Emerald Valley Gardens, a small cannabis gardening shop near Springfield, is bustling with customers. At the register, owner Madeline Thomas answers questions about where to find the right pots or which brands to buy for first-time growers. Shelves are lined with nutrients and soil, and draped with leafy trailing plants.
Thomas has been in the cannabis industry for more than 10 years, and says she loves the business. Over the course of the past two years, she says, her clientele skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic because people had more time on their hands.
“It’s been so cool,” she says. “We’ve seen people who haven’t ever grown a cannabis plant or ever had a vegetable garden come in here, which is great. They’re our favorite customers because they’re super enthusiastic.”
According to the medical journal Journal of Addictive Diseases, medicinal cannabis use increased by 91 percent since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Some cannabis users in Eugene have taken to self-growing while stuck at home, which is a more environmentally friendly alternative to purchasing from a large-scale dispensary.
Cannabis consumes a lot of water and energy. Thomas says lighting is one of the most important elements when growing cannabis because the goal is to replicate an outdoor environment in a controlled grow room. Indoor marijuana growth needs complex high-powered lighting systems that require an abundance of energy for use — annually equating to 300 million running vehicles, a total of 1 percent of national energy consumption in the U.S.
But outdoor growing is not much better. One mature cannabis plant requires 22.7 liters of water per day in comparison to 12.64 liters for a wine grape plant. However, the Oregon Cannabis Environmental Best Practices Task Force also states that cannabis is just another crop, and that its water-use practices can be more efficient.
Red Cuer, an employee with Emerald Valley Gardens who also started an independent cannabis irrigation company, says the best way for a grower to adapt for a more environmentally friendly cannabis crop is to prioritize soil with good water retention so that the plant has access to water for a longer time. As with any garden, Cuer says that independent cannabis growers get to know how the plant was raised and what kinds of nutrients it receives.
“There’s a lot to cannabis, especially when it comes to indoor growing, just the sheer amount of electricity and the power draw that it takes. It does have a pretty hefty impact, I would say,” Cuer says. “Trying to focus a little bit more on sustainability would be something I would personally love to see the cannabis industry sort of get a hold of.”
Jeffrey Steiner, associate director of Oregon State University’s Global Hemp Innovation Center, says there aren’t a lot of studies on how to mass-produce cannabis, specifically hemp, in a sustainable way yet. Hemp and marijuana are both derived from the cannabis species, according to Steiner, but they have different levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Hemp and marijuana grown for cannabinoids, THC and CBD, are similar in that producers want to optimize the production of flowers where those cannabinoids are concentrated. Hemp has much lower levels of THC.
He says that the idea of finding solutions to some of those issues is imperative as cannabis use increases nationally.
Steiner says that the innovation center is testing methods to make cannabis production both profitable and sustainable, and that hemp might be a crop of interest as the climate emergency demands drastic changes in energy and water use.
“We really have to think about how to sustainably incorporate hemp,” he says. “It’s going to take a lot more thinking, investment, creativity and innovation to make it work, but it’s worth pursuing.”
Abundance is also proving to be an issue for large-scale operations where cannabis is grown widely. In 2019, Oregon was producing twice as much cannabis as people were consuming.
On the small-scale level, independent growing could alleviate cannabis’ overuse of resources that mass-producing farms often cause now, specifically in Oregon. Instead of clearing fields for cannabis production or covering them in single-use plastics, people can use their own backyards, gardens and homes.
Thomas says people who grow their own gardens typically care about growing them in a way that doesn’t require an abundance of water, energy or pesticide-filled fertilizer.
“If you’re going to grow your plants, you’re going to probably make less of an impact in every way,” Thomas says. “There’s an emotional bond with cannabis plants that is pretty deep. People often put a lot of love and attention into them.”
Starting an independent garden of any kind benefits the planet from lessening long-distance transportation for cannabis or food, which is the largest source of fossil fuel emissions globally at 29 percent. Additionally, gardeners can choose to omit the use of pesticides or synthetic chemicals in home-grown produce.
“I think that people grow their own cannabis because they like to garden,” she says. “That’s the way that I think the cannabis industry can change. It would be great if a lot more stuff was made locally.”