Medical Marijuana

Ultimate Hypocrisy?: Indoor Marijuana Growing and the Environmental Movement

Indoor MarijuanaImagine if you will an alternative world in which the leaders of one of our most reviled industries – say tobacco – had just figured out a new way to marginally enhance the quality of their product while significantly boosting their profits, but at a gargantuan cost to the environment. In this hypothetical universe, tobacco researchers discovered that they could produce slightly more refined smoking material in high-tech growing factories than they could in outdoor fields buffeted by unpredictable weather events. This new production system proved additionally profitable by abolishing the traditional cropping cycle in favor of monthly harvests, eliminating the headaches associated with long-term storage and annual planning. But the key issue was that of leaf quality and aesthetics, as in this universe the social stigma against tobacco use was rapidly declining, and well-heeled, trendy smokers and tobacco retailers had become obsessed with excellence, wanting to deal only with the most premium grades. As it turned out, the tobacco harvested in the new antiseptic grow-ops was slightly smoother, slightly more potent, slightly less contaminated by organic impurities, and significantly more uniform than that grown under the sun. In this parallel world, even the finest Dominican cigars were now occasionally reviled as dirt-grown trash, scorned by the most posh smoke shops.

Imagine as well that a number of U.S. state governments were encouraging this development, in part to bolster their own coffers. Indoor tobacco could be grown in states that were climatically marginal or inappropriate for outdoor cultivation, and it could be overseen and taxed at every stage of the operation, from the cloning of tobacco plants, to the processing of cigarettes and other nicotine products, to the final retail sale in a limited number of closely regulated, state-sanctioned shops. And to protect their revenue streams, such states were even able to ban the importation of outdoor tobacco from both other parts of the country and foreign lands.

Carbon Footprint Indoor Marijuana1In this alternative world, as in ours, the environmental consequences of such a tobacco transformation would be huge. The growing facilities would have to replace sunlight with high-intensity artificial illumination, sucking energy with abandon and generating in the process a mammoth carbon footprint. And lighting would be only one of several energy demands in this brave new world of high tech farming. Extensive ventilation and dehumidification systems would be needed as well, as would air conditioning in the summer months. Many tobacco growers would even artificially ramp-up carbon dioxide concentrations to Indoor Marijuana Carbon Footprint 2enhance plant growth, with much of the added gas leaking into the atmosphere. These agro-factories would be as far removed from organic faming as possible, with virtually all plant nutrients supplied through chemical means. And although clean-room status would be the goal, insects and other pests would sometimes get through the defenses and would then multiply geometrically, given the absence of predators. As a result, heavy applications of biocides would be periodically necessary.

The resulting production system would of course produce expensive tobacco, unaffordable by the financially disadvantaged. As result, a market for a lower-grade product would persist. But recall that in this imagined scenario, a number of states had essentially outlawed cheaper tobacco grades through regulations, prohibitions, and rigorous taxation regimes. Illegal production would therefore spring up to meet the low-end demand. Mexican drug cartels, noted for their brutality and environmental disregard, would step into the resulting gap. Some low-quality tobacco would be smuggled across the southern border of the U.S., in operations that went hand-in-hand with heroin and cocaine trafficking as well as with 1144423_ME_marijuana-enviro_GEMextortion, kidnapping, and mass-murder. The same cartels would also establish clandestine tobacco farms in the U.S., tucked away in national forests, private timberlands, and other remote locales. Here they would be joined by a number of local, renegade mass-producers. Worked in part by exploited, undocumented immigrants, these outdoor tobacco “grows” would pollute streams with agricultural chemicals and human waste, and litter the landscape with plastic tubing, growing containers, and the basic garbage of human existence. As a result of these growers’ paranoia and vigilance, merely hiking through these areas would become a dangerous and potentially deadly activity. More troubling still, these farms would use copious amounts of rodenticide to extirpate tobacco-gnawing wood rats, which would in turn devastate the populations of small carnivores, pushing some, such as the fisher (Martes pennanti), to the brink of local extinction.

