Welcome to California
How history and policy is shaping cannabis cultivation in the Golden State
Phoebe Harkin | | Longer Read
The focus of the Berkeley Cannabis Research Center is cultivation; namely, understanding how cannabis is grown, the environmental consequences of these practices, and how social, economic, and regulatory forces influence grower behavior and corresponding environmental impacts. Ted Grantham is Co-Director of the Center and Assistant Cooperative Extension Specialist at UC Berkeley’s Environmental Science, Policy and Management department. Here, he touches on how cannabis agriculture in California is evolving, as well as the burdens placed on growers seeking to enter California’s legal market.
Ted Grantham, Co-Director of the Berkeley Cannabis Research Center and Assistant Cooperative Extension Specialist at UC Berkeley’s Environmental Science, Policy and Management department.
Has conservation always been part of the cannabis conversation?
Discussions around cannabis’ environmental impact are nothing new. California has had a long history of cultivation, starting in the 1960s, but accelerating in the mid-90s with an explosion of medical marijuana farms that preceded statewide legalization. With this significant growth of cannabis in the North Coast region came environmental harms. After California voters approved the Adult Use of Marijuana Act under Prop 64 in 2016, the state developed a legal framework for regulating cannabis cultivation that was oriented towards minimizing potential environmental impacts, especially to wildlife and water resources. Less attention was given to greenhouse gas emissions associated with indoor cultivation.
Is there a reason for that?
Most of California’s cannabis is grown in outdoor and greenhouse settings and state regulations were focused on these types of operations, which have relatively low energy demands. Though there are certainly large indoor facilities, historically, they have been a smaller contributor to the market than in other states which do not share our climate. But one of the ironies of establishing stringent regulations around outdoor cultivation is that it may actually incentivize indoor production, which aren’t subject to the same requirements.
For example, indoor production often occurs in facilities that are tied into municipal water supplies, whereas outdoor cultivators tend to rely on groundwater and surface water local to meet their irrigation needs. Withdrawals from these natural water sources are subject to regulations that municipal sources are not and meeting these requirements can be quite difficult and expensive. If indoor production continues to expand in California, a lot more attention should be given to greenhouse gas emissions from cannabis cultivation.
How do the environmental impacts of cannabis compare to other crops?
One of the most important distinctions is scale. The footprint of cannabis is actually very small compared to that of most other agricultural crops. The average farm size in northern California is about a quarter of an acre. In comparison to wine grapes, for example, which are grown in vineyards that often span hundreds of acres, cannabis farms are quite small. Now consider agriculture in California.
Statewide, we have around 9 million acres under irrigated agricultural production – a fraction of one percent of that footprint is occupied by cannabis. But, the reason we are concerned about cannabis impacts has everything to do with where it is grown. Unlike most other agriculture in the state, which mostly occurs in large valleys, cannabis farms are concentrated in remote, upland watersheds, which is a consequence of decades of prohibition. Because of their location, cannabis farms tend to be in closer proximity to wildland areas, where impacts to fish and wildlife are more likely to occur. For example, we have evidence of illegal growers using harmful chemicals in the production process – such as rodenticides that poison mice which are then consumed by wildlife – killing owls and other predators as a result. Though cannabis isn’t a particularly thirsty crop (despite how it’s portrayed in popular media coverage), we also have concerns about water usage because supplies are naturally limited in the watersheds where farms are located. So even though water demand for a cannabis farm is low, relative to other crops, withdrawals can still have a big impact on streams and other ecologically sensitive habitats.
How is Berkeley’s Cannabis Research Center engaging with these issues?
First and foremost, we are conducting research to establish a foundation of knowledge around cannabis cultivation practices and environmental impacts. Prior to legalization, it was quite difficult to conduct cannabis research and it’s remarkable how few scientific studies have been conducted on cannabis agriculture. We’ve also been working to bring the regulatory community – the agencies responsible for issuing permits – and the grower community together, using scientific information to facilitate conversations around cannabis policy. These conversations are complicated by the fraught history between government law enforcement and growers. Understandably there is distrust on both sides. But if we want a successful legal market for cannabis, this relationship needs to be rebuilt.
We are particularly interested in lowering unnecessary barriers to participation in the legal system. Despite being two or three years into the legalization program, the vast majority of cannabis growers in California do not have permits. We believe legal operations represent less than a quarter of the operations that exist statewide. So we still have a long way to go in the transition into a fully-legal market. There are some growers that will inevitably remain in the black market, but there are likely many more that would otherwise enter if regulations were streamlined.
Could you explain what makes the regulatory process difficult?
The difficulty lies in the way the law is structured. Though there is a statewide framework for issuing permits, the law has a local control provision which means every county must develop a local ordinance to allow for cannabis cultivation. Currently, fewer than half the counties in the state have those ordinances, which effectively means it is still illegal to grow cannabis in half the state. So even if growers were interested in entering the legal market, they cannot until a local ordinance is established.
Another key issue is cost. To get a permit, you are required to make infrastructure upgrades, for example, by redesigning your facility to minimize the risk of sediment runoff from roads and farm operations. This can cost upwards of $100,000. The permits themselves can also be quite expensive, not to mention the administrative burden that many growers are not necessarily equipped to navigate. Because growers have long operated at the fringes of society, permitting can be a foreign and challenging bureaucratic process.
When you speak to growers, are they generally receptive to these kinds of conversations?
Growers – at least the ones we speak to – are generally very supportive of our work. They view our research as helping to legitimize cannabis as an agricultural commodity, rather than an illicit drug. The stigma against cannabis growers is still quite prevalent; many people don’t consider its cultivation a legitimate economic enterprise. However, most growers see themselves as farmers – not dissimilar to a grower of wine grapes who creates a product that is extremely valuable though arguably non-essential.
Speaking of cannabis as an agricultural product; how does its cultivation standards compare with those of other crops?
Most people are not aware that California’s agricultural regulations are actually much more stringent for cannabis than for other crops. There are strict standards for cannabis cultivation practices that set requirements around the use of fertilizers, pesticides and water use, and limit the size and location of farms. And then there is the extremely rigorous testing processes (for heavy metals, pesticides, and contaminants) that go far beyond what’s required for other crops. As there is still uncertainty around the human health impacts of consuming trace chemicals on cannabis, the state took a very conservative approach in setting thresholds. Whether warranted or not, from a grower’s perspective, the burdens are much greater for cannabis than other crops. Of course, it is important to distinguish between growers who have received permits and comply with these regulations, and the vast majority of growers, who still operate on the black market and are unlikely to follow the same practices.
What can we do to support environmentally sustainable cannabis production?
Policies need to address barriers to compliance, especially the costs for infrastructure upgrades to satisfy permit requirements. The problem is that many of the federal programs designed to support other agricultural crops, through incentives such as matching funds, aren’t available to cannabis growers. These programs need to be revised or the state needs to develop analogous programs that will provide more support for growers who currently don’t have access to the resources needed to make the site improvements needed to obtain permits.
The fact also remains that, as long as cannabis is federally illegal, there will continue to be strong incentives for illegal growers. And that’s because the black market is primarily supported by interstate commerce (illegal product crosses state lines to places where it will get a better price). Until cannabis is legalized at the federal level – effectively undercutting the black market – the state will struggle to bring growers into compliance. And the environment will continue to suffer.