artisanal cannabis

The Cannabis Conundrum: Is California a Pseudo-Green State?

[Note: This final post in the GeoCurrents series on cannabis legalization strays from the blog’s stated guidelines, which emphasize factual reporting and seek to minimize political interpretations and ideological stances. It also leaves its own arguments hanging, providing no solid answers to the two central questions: why does California’s government favor high-carbon corporate cannabis over low-carbon artisanal production, and why does it allow criminal organizations to undermine the legal regime that it has so arduously created? Such matters will be explored later in a separate forum devoted to opinion-based essays.]

According to conventional thinking, California is a deep-green state, its leadership unwaveringly committed to environmental protection. No state is going to greater lengths to reduce carbon emissions, regardless of the short-term sacrifices that they entail. Although many doubt that California will be able to fulfill its ambitious energy mandates, few question the sincerity of its agenda. Even those who are skeptical about climate change are convinced that California is doing everything it can to guard against it, unwisely in their opinion. By the same token, California is widely regarded as highly progressive, leftwing state, its leadership devoted to helping marginalized communities and willing to take on the corporate establishment to improve the lot of the common person. In the rightwing press, California is sometimes portrayed as leaning so far to the left as to verge on socialism if not communism.

But when one examines California’s cannabis industry, a different picture emerges. Here official policy is not merely indifferent to carbon emissions, but rather acts as if it wants to increase them. Indoor growing facilities with massive carbon footprints are favored, while full-sun cultivators who seek carbon neutrality are hounded out of business. By the same token, the monied corporate sector is rewarded, while smallholdings are seemingly slated for liquidation. In the process, entire communities are being systematically devastated, Humboldt’s County’s Garberville being the prime example. What little rural prosperity was found in the backwoods of the Emerald Triangle is withering away. Only the elite-focused winery districts and coastal tourist towns will emerge unscathed. When it comes to cannabis, California follows a policy agenda that in other domains would be regarded as rightwing if not reactionary.

The resulting ironies run an ocean deep. Poor and middle-class Californians are asked to make major sacrifices to reduce their carbon emissions, with rising fuel and electricity costs burdening millions and sending many into energy poverty. Yet in cannabis we find an economic sector that could realize a massive carbon reduction at virtually no cost to consumers. Low-carbon artisanal cultivators could easily supply the market with high-quality and reasonably priced goods, as indeed they did for years under the medical-marijuana program. For some unspecified reason, this is not the path that the state has taken under full legalization. But California’s preferred course is heading quickly into its own dead end. As its political logic plays out, even the favored corporate sector is floundering, unable to compete with tolerated illegal operations. These well-funded growers  flout all the state’s carefully crafted regulations, often trashing the environment, exploiting their workers, stockpiling guns and biocides, and delivering to the public untested and sometimes highly contaminated products.

Why should cannabis form an exception to the supposed goals of the Californian political model? Why would the state’s government turn a blind eye to such blatant assaults on everything that it supposedly holds dear? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. When I ask my friends and relatives in Silicon Valley, all of whom are loyal supporters of the Democratic establishment, I get feeble responses that focus on incompetence and unintended consequences. The root problem, I have been told, is a simple a lack coordination, with cannabis regulators not receiving adequate guidance from the state’s environmentally devoted leadership.

I remain skeptical, to say the least. The conviction that climate change is an immediate existential threat that demands unwavering action on all fronts is ubiquitous in the Democratic Party. As a result, the idea that those in charge of cannabis would have somehow forgotten about carbon emissions when crafting their regulations is ludicrous. If we are to resist special pleading, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that California’s political establishment does not prioritize climate change when it is inconvenient to do so, and thus does not really regard it as an existential threat. Its environmental policies, in other words, seem to be designed instrumentally to satisfy allies and make electoral gains, not out of conviction or principle. Put differently, California appears to be a pseudo-green state.

Why would California’s political establishment pursue a pseudo-green political agenda? Perhaps I am being unduly harsh, and it is all merely an unfortunate error, due mainly to the lack of coordination between state agencies. But if this is indeed the case, then California must rectify this mistake by prohibiting indoor cannabis cultivation. If it does not do so, one can only conclude that its environmental rhetoric is mostly posturing, and that its decarbonization campaign is deeply dishonest.

The Carbon Footprint of Artisanal Cannabis Cultivation in California

[Note: This post is mostly based on discussions with small-scale, legal cannabis growers in Mendocino County, California. I have spent a lot of time in Mendocino since the early 1960s, when my parents bought a very small share of a very large ranch near the town of Covelo – my boyhood paradise. Since 2001, I have co-owned a piece of property near Anderson Valley, which I use as a rural retreat. Most of my neighbors and friends in the area are cannabis cultivators, and they have been eager to talk about their farms and tribulations.]

