corporate cannabis

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.

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Why Is Desert Hot Springs California’s Emerging Center of Corporate Cannabis?

When most people think of cannabis cultivation in California, they imagine a bucolic setting in the northwestern hills, with back-to-the-land cultivators tending tiny plots deep in the woods. That is indeed where the business originated, but, as noted and the previous GeoCurrents post, such artisanal growing is rapidly disappearing. The emerging center of the industry is as different as could be imagined. It is found in the scorching Coachella Valley of Southern California, where cultivation is carried out in nondescript industrial facilities scattered across a suburbanizing desert landscape. Although other parts of California, particularly Santa Barbara County, produce more cannabis, the Coachella Valley is becoming the focus of corporate cannabis — and corporate production is overwhelming the family-farming sector.

Like the tiny farms of the Emerald Triangle, these operations are suffering from the collapse in the wholesale price and are likewise finding it difficult to compete with large-scale illegal cultivation. But they also bear much of the blame for the oversupply that has undermined the legal cannabis market. As will be explained in a later post, they are also anything but green, coming as they do with a gargantuan carbon footprint. The current post takes on a much more straightforward topic: why has the little city of Desert Hot Springs emerged as such an important center of marijuana production?

The answer appears to be straightforward. The leaders of Desert Hot Springs made an explicit decision roughly a decade ago to make their city the most cannabis-friendly jurisdiction in California. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the town, “Desert Hot Springs was the first city in Southern California to legalize medical marijuana cultivation and has since been overwhelmed by marijuana developers and growers.” Desert Hot Springs has an entire business park devoted to industrial-scale cannabis production, and advertises it widely. A real-estate website focusing on this kind of development outlines the situation nicely:

Morongo Business Park is a master planned cannabis business park located in the light industrial district of the city of Desert Hot Springs, CA. At full build-out, it will feature over 200,000 SF of cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, processing, distribution, and non-storefront delivery. Phase Three has an approved conditional use permit (CU21-17) for 136,173 square foot building, which meets all requirements for CA state cannabis business licensing. Being the first city in the state of California to allow recreational cannabis operations, Desert Hot Springs is one of the most cannabis business friendly environments in California. The city has recently reduced their cultivation tax and have also eliminated city manufacturing tax. Call listing office for complete due diligence package.

 

Desert Hot Springs turned to cannabis after everything else had failed. In the mid 20th century, it was a thriving little town, noted for its boutique hotels, modernist architecture, and sulfur-free hot springs. But it failed to keep pace with the nearby resort community of Palm Springs, and subsequently experienced pronounced decay. In 2001, Desert Hot Springs filed for municipal bankruptcy. It simultaneously earned a reputation for crime, violence, and prostitution. Widely circulated rumors claim that the city intentionally opened its doors to convicted sex offenders who were being hounded out of other communities. I have found no evidence of this allegation, but Desert Hot Springs does have an inordinate number of sex offenders living within its boundaries. By 2009, the situation had become so worrisome that the city adopted a tool that would allow its residents to locate the homes of such individuals. According to a news report from that year:

There are currently 69 sex offenders living in Desert Hot Springs, according to KESQ Channel 3. The station reported that Desert Hot Springs is the first city in the Coachella to invest in the OffenderWatch, which has been around for about 10 years. Parents can conduct a computer search around schools, gyms, parks, day cares and homes to see if a sex offender lives nearby. Residents can also register addresses within the city, and the Web site will automatically monitor the address and send an e-mail alert if an offender moves to the area.

Not surprisingly, Desert Hot Springs developed an unwholesome reputation, which is readily evident in on-line discussion forums. In 2009, City-Data published the following conversation:

Question: I want to move from Connecticut to Riverside County to be near family. Is it safe living is Desert Hot Springs? The house prices are very appealing to me. Also, how are the school ratings?
Answer 1: NO, no and no. DHS is notorious for high crime, paroled felons, sex offenders and general blight. Home prices reflect the state of the city, which is just terrible. Recent budget cuts are taking police officers off the streets when there already aren’t enough to go around. Not a place for families trying to raise good, educated kids.

Answer 2: No. The houses are cheap for a reason. The area has the highest concentration of paroled offenders. Horrible City government. Terrible schools

To emerge from the hole in which it found itself, Desert Hot Springs turned to corporate cannabis. This experiment has been relatively successful, although more than twenty-five percent of its population remains below the poverty level. As the city’s official website notes, crime has declined significantly since 2015. Desert Hot Springs is currently experiencing substantial growth, its population expanding from 25,938 in 2010 to 32,512 in 2020.

Industrial-scale cannabis has undoubtedly brought benefits to the city. Its effects on the environment, however, are another matter altogether, as will be explored in the next GeoCurrents post

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