Indoor Marijuana FootprintThe environmental consequences of this tobacco transformation would be fairly obvious, but not to their full extent. Imagine, however, investigative journalists from publications such as Mother Jones running damning exposés (see here and here as well) that outlined in some detail the damage imparted by both indoor and large-scale, illicit, outdoor tobacco growing. One report demonstrated that in California alone, the factory-farming of tobacco accounted for nine percent of the state’s household electricity consumption in early 2014, and that nationwide the industry used the output equivalent to that of seven large coal-burning or nuclear power plants. Imagine as well that this industry was steadily expanding not just in California but in other states as well, many of which were climatically unsuitable for outdoor tobacco cultivation. As a result, state energy planners were beginning to wonder where all of the extra electricity would come from, and were therefore contemplating the construction of new power facilities.

In such a world, one could well image the resulting outrage of not just the environmental community, but also that of all advocates of responsible government and rational public policy. 4,600 pounds of carbon dioxide released for every pound of tobacco produced, and for what end? So that tobacco connoisseurs could enjoy a slightly more refined smoking experience? So that tobacco companies could avoid the need for annual planning? For this we would be willing to devote the entire output of seven—and counting—major power plants?

This entire scenario is, of course, ludicrous beyond all measure. As a result, indoor tobacco cultivation would be a non-starter, and even if it were somehow able to gain traction, it would arouse the immediate and overwhelming opposition of every green organization in existence, as well as that of a great many other powerful pressure groups. The alternative reality that I have sketched out above, in short, makes no sense, and thus would thus seem to be unimaginable.

Or is it? As my title indicates, all that one has to do is substitute “marijuana” for “tobacco,” and the bulk of this post describes the actual situation currently existing in California, Washington, and several other U.S. states that have partially or fully legalized the consumption and sale of cannabis. There are, of course, limits to this comparison. The legal environments of tobacco and marijuana remain distinctive across the country, and I do not intend to imply that the two products are in any way equivalent. The existing evidence, for example, indicates that cannabis does indeed have a variety of legitimate medical uses, whereas the idea of “medical tobacco” is hard to take seriously. (To be sure, tobacco can have therapeutic and perhaps even prophylactic effects for such diseases as Parkinson’s, but almost all medical authorities insist that the product’s harm greatly outweighs any of its potential benefits.) I could have constructed my hypothetical alternative around any other highly valued crop, particularly those that have a major snob-appeal factor. I picked tobacco largely for its shock value; where I live, there is a significantly greater social stigma attached to tobacco smoking than there is to cannabis consumption, and as result the absurdity of my little thought experiment is duly intensified.

The widespread antipathy to tobacco in U.S. environmental circles and among the political left more generally would ensure that any major expansion of its carbon footprint would generate massive opposition. But when it comes to marijuana, the situation could hardly be more different. Over the past several years, I have noticed no evidence of any concerted resistance among major environmental groups to the burgeoning indoor marijuana industry, and very little to environmentally destructive, large-scale cultivation carried out on remote lands.

Greenpeace Indoor MarijuanaTo see if such seeming lack of concern is indeed the case, I examined the websites of a number of well-known environmental groups, searching under such terms as “indoor marijuana,” and “cannabis.” Some of my findings are available in the screenshot images posted here. As can be seen, no results were returned from theNRDC Indoor Marijuana Audubon or the Greenpeace sites. The Natural Resources Defense Council highlighted an article about eco-friendly hemp clothing, as well as several warning about the dangers of indoor pollution stemming from marijuana Audubon Indoor Marijuanasmoking at home., an indoor marijuanaorganization wholly devoted to fighting greenhouse gas emissions, would almost appear to advocate indoor cannabis cultivation; although its website contains no articles on the subject, it does run a number of search-linked advertisements for “grow lights” and “professional grow rooms.” The Sierra Club website, on the other hand, does bring up a significant number of articles. But as can be seen from the screenshot posted here, most of them concern weeds and pots rather than weed or pot, and indoor toilets rather Sierra Club Indoor Marijuanathan indoor grow-ops. The one result that does appear pertinent on first glance, marked with a red arrow on the image, turns out to be a red herring, as the article in question is actually about Massey Energy in West Virginia, a much more conventional Sierra Club target. When it comes to the massive energy consumption and colossal carbon footprint of indoor marijuana growing, an article in the Seattle Times sums up the situation nicely: “Leaders at other environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Conservation Northwest say they have other priorities.”

