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Growing marijuana outdoors could be a step in lessening marijuana's environmental impact.EXPAND
Growing marijuana outdoors could be a step in lessening marijuana's environmental impact.
Jacqueline Collins

Earth Day Highlights the Conflicting Environmental Impact of Cannabis

Earth Day comes two days after April 20, so the fifty-year-old celebration of environmental awareness isn't exactly top-of-mind with many cannabis users. But the proximity of April 22 to 4/20, the unofficial pot holiday, highlights the cannabis plant's conflicting impacts.

Weed gets you high, but on Earth Day, hemp is dope.

Thinking about the cannabis plant usually conjures up thoughts of marijuana leaves and burning joints, but the species also includes hemp, the non-intoxicating version of cannabis with strong industrial fibers and the ability to produce other cannabinoids such as CBD, CBN and more CB-whatevers (as long as the plant's THC content is 0.3 percent THC or less, according to the feds).

Which means that hemp is the buttoned-up and federally legal version of cannabis, while marijuana is the intoxicating and federally illegal one. And the development of the two are going in different directions.

Hemp, the agricultural darling of the moment, is praised for potential environmental relief in a variety of areas, some of which can be overhyped at times. But there is no question that biodegradable, hemp-based plastics are healthier for the earth than traditional plastics, which are filling the stomachs of ocean animals and maybe even humans.

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Hemp roots hold the soil together in assorted terrains, increasing microbial content while even absorbing toxic ground materials in certain environments. Every ton of hemp can reportedly eliminate up to 1.63 tons of carbon from the air, according to hemp growers. Pound-for-pound, hemp produces more paper and wood than traditional trees, and can also provide the base of hempcrete, a concrete-like building material that naturally regulates humidity and temperature and gets stronger over time, absorbing carbon dioxide and fire at significantly badass rates.

Seeds and milk from the hemp plant have high amounts of proteins, vitamins, amino acids and "good" fats, while the fibers and stalks can make everything from clothing to biodiesel. Hemp is also largely grown outdoors, requires little electricity and needs less water, pesticides or nutrients than cotton (and marijuana) to thrive.

In contrast, marijuana still has some work to do on its environmental impact. Legal marijuana businesses accounted for around 4 percent of Denver energy use from 2016 to 2018, according to a CPR breakdown, with much of that going to indoor grow operations, the preferred method of growing marijuana. The average electricity consumption of a 5,000-square-foot indoor grow in Boulder County was 41,809 kilowatt hours per month, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, compared to an average household's use of 630 kilowatt hours.

Strict regulations on legal cannabis packaging have led to large amounts of plastic waste, while the industry's pesticide and nutrient use and even terpene production have been shown to contribute to Colorado's carbon footprint. While other agricultural industries do the same, most of them aren't located inside Denver warehouses. And while the marijuana industry's growing practices are definitely evolving in regard to energy use, with LED lights, improved ventilation and more outdoor grows just a few examples of changes toward in pot production, grows have also scaled up exponentially.

But cannabis is catching up to hemp in environmental awareness. Many of hemp's advantages have been ingrained in laws and consumer demand. After all, hemp is a hardy plant, federally legal, and doesn't require the same attention to detail as cannabis grown for smell, potency and, most important, human consumption. Meanwhile, commercial marijuana growers weren't even allowed to legally recycle their plant stalks, which are just as fibrous as hemp's, until several years ago.

Marijuana grows were forced inside long before they were legalized, and that restriction bled into early laws legalizing the plant. Now more outdoor marijuana farms are sprouting up in Colorado, although many growers will tell you that outdoor weed still pales in comparison to indoor overall. All of those factors tilt the scale heavily.

But cannabis users still have a powerful voice, creating trends in a new industry for future legal weed shoppers to follow. Sustainability can be one of those demands, and maybe Earth Day is the wake-up call you needed after a two-day 4/20 hangover.

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