While most of Washington, D.C. is distracted by the Supreme Court drama, a buzz is building around one particularly green issue — namely whether the U.S. House of Representatives could be set to pass a bill to legalize cannabis as early as this month.
The states are now empowered to regulate cannabis use. And 14 jurisdictions have legalized the drug for recreational use while 33 have done so for medical purposes. And if those businesses continue to expand, it would create new opportunities for utilities to increase their electricity sales. As with any new enterprise, though, the cannabis industry is learning as it goes along. A decade ago, state regulators were focused on safety and security. But they are now trying to add a layer of protection and one centered on sustainability — and environmental protection.
“If we decriminalize at the federal level without providing the proper regulatory structure, it might result in a negative environmental impact,” says Kaitlin Urso, environmental consultant for Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, in an interview with this writer. “Marijuana is now strictly controlled by the states. Without the right regulatory structure, I’m fearful that the entire nation could be back to where Colorado was 10 years ago. The industry must continue to be safe and it must become environmentally sound.”
Context is key: The House will consider removing cannabis from the list of controlled substances — a bill that has been written by the judiciary chair, Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat of New York. The measure is unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate, although it has been sponsored by Senator Kamala Harris of California and the Democratic vice-presidential candidate.
Democrats say that the so-called MORE ACT dovetails with their support of Black Lives Matter — that African Americans are more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession than whites. And that such records hurt their chances to succeed in life. At the same time, removing the drug from the federal list of controlled substances would permit aspiring entrepreneurs to get the financing they need to grow cannabis businesses. Marijuana legalization is on the ballot in five states this November – measures that range from allowing adult-use to permitting it for medical purposes.
Marijuana Biz Daily says that retail sales of the drug in the United States will be $15 billion this year – and will rise as high as $37 billion by 2023. The number working full time in the industry is likely to hit 385,000 next year.
Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana in 2014, now gets $1 billion of its $30 billion budget from the cannabis industry. It has almost 3,000 licensed marijuana businesses, which employ more than 41,000 people. The state, furthermore, had a 2.5 percent unemployment rate before Covid-19 hit.
New Opportunities for Utilities
But it has been a steep learning curve for Colorado. Environmental consultant Urso is part of the National Cannabis Industry Association that is issuing a white paper on how to make the cannabis industry greener. She explains that there is a difference between marijuana and hemp. The former has higher THC content — the thing that gets users high — whereas the latter has much lower levels.
To that end, Colorado has a law that says any plant material that is waste and that has any amount of THC must be evenly mixed with other trash before it can be disposed of in landfills. That is causing those dumps to get filled beyond their capacity. The white paper is suggesting that the 50-50 dilution rate be watered down to eliminate that environmental pressure. That is because 90% of the waste stream is plant stems that have little THC content.
“When we first legalized, the dilution rate was 50-50,” says Urso. “It was done for public safety. We didn’t think about the landfill aspect of it. We didn’t know how large our industry would become.”
Meantime, the nascent industry is still struggling to get its arms wrapped around energy efficiencies and especially in states like California, Colorado and Washington State that have legalized such production and that have strict air quality rules. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that growing it indoors makes up as much as 1% of the electricity use nationwide. That comes to $6 billion a year. And it amounts to 15 million tons of greenhouse gases.
With legalization, growing cannabis crops outdoors would appear to be the optimal solution. It would certainly be lighter on the carbon footprint, although the concern here is with agricultural run-off and the contamination of water supplies. At the same time, harsh weather conditions can destroy crops — all things that lend themselves to indoor cultivation that can control lighting and avoid pesticides.
About 63% of commercial cultivation at the national level is indoors, says Urso. But the artificial light and the humidity means that the process is more energy-intensive. Installing such things as LED lights and updated heating, air conditioning and ventilation would facilitate energy efficiency — improvements that would occur if there were tax breaks given for such things.
The warehouses used to cultivate cannabis have limitations. Urso points to a former T-shirt factory that had been converted to a cannabis facility: It had to upgrade its heating, air conditioning and ventilation while also insulating its walls — all to save energy. At the same time, it had to cut its energy load by scheduling the times it consumed energy, and when it used certain rooms.
“The environment was not considered when the regs were first written,” says Urso. “Now that Congress is considering legalization, it is a great time for our white paper to come out, which will shed light on why it is important to have a well-considered regulatory structure.”
As Congress grapples with the MORE Act, it will subsequently need to consider the ecological impact of legalizing marijuana — something that U.S. jurisdictions are now learning on their own.