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.”
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.
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.