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The Carbon Footprint of Growing Pot and the Quest for Organic Weed

Twenty-three states and Washington, DC currently have laws legalizing marijuana in some form, according to the website Governing. Four states—Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Colorado—and Washington, DC have legalized marijuana for both recreational and medical use.

More and more states are moving to legalize or at least decriminalize weed. Photo credit: Governing

Medical marijuana is legal in Hawaii, California, Nevada, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, New York, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. And several of those states, plus Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina and Ohio, have passed laws decriminalizing certain marijuana possession offenses.

"Typically, decriminalization means no arrest, prison time or criminal record for the first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal consumption," explains NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). "In most decriminalized states, these offenses are treated like a minor traffic violation."

All of this is to say that marijuana use has become far more socially acceptable in the U.S. in recent years. "According to government surveys, some 25 million Americans have smoked marijuana in the past year, and more than 14 million do so regularly," say NORML. The number could, in reality, be much higher than that—given the fact that people may have not been entirely truthful about the subject on a government survey.

At the Democratic debate on Tuesday, moderator Anderson Cooper joked, "some of the candidates have tried marijuana, as have pretty much probably everybody in this room." When asked if he would vote to legalize recreational marijuana sales if he were a resident of Nevada, where the measure will be on the 2016 ballot, Bernie Sanders replied, "I suspect I would."

Legal marijuana is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S., according to FastCoexistSo if legalization is more or less inevitable nationwide, it's crucial to consider its environmental and human health impacts. As it stands right now, cannabis production needs to become a whole lot greener and healthier.

FastCoExist reports:

In rural California, where marijuana is the top cash crop, it uses massive amounts of water during the drought. In fragile Northern California ecosystems that are just starting to recover from the logging industry, guerrilla weed growers are chopping down trees, eroding hillsides, poisoning wildlife and illegally sucking up water from rivers and streams.

Indoor pot farms aren't necessarily better; the typical indoor operation uses more energy per square foot than a data center. A 2012 study of marijuana's carbon footprint estimated that it accounted for three percent of all the energy used in California—as much as the energy used by 1 million homes, or the carbon emissions from 1 million average cars.

Part of this problem lies in the fact that the guerrilla pot growers are obviously not operating legally. At EcoWatch, we've reported that legalizing marijuana would help the industry operate in a more sustainable way. But even fully legal pot farms are, often times, not the most environmentally friendly.

With their "high-powered lightbulbs, HVAC systems, dehumidifiers and generators," indoor pot farms are sucking up a lot of energy, Quartz notes. "Since California legalized the cultivation of medical marijuana in 1996, electricity use in Humboldt County, considered the capital of pot growing, has risen much faster than the rest of the state," says Quartz. "Producing a single marijuana cigarette creates two pounds of CO2 emissions, according to one estimate."

And for a drug that's extolled for its medicinal benefits, it can be made with some potentially dangerous products. Research presented earlier this year at the Emerald Scientific Conference, which focuses on the science of cannabis, found that "current screening methods can detect more than 200 types of pesticides in marijuana. Other common contaminants include mold, mildew, bacteria, fungus, chemicals, fungicides, solvents, toxins and metals," according to Quartz.

But there are farms out there illuminating the way.

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Green Life Productions is an indoor medical marijuana farm in Southern Nevada. The farm "uses traditional permaculture techniques along with new tech like LED lights that have been specifically designed to grow the most possible pot with 60 percent to 70 percent less energy," says FastCoExist.

"Our growing style is truly organic and takes into consideration not only the health of the patient but that of the environment as well," says Green Life Productions.

The special LED lights help the plants grow faster, thus reducing the amount of water needed. And mulching and recycling water systems help to reduce water usage even further. By growing nitrogen-fixing plants like clover next to the cannabis, the company was able to forgo the synthetic fertilizers commonly used on pot farms. Green Life Productions also avoids the use of pesticides, instead opting for beneficial insects and other natural methods to help reduce plant diseases and pests.

They follow the guidelines set forth by the National Organic Program, according to FastCoExist, so if the government recognized an organic standard for marijuana, their marijuana would meet the standard. "I hope our success will motivate others to follow similar methods of growing," Floyd tells FastCoExist. "I think we’d all be healthier."

As it turns out, there is a third party certification for sustainable pot. It's called Clean Green Certified, and it "models itself on the USDA’s organic program, requiring yearly inspections and pesticide testing," according to Quartz. The industry came up with the standard in response to growing demand for organic pot in areas such as the Bay Area in California.

Chris Van Hook, a former USDA-accredited organic certifier and an attorney, founded Clean Green Certified a decade ago, according to Civil EatsWhen he worked as an organic certifier, he was asked to certify one grower's pot as organic. Van Hook wanted to help because he knew conventional pot could contain dangerous neurotoxins and potential carcinogens.

SoFresh Farms, in Canby, Oregon, is a Clean Green Certified operation. Photo credit: SoFresh Farms

“Growers use everything from myclobutanil [a fungicide sold under the brand name Eagle 20] to synthetic pyrethroids,” says Van Hook. "The latter include Avid (abamectin) to control spider mites, and bifenthrin, which has been classified by the EPA as a possible human carcinogen," says Civil Eats. "Growers also use chlorpyrifos and malathion, both organophosphates known for damaging the human nervous system."

As much as Van Hook wanted to help, he couldn't. Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, it cannot be certified as USDA organic. But, Van Hook realized "as long as he and certified growers don’t use the word 'organic' or 'USDA organic' to describe their product," he could apply organic standards to cannabis," says Civil Eats. Thus, Clean Green Certified was born.

“People in educated urban areas need to bring the same attention to the cannabis industry that they bring to their food and to their shade-grown, bird-friendly organic coffee. And they need to do it this year,” Van Hook says. Clearly, legalization is helping this process. Van Hook says he's certified nearly 100 growers, processors and handlers, and he reports that he's seen an increase in applications since Oregon legalized marijuana last fall.

As pot becomes legal in more and more places, it's likely that demand for organic pot will only continue to grow and that is good for people and the planet.

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