CBD Indoor MarijuanaThe one prominent environmental organization that does appear to be concerned about the negative effects of certain forms of cannabis cultivation is the Center for Biological Diversity, as can be seen in another screenshot posted here. It appears that the Center worries only about those problems associated with outdoor cultivation, but that focus seems appropriate, given its mandate. Some local branches of the Sierra Club have also taken up this issue, with the Redwood Chapter describing large-scale illegal cultivation as “an Environmental Plague on the North Coast.” The Humboldt branch of Earth First!, on the other hand, appears to be completely unconcerned, despite the fact that it is situated at the epicenter of environmentally destructive, large-scale, outdoor grows, and despite the fact that the organization as a whole claims to brook “no compromise in the defense of Mother Earth.”

None of this, it is essential to note, should be taken as an indictment of marijuana growing per se. Cannabis is a hardy plant that thrives in a wide array of climatic conditions, although the most premium grades do require relatively low humidity levels during the crucial September-October maturation period. Most importantly, almost all the power that is needed for marijuana growing flows naturally from the sun. The small-scale growers whom I have interviewed never use insecticides, rodenticides, or any other toxic chemicals, and they strive to keep their footprints, carbon and otherwise, as small as possible (more on that in a later post). But they get no credit whatsoever for any of these efforts, either from the marijuana market itself or from the environmental community and its political allies. Here the paradoxes run deep indeed.

Indoor Marijuana Growing GuideThe burning question, of course, is that of why: why would green organizations turn a blind eye to this huge, rapidly expanding, and entirely unnecessary source of environmental degradation? Anti-environmentalists would likely respond by claiming that this is yet more evidence that the environmental movement is not what it claims to be, as its true goal is the dismantling of global capitalism rather than the protection of the atmosphere or of nature more generally. I do not, however, think that this is the case, as will be explained in the next GeoCurrents post.

Notes: In Washington, one of the first U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana, legal growing can be done outdoors, but all sources that I have found maintain that the vast bulk of the legal crop is cultivated indoors. For the source of the garbage photo posted above, see this LA Times article.  Note also that the statistics cited by Mother Jones and other sources are debated, but whatever the actual numbers are, it is clear that they are far from trivial.


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Introduction: Cultural Diversity and Political Division in Northern California

For the next several weeks, GeoCurrents will examine California, particularly the northwestern quarter of the state.  Our interest in California derives from several sources. First, GeoCurrents strives for global coverage, and as a quick glance at the Master Map reveals, North America has received relatively little attention. Second, northern California is the home base of the website, and as such we can delve into certain issues in greater depth than is possible elsewhere. Third, and most important, California—like the Caucasus— exhibits marked linguistic and cultural diversity, and it is also the site of some intriguing geopolitical issues.

The linguistic complexity of California exists in two forms: the first a ghostly aura of vanished and moribund indigenous languages, the second a cosmopolitan imprint of assorted immigrant tongues. Anthropologists have long noted the diversity of the native languages of California, which they divided into at least seven linguistic families. Many linguists, however, now doubt the validity of several of these groupings, arguing that California might have been home to as many as two dozen families, most of them limited to the state. If so, pre-contact California could have rivaled the highlands of New Guinea as the most linguistically intricate place on earth. The research necessary to validate such claims, however, is difficult if not impossible to carry out, as most of these languages are extinct and many were incompletely recorded, if at all.

The disappearance of most Californian languages resulted from the spread of European diseases starting in the late 1700s, followed first by the genocidal campaigns of settlers and the state in the mid-1800s and then by a long period of gradual cultural loss. But not all local languages died out, and conservation and revival efforts are now underway. Except in the northwest, few sizable American Indian reservations were established; instead, survivors largely persisted in urban areas or in tiny “rancherias” scattered over much of the state. Today, the intricacies of residual native sovereignty allow many of these rancherias to prosper as gambling refuges. In many cases, controversies over tribal membership have intensified, as many persons of vaguely indigenous background claim affiliation in order to profit from the casino economy.

