The Environmental Impacts of Marijuana Legalisation

The Road to Legalisation

The journey to the legalisation of cannabis – both medical and recreational – has had many twists and turns. Though the research has established that cannabis and cannabis compounds can be beneficial for many different complaints, cannabis consumption is still heavily frowned upon by many communities worldwide.

In 2014, the South American country Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the recreational use of cannabis. Since its legalisation in Uruguay, marijuana users around the world have become increasingly vocal about their desire to see the plant stripped of its negative perception and welcomed to society.

Following legalisation in Uruguay, countries such as Canada and South Africa also legalised the use of cannabis. In the United States of America, the situation is more complex, as marijuana is legal per state by-laws but not on a federal level.

According to Pew Research Centre, six-in-ten Americans are in support of the legalisation of marijuana. This is about 62% of the American populace.

With global attitudes changing rapidly towards cannabis, it is important to consider the changes set to occur if cannabis is legalised worldwide. Legalisation will change ideologies, cultures and more importantly, the environment.



Marijuana and the Environment

The potential changes that could occur in the environment from legalising marijuana are often overlooked. These changes, however, have the potential to distort the world as we know it.

Some of the potential environmental changes that ca be caused by marijuana include:


Indoor Effects: Steep Levels of Power Consumption (Increased Carbon Footprint)

The cannabis industry, worth an estimated $3.5 billion, is one of America’s most power intensive industries. Cannabis is often grown indoors, and therefore requires a lot of energy to grow at optimal levels and speeds.

Indoor marijuana operations often require growers to make use of high energy consumption electrical devices for the adequate growth of their plants. Some of these devices include:

  • High Pressure Sodium (HPS) Lights;
  • Heaters;
  • Air conditioners and;
  • Humidifiers.

An Indoor Cannabis Growth Operation. Source

In a study conducted by scientist Evan Mills alongside the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, it was revealed that legalised indoor marijuana growing operations accounted for at least 1% of total electricity consumed in a year. This set the annual cost of growing marijuana indoors – for electricity alone – at $6 billion per year. Because of this high level of power consumption, indoor marijuana growing operations account for 15 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions (Carbon dioxide) annually. This is equal to the emissions of three million average cars.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Oregon, U.S.A – where marijuana is legal for recreational and medical use – reports that the energy required to grow only 4 cannabis plants is enough to power 29 refrigerators.

Many indoor cannabis growth operations utilise diesel generators in order to cut the cost of electricity bills. The constant emission of carbon dioxide (CO2), Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) and Particulate Matter by diesel generators can actively deplete the ozone layer and inadvertently lead to drastic climatic change.


Outdoor Effects: Freshwater Depletion and Wildlife Endangerment

Outdoor cannabis production on a grand scale can pose potentially adverse effects to the environment; particularly to water and wildlife.

Although high electricity usage, carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions are eliminated when cannabis is cultivated outdoors, this does not mean that the outdoor cultivation of cannabis is environmentally irreproachable.

Outdoor cannabis growth operations have significant ecological impacts. Cannabis growth sites are usually large portions of land. In order to prepare the land for crop cultivation, forests and trees are often cut down. This disrupts the activities of animals who have called these forests home. The cutting down of forests can also decrease carbon capture – the capture and storage of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.


An Outdoor Cannabis Growth Operation. Source

A study conducted and published in the Environmental Research Letters journal reviewed over 4,400 outdoor cannabis growth operations in Humboldt County, California. It was observed that these outdoor operations lead to erosion, stream degradation and landscape fragmentation. Many outdoor growth operations are located in remote areas. The infiltration of these remote areas to cultivate cannabis can increase the likelihood of chemical runoff and soil erosion. In areas surrounded by water – which is common with cannabis cultivation sites as the plant requires a lot of water – these factors can lead to water pollution and the endangerment of fish and other aquatic creatures. 

Cannabis plants cultivated in outdoor sites consume abundant amounts of water daily. A single cannabis plant can consume six gallons of water per day. With many areas worldwide already facing the possibilities of drought, this is obviously a large amount of fresh water to be consumed solely by one plant.

Pesticides involved in cannabis cultivation are also known to pose a threat to the environment. Pesticides have been found to have killed animals such as owls, bears and birds in outdoor sites in the state of California.



What Could This Mean For The Future?

The mainstream legalisation of cannabis is set to have many positive effects, especially in the world of medicine. However, governments worldwide will have to put more stringent laws in place in order to adequately protect the environment.

Climate change and global warming are at an all-time high. While cannabis products have many benefits to society in general, it’s important that these benefits don’t come at the cost of the environment.

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