Stoners vs the Environment

April 30, 2015

Earth Day and 420 marijuana festivities clash in Colorado



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A SURPRISING CONFLICT: Colorado’s marijuana industry is at odds with Earth Day, whose environmental movement initially brought about the marijuana culture.

By Marjorie Haun | Watchdog Arena

In Colorado, Earth Day, which arose from the 1970s environmental movement, coincides with the “420” Marijuana Festival. The era that gave us Earth Day also brought the marijuana culture into the public consciousness, which has evolved into a movement to decriminalize recreational marijuana use in many states.

In 2015, two years following the state’s legalization of recreational marijuana, there is a surprising clash emerging between the marijuana industry and environmental concerns.

Marijuana is a water-intensive crop, and one plant can require up to six gallons of water per day. Since marijuana was legalized in 2012, Colorado has awarded over 600 licenses to medical marijuana growers and nearly 400 to recreational marijuana growers.

Marijuana plants are grown in warehouses with capacities up to 3,600 plants, green houses with a capacity of 1,800 plants, home basements with a capacity up to 6 plants, and outdoor farms, which can hold thousands.Though there is currently no precise data on water usage, marijuana cultivation facilities in Colorado could be using hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per day, and millions per week.

Parts of Colorado are currently in what the National Climatic Data Center classifies as asevere drought.  The state has struggled for decades with regional water shortages, and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s water plan threatens to divert even more water from Colorado’s thirsty western regions. Complicating the issue for the marijuana industry is the fact that federal water cannot be legally used to cultivate the crop.

About 1.6 million acre-feet of Colorado’s agricultural water comes from federal resources, leaving marijuana growers with only private wells or municipal water as alternatives. Whether the water comes from federally managed water or municipal resources, there is still the problem of supply, and Colorado may be headed in the disastrous direction of California.

Recreational marijuana is currently illegal in California. Nevertheless, great attention is being paid to the amount of water going to illegal indoor and outdoor marijuana growing operations. California’s historic drought has impacted the state’s agricultural interests, threatening essential food crops, fisheries, and other industries.

A recent research article entitled “Impacts of Surface Water Diversions for Marijuana Cultivation on Aquatic Habitat in Four Northwestern California Watersheds” explains:

..that water demand for marijuana cultivation has the potential to divert substantial portions of streamflow in the study watersheds, with an estimated flow reduction of up to 23% of the annual seven-day low flow in the least impacted of the study watersheds.

The marijuana culture has historically been associated with the environmental movement, but available science indicates that the growing industry is environmentally problematic. Not only does the cultivation of marijuana require massive amounts of water, but the energy requirements for indoor warehouse and green-house growing operations are vast as well. A UC Berkeley study says:

The most significant environmental effect of cannabis production, and the one that varies most with different production practices, is energy consumption, especially fossil energy use with climate effects from release of greenhouse gas. Indoor-grown marijuana is an energy-intensive product by weight, using on the order of 2000 kWh per pound of product (for comparison, aluminum requires only about 7 kWh per pound).

It’s estimated that Colorado growers produce 287,259 pounds of marijuana per year, which requires 574,518,000 kWh of electricity, most of which comes from fossil-fuel generated resources. By one estimate, for every pound of marijuana produced, 4,600 pounds of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Earth Day celebrants concerned with greenhouse gases should note the significant carbon footprint of Colorado’s marijuana industry.

California, which is rife with illegal outdoor grows, suffers from the denuding of the country side, soil loss and erosion as a result of poor marijuana farming practices. A form of water and soil pollution called “nutrient pollution” is also associated with marijuana cultivation. Fertilizers meant to enhance growth of the cannabis plants flow out with water that feeds the growing operations, whether through hydroponics or irrigated fields. The nutrient pollution from marijuana cultivation can be significant.

Colorado is currently struggling with problems stemming from a lack of information about what fertilizers and pesticides can be safely and legally used on marijuana plants.

The California Fish and Wildlife department reports that illegal stands of marijuana are the source of pollution in many of the state’s rivers and streams. In another story from California, illegal marijuana growers used rat poison to stop weasels from raiding their plants. The damage from this practice to wildlife and the environment was devastating and long-lasting.

Colorado’s legalized recreational marijuana, “pot tourism,” and a growing “edibles” industry, are celebrated each April 20 in downtown Denver, but as the environmental problems of marijuana farming become more apparent, it makes one take pause and wonder if those Earth Day “flower children” of the 1970’s might be on the verge of a new war with themselves.

This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.

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