07/29/2016 01:47 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2017

Growing Green Must Go Green

As the legalization of marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes becomes more widespread, the budding industry has come under closer scrutiny. One of the more serious concerns to be raised is the possible environmental damage that could be caused by a mass increase in Cannabis production.

Marijuana cultivation has a host of environmental concerns such as land coverage, water consumption, power usage, as well as pesticides and fertilizer run-off. Escaped, "wild" Cannabisis not often considered as a potential problem since it is not exactly an invasive species, but it can compete with other plants and disrupt local ecosystems. These situations are quite serious in California, where important watersheds have been threatened by unsanctioned marijuana growing operations.

Resource consumption is by far the greatest environmental risk associated with large scale marijuana cultivation. In many areas where it is grown, Cannabis consumes far more water thanthe native vegetation. Indoor operations require enough light intensity to mimic the sun, which requires a large amount of electrical power, often resulting in additional environmental pollution.High intensity discharge (HID) light bulbs traditionally used for indoor growing also contain significant amounts of highly toxic mercury. If Cannabis production is to truly become a sustainable industry, strategies will need to be developed to at least make it eco-tolerable, if not eco-friendly.

Government officials and academic researchers alike have been examining the issue in hope of mitigating any environmental damage caused by the impending growth of the Cannabis industry. There appears to be a consensus that regulations will be a key part of the solution. An April 2016 review in the academic journal Environmental Research Letters concludes with the demand that marijuana agriculture be held to standards on par with those governing conventional cultivation activities. This sentiment is echoed from the field of law as well; a piece from the Arizona Law Review states that consistent policy enforcement is necessary to mitigate the environmental impact, as well as help set quality standards. Now they need to decide upon the best rules to enforce.

Environmentally friendly growers have been consistently testing and adopting measures to address energy consumption and similar issues for decades. One of the more successful changes has been in the adoption of LED grow lights for indoor cultivation. According to, the technology used in high-quality LED grow lights has advanced to the point that they can actually grow plants as well or better than traditional HID bulbs (HPS, MH, CMH/LEC, etc.) at a fraction of the energy cost, and will last for considerably longer, without anyof the toxic mercury. Water consumption can ironically be reduced with a fine-tuned hydroponic setup, though there is obviously still a lot of water involved. Another approach to decreasing consumption rates is to more closely monitor usage levels so that waste can be minimized.

It remains to be seen if current environmentally-friendly strategies for reducing consumption will be effective when scaled to larger operations, and more research will certainly be needed to findsolutions for the exponential increase of marijuana production that will likely result from ongoing legalization efforts. Cannabis is primed to become a key crop in international markets, but there is little hope of it proving to be sustainable without significant adoption of eco-friendly cultivation methods.