Every economic activity comes at some carbon cost, and artisanal cannabis is no exception. Most organic growers use large amounts of commercial compost, which has its own modest production footprint and must be trucked to their farms. More significant, irrigation water is almost always pumped from deep wells, an energy intensive procedure. The cannabis itself must be transported to testing and packaging facilities, and ultimately driven to the dispensaries in which it is sold. The big energy draw, however, comes just after harvest. From early-October to mid-November, the flowers are hung in drying sheds, one of the trickiest aspects of the production cycle. The proper humidity levels must be maintained; if the air is too damp, Aspergillus mold can easily spread, contaminating everything. If the weather is moist, dehumidifiers must run constantly, and even in dry conditions, dehumidification is necessary at night.

A few growers go to great pains to reduce their energy expenditures. Some make their own compost and compost tea from plants found on their own farms. I know one who gathers winter rainwater from his rooftops and stores it for summer irrigation. There are no alternatives, however, to dehumidifying the drying sheds. For those whose properties are tied to the electrical grid, the carbon footprint here is relatively modest. It is more substantial on off-grid sites, although still minuscule in comparison to indoor facilities. Although most off-grid growers have a few solar cells, few have enough to power dehumidification. Generators must therefore be used, powered by diesel, gasoline, or propane. Here, no surprise, is where the government suddenly finds its environmental concern. Generator-using off-grid growers find themselves falling out of compliance, putting their cultivation licenses at risk. When it comes to artisanal cultivation, regulation tends to be unforgiving.

Although carbon dioxide emissions are inevitable, they can be offset by sequestering carbon in the soil. This is done by heating organic matter in the absence of oxygen, converting most of it to charcoal. Once infused with nutrients, the charcoal is transformed into biochar. Buried in the earth, biochar remains stable for thousands of years, greatly enhancing soil texture and fertility. Geographers and anthropologists have known decades that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon used charcoal to create large expanses of extremely productive terra preta soil in what is otherwise an area of impoverished soil. In California, small-scale cannabis cultivators can use biochar to become carbon neutral and potentially even carbon negative. Doing so is regarded by some as the ultimate investment, one that improves their land for millennia. Yet they get no credit for such eco-conscientious behavior, as carbon sequestration is not factored into California’s cannabis regulations.

[Illustration: biochar, in buckets, ready to be sequestered in an artisanal cannabis farm]


If off-grid cultivators are to come into compliance and retain their cultivation licenses, they will have to install full solar arrays, at a cost of some $50,000 to $100,000 per farm. Few can afford such expenditures, adding to their woes. But those lucky enough to have been unlucky enough to have been harmed by the anti-marijuana campaigns of the 1970s and 80s, a potential lifeline is offered through California’s “Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions.” As the program’s website explains:

The purpose of the Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions is to advance economic justice for populations and communities impacted by cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs by providing support to local jurisdictions as they promote equity in California and eliminate barriers to enter the newly regulated cannabis industry for equity program applicants and licensees.

In the Emerald Triangle, many artisanal growers are eligible for such equity grants, and have been advised by local officials to use any funds that they might receive to install full solar arrays. Getting the money, however, is no easy matter. The necessary paperwork is so involved and extensive that some growers have been forced to hire consultants. Even so, their applications might linger for months are often rejected on technical grounds, forcing them to reapply. Some have reached the point of exasperation, suspecting that the program is little more than a cruel jest. As one grower told me, “It doesn’t matter what we do, as the government is determined to drive the hippies out of the hills.”

The Gargantuan Carbon Footprint of Corporate Cannabis

The huge carbon output of modern cannabis production is no secret. According to Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, 1.3 percent of the state’s total annual carbon emissions stem solely from cannabis. A rigorously researched and widely publicized 2021 article in Nature Sustainability found that indoor production, the dominant form in many areas, generates “2,283 to 5,184 kg CO2-equivalent per kg of dried flower.” This staggering carbon output comes mostly from the voracious energy demands of indoor cultivation. Rather than relying on the sun for photosynthesis, artificial illumination is necessary; rather than relying on the wind for ventilation, industrial-scale fans must be used. Dehumidification is also needed, as is cooling during warm periods. In Southern California’s scorching Coachella Valley, the state’s emerging center of corporate cultivation, air-conditioning expenditures can be astronomical. Here even the local water supply requires energy-intensive purification. And, as if to add insult to injury, carbon dioxide is intentionally released into growing facilities to enhance production, some of which inevitably escapes into the atmosphere.

