Will the environmental impact of cannabis balloon as legalization sweeps across the country?

It's hard to get a word in with Derek Smith. He's winding through the crowd, shaking hands and nodding hellos across the locker-lined corridors of Revolution Hall, a hulking high school auditorium-turned-venue in Portland, Oregon. At one point, Smith stops to chat with John Plummer, the owner of Bull Run Craft Cannabis—a wiry man wearing a trucker hat and a powder-blue suit jacket over a T-shirt that reads CORP WEED SUCKS. Like many others in attendance at the 2nd annual Cultivation Classic, a competition reserved for sustainably grown cannabis, Plummer has come to see if his carefully tended bud is dank enough to earn an award.

Smith, however, has come to the event for something else entirely: hard data on the environmental footprint of weed. He's trying to figure out exactly how much energy, water, and carbon go into producing this resource-hungry crop. In service of that goal, he teamed up with the Cultivation Classic team to ask every grower who entered the competition to fill out a six-page Web survey on their cultivation techniques. "Data is largely absent in this industry," Smith says.

It's fitting that Smith is trying to change that here. The afternoon's program features a line-up of industry leaders and researchers discussing everything from next-generation DNA sequencing to neuroscience. They make the Cultivation Classic feel less like my hazy preconception of a cannabis cup and more like a scientific conference.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

Eventually, Smith breaks away from the conversation, and we retreat to the relative quiet of a stairwell to talk about his mission. Smith has dark, curly hair, a five o’clock shadow, and—in his blazer and jeans—looks like an energy wonk. Last year, he co-founded the Resource Innovation Institute, a non-profit dedicated to steering the rapidly growing cannabis industry toward a greener future.

He sees this as an unprecedented opportunity. "How often does an entire segment of the economy arrive at one time, without any infrastructure set up?" Smith says. By 2026, cannabis is projected to be a $50 billion industry.

The ultimate goal, Smith tells me, is to achieve "carbon-free and water-wise production." That doesn't seem so difficult, judging from the vibe at the Cultivation Classic, where the aura of sustainability is thick (the aura of cannabis is not; it's a weed-free event). There are vendor booths advertising pink-roofed power-generating greenhouses and pot-specific organic certification programs. On stage and in the hallways, people talk about soil as a living thing—an object of reverence.

But the industry as a whole has a long way to go. A 2012 study estimated that indoor cannabis cultivation alone accounted for 1 percent of the nation's total electrical use, and that producing one kilogram of weed emitted 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of driving 11,000 miles in an average vehicle.

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The ravenous energy needs of the cannabis industry are, in many ways, a legacy of its prohibition, an industry analyst with New Frontier Data named John Kagia told me over the phone recently. Forced underground and indoors, the best growers honed their skills in basements and garages, using bright lights, powerful HVAC systems, and dehumidifiers. The high prices on the black market more than covered the energy bills.

The question now is whether the environmental impact of cannabis will balloon as legalization sweeps across the country. Twenty-nine states have approved medical marijuana, and eight, including California, have legalized adult recreational use.

Kagia is optimistic that, in the long run, economic factors like increased competition and larger facilities, along with the ability to grow outdoors, will force producers to adopt more efficient growing techniques. Already, the wholesale price of cannabis has plummeted, creating incentive to reduce energy costs. In the short run, however, private investment capital is flooding the industry, and it could lead to a glut of high-impact growing operations.

"Tens of thousands of facilities will be built over the next two years," Smith says, including 6,000 just in California. The goal of the Resource Innovation Institute is getting the cannabis industry to go green from the beginning. Part of the task is establishing best practices for producers, like using energy-efficient LED lights and solar power. It also involves helping policymakers craft regulations to limit the energy impact of cannabis, like a draft rule in California that would require indoor growers to use 42 percent renewable energy, or buy carbon offsets.

Ultimately, Smith wants to develop a green certification program built on a set of quantitative standards. But before all that, he needs baseline data on how much energy and water producers are using. "If anyone says they know, they don't," he tells me. "It's not that simple."

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The first round of data harvested from the Cultivation Classic should help fill in some of the blanks. Each of the growers mingling in the foyer below us answered detailed questions about lighting, ventilation, and electricity sources, among other variables. Outdoor producers participated too, since many use energy during certain phases of production (curing and drying cannabis owners, for instance) and because agricultural soils emit carbon dioxide directly. Smith hopes to take the survey to other pot competitions to generate a national database.

But answering the questions was hard, several growers tell me. Cody Alter of Alter Farms in Southern Oregon supports Smith's mission, but found it difficult to parse out the fraction of his farm's overall energy bill that went to cannabis production. Others struggled to interpret some of the survey's energy lingo. Plummer had to call for help when determining things like the wattage of specific pieces of equipment. "He was a great sport about it, despite the impact on his time," Smith says.

Smith had originally hoped to give a carbon grade that would make up a quarter of each strain's final Cultivation Classic score, but the responses were too inconsistent to standardize a rating. Instead, scores were based on reviews from judges, who each got 12 strains and a month to smoke them.

Every entry was also subjected to a detailed chemical and genetic analysis—two legs of the stool upon which the future of cannabis rests, says Jeremy Plumb, the competition's founder, at the beginning of the evening's award ceremony. The third, of course, is sustainability, and the producers here will almost certainly lead the pack, Smith declares to the crowd.

The band—a gold-dusted disco-pop ensemble—has just finished playing and the room buzzes with anticipation. But Smith goes on. "Just the fact that you provided this data and allowed us to assess it puts you in the leadership category." He sounds genuinely grateful. He explains how his team will use the data to produce peer-reviewed research, and to inform upcoming policy discussions. He's just getting to the part about giving away free energy monitors when organizers jump in and deftly transition to the main event.

One by one, the winners are announced. Plummer's Bull Run Craft Cannabis nabs second place in the THC indoor category. A giant screen overhead displays the chemical profile of each competing strain, followed by its position in the vast genetic galaxy of cannabis varieties. Perhaps at next year's competition, Smith will have figured out how to size up each strain's environmental footprint too.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

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