As the cannabis industry takes off, research and regulation addressing the environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation and processing are struggling to keep up. There are myriad impacts of cannabis cultivation, whether indoor or outdoor, on water quality, air quality, and land quality. The American Chemical Society summarizes the impact in a 2017 paper, “High Time to Assess the Environmental Impacts of Cannabis Cultivation” (Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 51; Issue 5, Pages 2531-2533).
Both indoor and outdoor cultivation sites use a tremendous amount of water; bad news for those states that have struggled in drought throughout the more recent years of legalization such as California, Nevada, Arizona, and parts of Colorado. Both types of cultivation sites have also been shown to emit volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, decreasing the air quality significantly in cultivation areas.
State regulatory agencies have started to address these concerns, but all claim that more research is needed to understand the true impact. Oregon mandated a Cannabis Environmental Best Practices Task Force in HB 3400, which produced a working document in 2016, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture has put out educational flyers with information on good agricultural practices pertaining to water quality. California, known for its strict regulatory stances on environmental impacts within its borders, has not backed away from this challenge as the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act with environmental provisions in SB 837 was implemented. The Medical and Adult Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act has gone further by tasking the State Water Resources Control board with creating environmental policies pertaining to the impact of cannabis cultivation and production. The October 2017 Board release of the Cannabis Cultivation Policy is the most comprehensive effort to date, covering everything from soil disposal, irrigation runoff, pesticides, to wetland protection and restoration in 14 regions across the state, nine of which are considered priority regions because they support salmon and other endangered wildlife.
Part of the soon-to-be billion-dollar industry is trying to capture this niche in the market by offering greenhouse grows, solar options, LED lighting, water recycling systems, and organic fertilizer solutions, but many license holders are continuing to use old practices from the days when illegal growers cared more about avoiding detection than protecting the environment. As studies and articles begin to explode into the media with doomsday predictions, the days of the cannabis “Wild West” are coming to a screeching halt, and responsible business practices relating to the environment are becoming top talking points in an industry whose previous reputation as “green-friendly” begins to unravel.