Bizarrely, large cannabis corporations and their cheerleaders sometimes brag about their energy use. Consider, for example, this 2016 article from the Coachella Valley Weekly entitled, “Canndescent: Setting the Bar for Cannabis Cultivation in Desert Hot Springs”:

Impressive at every turn, Sedlin gave a tour describing how the Canndescent facility intends to grow, clone and package premium weed.

He proudly, and probably with more detailed information than necessary, showed how the plants require the perfect temperature, water and light for maximum growth.

The facility is equipped with a 160-ton air conditioner. DHS [Desert Hot Springs] water, known for its award-winning minerals and taste, is not however good for cannabis, so Canndesecent has to use a reverse osmosis system with a 5,000 gallon water backup supply. Plant fertilization is electronically distributed. A shiny outdoor tank containing 1,000 gallons of liquid CO2 pumps the right mixture into sealed rooms producing the ideal growing environment. …

Canndescents’ grow rooms look like something on a Mars’ space station. Everything appears sterile, bright, well-organized and utilizes every inch of space with custom, stainless steel, movable grow beds. Hi-tech monitors are taking constant readings of the air quality. Fans insure the air is moving evenly.

When confronted with this outsized carbon footprint, indoor cannabis apologists typically point to their solar cells, arguing that they are doing their part to reduce their impact. This is simple greenwashing. Solar cells provide “clean” energy only in a relative sense, insofar as they substitute for fossil fuels. If they are used instead to replace sunlight, they are anything but green. Few indoor facilities, moreover, have enough solar cells and battery banks to provide all their energy needs.

In California, indoor cultivation accounts for only around thirty percent of cannabis production, less than in most states with a legal market. But outdoor growing, known in the business as “full sun,” accounts for an even lower share (see the graph posted below). Most California cannabis is grown in greenhouses under “mixed light” conditions. Here most of the energy needed for photosynthesis does come from the sun, but supplementary artificial lighting is used as well. Power-hungry ventilation is also necessary, as are other energy expenditures unknown in outdoor growing. In the final tally, mixed light is far less carbon intensive than indoor cultivation – but far more carbon intensive than outdoor growing.

There are several reasons why indoor and greenhouse production predominate. Outside of California and a few neighboring areas that have a Mediterranean climate, high-quality cannabis cannot be easily grown in the open air. Low humidity is necessary during the crucial late summer and early fall flowering period; otherwise, the flowers will be attacked by mold. Dry weather through September and October, however, is uncommon over most of the country. As federal anti-cannabis laws prevent interstate commerce, each state must produce its own crop, requiring in most cases enclosed growing environments and extensive dehumidification. Under a rational, environmentally sound cannabis regime, most production would take place in California and neighboring states; a state like New York would no more use massive, artificially illuminated buildings for cannabis production than it would for lemons or artichokes.

The triumph of high-carbon cannabis in California stems from both market pressure and government policies. When large-scale corporate cannabis began to flood the market a few years ago, artisanal cultivators came under increasing stress. To remain competitive, many took up mixed-light production themselves, as it allows multiple harvests per year and thus helped maintain profits as the wholesale price started to drop. More insidious are the pressures imposed by consumers in the retail marketplace. Most self-styled connoisseurs prefer indoor flowers, as they tend to be more uniform, visually appealing, and potent than those grown in the sun. As a result, indoor growers enjoy a pronounced price advantage, easily making up for their additional energy costs. The root problem here is the adolescent nature of the core cannabis market, where raw potency reigns supreme, while social, environmental, and cultural considerations, as well as flavor, are usually ignored. If alcohol operated under the same market constraints, fine wine and artisanal beer would be marginalized long ago by 190-proof Everclear.

But the more fundamental reason for the collapse of low-carbon cannabis in California is government policies that discourage and sometimes even prevent full-sun cultivation, while favoring indoor and mixed-light production. Many of these policies are covert, as they are ostensibly aimed at other issues. Some, however, are straightforward. As a recent MJBizDaily article notes:

Onerous regulations or outright bans on outdoor cultivation sites by many California counties also have made it harder for outdoor grow operations to expand their footprints.

Of the 26 counties in the state that have issued cultivation licenses to date, 14 haven’t awarded any to outdoor growers.

To say that California’s  cannabis policies are hypocritical is an understatement of the first order, as will be explored in the final post in this series. But first we need to consider one more issue: the carbon footprint of full-sun cultivation. Although very low by comparative measures, it is not negligible. Some growers, however, do everything they can to minimize their emissions, and a few might even achieve carbon neutrality and perhaps even negativity. Yet for all their efforts, they receive little if any credit, whether in the market, from regulators, or from environmental organizations.