Green buds

Environmental cost of growing indoors is luring the marijuana industry back into the sunshine

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Indoor (Purple Kush, left) and outdoor (Big Buddha Cheese): It's getting harder to tell the difference
PHOTOS COURTESY SPARC

steve@sfbg.com

CANNABIS Most marijuana sold in Bay Area dispensaries is grown indoors, where the ability to precisely control conditions creates the kind of buds — strong, dense, crystal-covered, fragrant, beautiful — that consumers have come to expect. But that perfection comes at a high price, both financially and environmentally.

So some local leaders in the medical marijuana movement have begun to nudge the industry to return to its roots, to the days before prohibition and the helicopter raids of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting chased the pot growers indoors. They say it's time for California to start growing more of its cannabis outdoors again, in the soil and sunlight, just like the rest of the state's crops.

Growers have long known how inefficient it is to grow indoors. All they need to do is look at their huge monthly energy bills. Between the powerful grow lights, constantly running air conditioners, elaborate ventilation systems, pumps and water purifiers, and heaters used for drying and curing, this is an energy-intensive endeavor.

But a widely circulated study released in April — "Energy Up in Smoke: The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannabis Production" by Evan Mills, a researcher with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — revealed just what a huge cumulative toll the practice was taking on California and the planet.

It found that indoor pot production accounts for about 8 percent of California household energy use, costing about $3 billion annually and producing about 4 millions tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 1 million automobiles. Producing one joint was the equivalent of driving 15 miles in a 44 mpg car.

"The emergent industry of indoor Cannabis production results in prodigious energy use, costs, and greenhouse-gas pollution. Large-scale industrialized and highly energy-intensive indoor cultivation of cannabis is driven by criminalization, pursuit of security, and the desire for greater process control and yields," Mills wrote in the report's summary.

Yet while opponents of marijuana seized on the report to condemn the industry, proponents say there's a very simple solution to the problem: grow it outdoors. And with the artisanship and quality in the fields and greenhouses now rivaling that of indoor buds, the biggest barriers to moving most marijuana production outdoors are federal laws and the biases of pot consumers.

"There's a misconception out there that indoor is better marijuana than outdoor, but we don't think that's true," Erich Pearson, who runs the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center (SPARC) dispensary and sits on the city's Medical Cannabis Task Force. "Marijuana is a plant that came from the earth and that's where we should grow it, just like our food."

 

INDOOR VS. OUTDOOR

There are definitely some benefits to growing indoors, beyond just the ability to hide it from the prying eyes of law enforcement. The grow cycles are shorter, allowing for multiple harvests around the year. The generally small operations and precise control over growing conditions also tend to produce the best-looking buds, which command the highest prices and win the top prizes in competitions.

Kevin Reed, who runs Green Cross — a venerable medical marijuana delivery service that works closely with an established group of growers — told us there are several reasons why indoor buds have dominated the marketplace.