Cannabis is a fascinating plant, beneficial for recreational and therapeutic reasons.  It is also finally emerging from a decades old cage of prohibition.  The emergence of legal cannabis has proven to be very lucrative for many of those who have chosen to invest in it.  Arcview Market Research Group, a consulting firm for the industry, estimated that cannabis generated $6.9 billion in 2016 and could amass almost $22 billion by 2021.

But when it comes to the environment, cannabis has proven to be quite costly.  Cannabis has a substantial carbon footprint.  According to a 2012 reduce cannabis carbon footprint, sustainabilitystudy, cannabis cultivation costs roughly $6 billion a year, practices used to cultivate a kilogram of marijuana release almost the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as 3 million cars, and one marijuana cigarette emits the same amount of CO2 that it takes to power a 100-watt lighting bulb for 17 hours.

The plant’s status as a Schedule 1 drug, or a substance with no medical value and a high potential for abuse, make it federally illegal.  This really complicates things, including establishing industry-wide sustainability standards.  Until it is FDA approved (which won’t happen without the DEA rescheduling it), cannabis cannot be officially labeled organic. And states that have legalized cannabis are just starting to pay attention to the industry’s impact on the environment. This removes the incentive for many growers to invest in growth practices that are not only better for the environment, but better for the consumer as well.

In short, cannabis cultivars have a ways to go when it comes to sustainability. Here are a few of the best practices they can implement now, with or without the FDA’s stamp of approval.

Practice Organic Farming

Cultivars can use sustainable or organic gardening methods to grow their cannabis. This type of gardening relies on beneficial insects, compost, and plant diversity rather than pesticides, herbicides, and inorganic fertilizers to protect and nourish plants. This method is good both indoors and out and has a few strategic benefits. For one, it usually doesn’t require the repeated purchase of lots of expensive chemicals, so it can save money in the long run. Second, it’s better for the plants which makes it better for the consumers.

Use LED Lighting

Traditionally, indoor cultivars use metal halide bulbs for the vegetative phase of growth and then switch to high pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs during the flowering phase. The problem with this system is that both types of bulbs consume a ton of energy, but also lose their power quickly, reducing the light spread and causing the plants to work harder to get the LED lights for cannabis sustainabilitylight they need. Additionally, these bulbs get hot and require more ventilation in order to regulate temperature.  The combined energy costs for the bulbs and the ventilation can get pretty high.

High quality LED lights, on the other hand, have the capacity to produce a light spectrum that does not require bulb changes. Even better, LED lights use far less energy than HPS and Halide bulbs. This means that you get to save money on energy costs in two ways: first, the lighting becomes much less expensive to power, and because the LED lights use less energy, they produce less heat and reduce the need for a lot of extra ventilation.

Although the initial costs of a LED setup can be high, the money saved from the investment will be worth it.

Conserve Water Resources  

Cannabis requires much less water than other foods.  For example, a serving of burger (1/3 pound) requires 330 gallons of water while a serving of cannabis (one gram) requires about one gallon of water.  Still, water is one of the resources needed to cultivate cannabis, and it can become expensive.

One way to conserve water is to use rain barrels to collect rainwater

Rainwater is chlorine, lime, and calcium free, so it’s more suitable for your flowers than running water.  Additionally, it’s free and depending on where you live, it may be plentiful.

Another way to conserve water is to, again, use organic farming practices.  Water is poisoned by pesticides, herbicides, and inorganic fertilizers, so staying away from those substances can protect nearby water sources.

Is Growing Outdoors the Answer to Sustainability?

Sunlight, rain, and the atmosphere’s ventilation are free resources—and great perks to growing outdoors.  It may seem, then, that the solution to sustainability is to take cannabis outside.  However, outdoor cannabis growth faces its own sustainability issues.  For one, outdoor farms tend to use more pesticides, fertilizer, and water than indoor grows.  The ensuing runoff can actually poison water.

The improper cultivation of cannabis can lead to soil erosion and land degradation.

This doesn’t mean that outdoor grows are bad; in fact, they offer some incredible benefits.  It just means that outdoor growers have to pay attention too.

A solution that some are calling the future of cannabis cultivation is the use of greenhouses.  Greenhouses harness the power of the sun and technology, all while protecting cannabis from the risks of the outdoors.  For example, some greenhouses have the capability of detecting when clouds are in the way of the sun, and will only then turn on their lights.  This reduces energy costs significantly while providing continuous light to the plants.

Be Flexible and Take Risks

Prohibition has forced the cannabis industry underground for decades, and during that time, growers weren’t as concerned with sustainability as they were with legalization.  Since cannabis remains federally illegal and the states where it has been legalized are still figuring out how to efficiently regulate, growers are understandably cautious about taking any seemingly unnecessary risks.  Even growers of traditional, FDA approved produce are leery about sustainable growing; hence,

Organically grown crops are typically more expensive and harder to find at your neighborhood grocery store.

But striving for sustainability is well worth the risk.  It is good for the environment, and, in the long term, it saves money.  So, try to keep an open mind, and even if you aren’t ready to completely revamp everything you do, try implementing one of the practices suggested here.  You just might find that it was a risk worth taking.

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.