production operations must integrate a plan for carbon footprint reduction, water conservation, and fair labor.

As marijuana use becomes more legitimate and common across the country, the demand for organic cannabis continues to rise.  Marijuana consumers aren’t ignorant; a lot of them care about the quality of the marijuana they are ingesting to the same degree that they care about their coffee beans or kale leaves.

In fact, Americans 30 years old and younger are kind of obsessed with the ingredients in their food and  “clean eating,” and in a country with a growing diabetes epidemic, significant obesity problem, a projected rise in cancer in the next three years, and an unprecedented rate of human induced climate change, it is incredibly important to remain vigilant about the substances we consume and the ways we depend on the environment to produce them.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.