Whereas California’s original linguistic diversity was intensively local yet broadly spread across the entire state, that of today is intensely global yet highly focused in particular areas. Over most of California, English is dominant and Spanish secondary, although in one county (Imperial), more people speak Spanish than English at home. In the state’s major metropolitan areas, in contrast, immigrants from numerous countries have introduced a large array of languages. Such diversity reaches its height in the high-tech core of the state—if not of the world. In Northern California’s so-called Silicon Valley, English may dominate public life, but it shares the private sphere with many other languages. At Hoover Elementary School in Palo Alto—where cheap 1950s tract houses sell for well over a million dollars—more than half of all students do not speak English at home. Language instruction in Palo Alto is often controversial, as local activists demand immersion programs in Mandarin Chinese and other languages, provoking strong opposition from other interested parties.

At first glance, geopolitical issues in California appear insignificant, especially when compared with a place as intricately divided and intensely disputed as the Caucasus. But although geopolitical clashes in the state may seem trivial, they illuminate foundational disputes about the structure of the United States. Such disagreements hinge on where the authority of the federal government ends and where that of the constituent states begins, a hoary debate that once went under the name of “states’ rights.” Over time, the U.S. has gradually moved from a fully federal system toward that of a more unitary state; before the Civil War, it was common to regard the country as a plural entity (“The United States are…”). Today such usage seems quaint if not merely illiterate, yet whenever the laws and policies of individual states come into conflict with those of the federal government, states’ rights issues once again gain prominence.

Northern California map, showing Silicon Valley, Oakland, and Mendocino CountyWhereas state’s rights battles in the mid-twentieth century usually focused on racial discrimination in the U.S. South, those of today more often turn to such legal issues as the legalization of marijuana (Cannabis). At present, the U.S. federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which supposedly have no legitimate uses, and as a result the sale and possession of cannabis is banned across the country. California, however, along with a number of other states, allows the consumption of cannabis for medical purposes, which are defined so broadly that virtually any adult can easily obtain a license. As a consequence, medicinal marijuana outlets have proliferated across much of the state.

For several years, the legal environment surrounding cannabis in California remained deeply ambiguous if not simply contradictory. Although proscribed by federal law, medical marijuana dispensaries remained unmolested by federal authorities. President Barak Obama, moreover, had pledged to respect California’s marijuana laws. The situation changed drastically, however, in October 2011, harvest season for the state’s cannabis cultivators. At that time, federal agents began raiding licensed dispensaries and growing cooperatives, threatening the owners of the buildings used for such purposes with real-estate expropriation. Medical marijuana advertisers received similar threats. But after a flurry of activity, calm returned as court cases slowly proceeded. Most marijuana outlets remain open, and Oakland’s “Oaksterdam University”—which provides “quality training for the cannabis industry”—is still thriving. Just last week, the city of Oakland moved to double the number of dispensaries within its boundaries. Oakland, reeling from the costs of the disruptive “occupy Wall Street/Oakland” movement, desperately wants the tax revenues that come from marijuana shops.

As the Oakland example shows, the cannabis dispute involves local jurisdictions alongside state and federal authorities. In several cases, slippage along the different levels of government generates heightened ambiguity. Nowhere are such issues as intensive as in Mendocino County, located in California’s northern coastal region. Like the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, Mendocino relies on the cannabis crop. Marijuana is so central to the local economy that the county initiated its own licensing system in early 2011. In exchange for hefty county fees and periodic inspections, cultivators would be allowed to grow up to 99 plants, a sum that can easily net half a million dollars. Such a program, needless to say, contravened both federal and state laws. The experiment did not last long. In early 2012, higher authorities arrived in the county to shut it down, much to the consternation of the local public.

Over the next several weeks, GeoCurrents will dig into these issues and more, as we explore the diversity and intricacy of northern California.

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