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Gwynne Ann Unruh is a former award winning reporter at the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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Cannabis used to conjure up the image of a grubby hippie, a Cheech & Chong-like ganja grower, getting high on their own supply in a muddled underground activity of sex, drugs and rock and roll. While, to a degree, that was true—and there are still illicit hangovers from that era—growing cannabis is now a huge legal industry. Marijuana growers today are promoting professionalism, quality and sustainability as part of their branding. 

New Mexicans have been sequestered at home with bated breath waiting to shout a long overdue “Yes!” as recreational cannabis is legalized. Once passed, legislators will likely enact regulations that make production of recreational cannabis sustainable from the get-go. The state needs to learn from its mistakes with the oil and gas industry and oversee operations itself. Consulting with and learning from those who have gone before supporting sustainable innovation and creating funding for minority growers and oversight that gets the job done right. With those changes, the Land of Enchantment won’t just be giving lip service to the words carbon neutral and climate change.

Recreational cannabis growers can produce high-quality cannabis and still be environmentally friendly. New Mexico’s focus on climate change and freshwater issues must figure into whatever proposed regulations emerge. The way cannabis is farmed and its carbon footprint can be aligned with the goals of the state for carbon neutrality. A comprehensive plan for energy consumption, water usage, packaging, pesticides and waste management can guide growers toward achievements in sustainability and resiliency.

According to a 2018 report from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Planning Branch, it is estimated that a total of 2 to 6 gallons of water per plant, per day, are needed for cannabis cultivation—about twice as much as a wine-grape vineyard. As fresh water availability is a major issue in New Mexico, it is important to look into options like reverse osmosis systems that allow for reuse and establishment of clean water and have been shown to reclaim roughly 75 to 97 percent of the water used in growing cannabis. There are systems that recapture the water from the dehumidifiers and air conditioners and, instead of sending it down the drain, reuse it for subsequent watering. This process has potential to reduce water use by 90 percent.

Cannabis cultivation uses enough electricity with its high-intensity lamps annually to supply over 92,500 homes for a year. This figure is expected to grow as more states legalize cannabis use. According to New Frontier Data’s October 2018 report, the total combined energy consumption in legal and illicit growing of cannabis in 2017 was roughly equal to the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam—4.1 million megawatt hours. Evaluating and improving greenhouse efficiency through sustainable cultivation, maintenance and facility workflow methods and practices—combined with a commitment to sourcing alternative energy—is key to sustainability in the cannabis industry.

According to a 2018 Denver Department of Public Health Environment report, from 2012 to 2016 in Colorado, the amount of electricity used in manufacturing infused products and cultivating cannabis jumped an average of 36 percent per year. As much as 90 percent of the CO2 emissions produced by growers comes from power use. State incentives would make the decision to switch to wind or solar power at greenhouse sites easy.

If pesticides are used in the growing operation, a system for disposal and cleanup of the waste water needs to be regulated. Cannabis grown for industrial hemp can be certified organic—however, as cannabis grown for THC remains illegal at the federal level, organically grown marijuana cannot be certified organic. Growers can, however, be certified biodynamic through the Demeter Association, a holistic, ecological and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food and nutrition. A biodynamic farm fertility system is one that sequesters and recycles carbon. Demeter’s vision is to heal the planet through agriculture. Biodynamics is rooted in the work of philosopher and scientist Dr. Rudolf Steiner. His 1924 lectures to farmers opened a new way to integrate scientific understanding with a recognition of spirit in nature. Crop rotation and integration of animal agriculture also assist in reducing petrochemical inputs compared to conventional agricultural practices. 

Cannabis production also involves huge amounts of packaging waste. Regulations intended to protect the public have resulted in over-packaging cannabis in primarily single-use plastic packaging. Moving forward, sourcing ideas for packaging that has fewer environmental impacts is needed.

Many cannabis producers have shown a strong commitment to stewardship and sustainability and have worked to change the environmental impact their indoor growing of cannabis produces. New Mexico is moving toward a more sustainable future, and that will include growing more sustainable cannabis. Its goal should be doing what legislators know to be, at that moment, the best option for customers and their future quality of life. Tackling sustainability can be intimidating, but there are a lot of resources out there and a lot of people who are willing to help.

The state’s recreational cannabis industry doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to growing a clean, safe and sustainable product. The Cannabis Sustainability Workgroup hosts sustainability symposiums to help educate attendees. The Cannabis Conservancy also provides an internationally recognized sustainability certification for organizations that adhere to their guidelines. We see from COVID-19 that people can adapt to change. With good agricultural practices, the New Mexico recreational cannabis industry could be the most sustainable cannabis industry in the nation, creating minimal impact on the planet. To elevate recreational cannabis to this level, regulations need to be adopted and enforced. Agricultural practices must be free of harmful chemical inputs and must utilize waste-reduction methods. Grow houses and farms can be energy efficient and conserve water. New Mexico can license cannabis growers that commit to sustainability utilizing the latest tools, techniques and technologies for efficient and safe cannabis production.

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