How Do State Cannabis Regulations Incorporate Sustainability?

In the early days of recreational marijuana legalization, environmental protection was not high on the list of priorities for state regulators. Today, more than half the states in the U.S have a recreational and/or medical marijuana industry, yet most state regulatory authorities continue to focus solely on public safety and reducing (if not eliminating) the impact and scale of illicit drug sales. That all withstanding the fact that the cannabis industry has grown massively and has been up against air, water, pesticide, and waste regulations which can vary across states. This makes it particularly difficult and financially challenging for licensed cannabis operators to function from a sustainability standpoint.

In most states, cannabis regulatory agencies are separate from state environmental departments, which can lead to operators being unaware of and overlooking environmental rules until after licenses have been obtained. For example, Registered Marijuana Dispensary (RMD) applicants in Massachusetts may not be aware that receiving a RMD registration does not guarantee that their operation is in compliance with the environmental regulations enforced by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP).

Fortunately, as cannabis legalization expands across the states, more state agencies have come to recognize the cannabis industry's substantial environmental effects. To start mitigating and reducing the massive amounts of electricity, water, and pesticides used by an industry that simultaneously produces tons of organic and packaging waste, regulatory agencies are now addressing the issue of sustainability in the cannabis industry.

Energy Usage

Increased legalization and a growing market size have allowed for more investment in technologies and developments that provide more energy-efficient operations. This results in lower greenhouse gas emissions derived from energy generation. The use of full-spectrum LED lights by cannabis growers has been one of the most significant energy-saving developments in recent years.

Both Massachusetts and Illinois have passed laws requiring cannabis facilities to have an average lighting load of 36 watts per square foot over the canopy, with the Massachusetts code referencing the Design Lights Consortium's (DLC) Qualified Products List for horticultural lighting fixtures. Massachusetts cannabis cultivators must also provide their Cannabis PowerScore details in their license applications, according to the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.

Water Usage

A single cannabis plant requires tens of gallons of water before cultivation. Although growing in a wetter outdoor environment will mitigate some of this water use, outdoor climates in some states are an unsuitable option for cannabis companies. Pesticides, heavy metals, excess and high contaminants, as well as other toxins, are carried downstream by runoff from both traditional crops and cannabis cultivation. Mandatory indoor agriculture strains urban water sources due to the discharge of waste fertilizer and commercial cleaners, which in turn puts a demand on existing wastewater treatment facilities.

Stricter regulations around water usage are increasing in markets across the country. For example, California regulators created the Cannabis Cultivation Policy, which lays out the rules for minimizing the impact of cannabis cultivation on wildlife and waterways.

Waste Disposal

Organic cannabis waste and single-use consumer packaging account for a significant portion of the waste produced by industrial-scale cannabis cultivation and processing. To increase sustainable disposal options for organic cannabis waste, The Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) has recently introduced new sustainability policies that enable licensees to avoid the 50/50 cannabis waste disposal mandate (requiring that plant waste material be mixed with an equal amount of non-consumable product like cat litter to render them unusable). On-site composting, anaerobization, and other waste disposal solutions are among the emerging waste disposal options.

Changes to cannabis packaging requirements are another way cannabis companies hope to become more sustainable. While Colorado's new rules also allow dispensaries to recycle commercial cannabis packaging, the thickness and type of material that is needed to make child-resistant packaging still proves to be excessive and wasteful.

As more states consider medical marijuana or recreational legalization in 2021, the industry risks setting a dangerous trend for plastic use that, if not tackled, will escalate to dangerous levels. The possibility of federal cannabis legalization presents a great opportunity for eco-conscious operations to become the industry norm. Although regulations will likely become more streamlined in the future, it is unlikely that operators will ever be subjected to less regulation, particularly in terms of environmental sustainability. Investing in long-term sustainability policies and processes today can only help cannabis businesses succeed in the long run.

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