Highs and lows of the booming marijuana industry
by Jacob Flaherty
The marijuana business has created a surge of money and jobs for the states that legalized it, but with the boom has come concern over the burdens growers are putting on their communities and environment.
According to a report by the National Cannabis Industry Association, outdoor marijuana grows — which is what the industry calls a cannabis crop — are most often found in rural areas, often outside traditional agricultural centers and in more remote, rugged locales. Cannabis generally grows best in a warm climate. In more arid regions out West, the best cannabis growing season often overlaps with the driest part of the year, which strains water utilities, according to the NCIA report.
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This problem is compounded in states affected by drought. But since transporting marijuana across state lines remains a federal crime, when there is a demand for marijuana in a state, it must be grown within its borders.
“[Cannabis grows are] a form of water-intensive agriculture that are cropping up in places that never had that kind of water-intensive agriculture going on before,” said Brandon Bowman with the Oklahoma Rural Water Association. “We’re talking about pastureland, or open fields, or what once was a farmhouse.”
“We’ve seen demands of 700,000 gallons per month or more. By way of comparison, usage of a three-bedroom farm home is, at most, 8,000 gallons per month…. So what you end up with is nearby neighbors without water, or very low pressure,” Bowman said. A grow pulling its water from local streams or aquifers can quickly deplete these resources, especially in drought conditions.
A cannabis farm’s wastewater also has the potential for environmental damage “if you’re flooding fields with lots of water that’s loaded with pesticides or fertilizer or silt,” said Bowman. “If that were to wash off of the property and into the surface water, you could have a significant impact.”
When located near more traditional crops, outdoor cannabis grows can also introduce conflict between growers and other farmers.
Marijuana cultivation uses different kinds of pesticides from those used on other crops used for food consumption. This presents problems when marijuana grow operations abut traditional farms. The pesticides used on corn, for instance, can drift to a neighboring marijuana farm. “[The pesticide] gets on the marijuana plants,” said Kaitlin Urso with the Cannabis Regulator’s Association, or CANNRA. “You harvest your plants, you get them tested, and your crop fails for pesticides — you have to destroy it. Marijuana’s very strict on what pesticides you can use.”
Terpene drift can cause similar issues between farms, especially in places like California, where wine grapes are grown alongside cannabis. Terpenes are compounds that give different strains of marijuana their particular flavors and smells. Often, terpenes that create a lemony or piney flavor are preferred in marijuana.
And like pesticides or any other compounds, they can drift from farm to farm. “Now, all of a sudden, you have wine that tastes like lemons, or pine, or marijuana,” said Urso. The result is a heightened concern for liability among farmers, growers, and businesses that apply pesticides.
Besides concerns over water usage, cannabis growing operations place an extremely high demand on electric utilities.
According to the NCIA report, cannabis cultivation in the U.S. used the equivalent energy of 92,500 homes in 2018. Since then, more states have legalized growing, and the number of cultivators has exploded. According to the November 5 licensing report by the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, or OMMA, Oklahoma alone added nearly 9,000 new growers in that time.
“For an indoor grow, energy is the number one [impact],” said Urso. “And that’s tied to lighting and HVAC, [which constitute] almost 80% of the energy footprint. [Growers] are creating a synthetic indoor grow environment.”
Growers can reduce the burden they place on utilities by adopting more efficient growing methods. According to Urso, “LED lights not only have the benefit of using less energy per fixture, they have a much lower heat profile,” which means energy-hungry HVAC systems need not run as frequently. And when it comes to water use, “there’s all kinds of ways to grow medical marijuana,” said Bowman. “There are drip irrigation systems, there are systems that catch and collect rain water for an alternative source.”
In September, a group of five rural organizations representing Oklahoma ranchers, farmers, and citizens issued a letter voicing their worries to the OMMA.
“This new industry is fundamentally changing rural Oklahoma,” the letter said. “An immediate moratorium on issuing permits will give time to consider appropriate and proper actions to preserve rural Oklahoma.”
Oklahoma is not alone in considering licensing moratoriums. Oregon implemented one in 2019 which could extend through 2024. Local governments elsewhere, such as Sonoma County, California, have rolled out similar measures until they can get a handle on some of the issues they are facing.