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Leon Kaye headshot

The Sustainable Business Case for Cannabis Legalization

By Leon Kaye

Tomorrow evening, June 14 at 6:30 p.m., at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Michael Sutton will lead a discussion on whether Californians should vote “yes” on an initiative this November that would legalize the cultivation and sale of marijuana.

The Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) has the support of leaders across the political landscape, including the state’s lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsome, as well as U.S. Reps Jarred Huffman (D-San Rafael), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and Ted Lieu (D-Torrance). AUMA has also been endorsed by organizations including California Council of Land Trusts, Drug Policy Alliance, the California Medical Association and California NAACP. You will not see President Barack Obama endorsing similar legalization anytime soon, but he as also acknowledged that the nation’s current cannabis laws are not working. America's attitudes are changing, evident in the sentiment behind those who support the passage of this law.

As with the case of other attempts to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, arguments over changing cannabis laws will focus on potential tax revenues, social justice, the failed war on drugs and the medical properties of cannabis. But as Sutton, the former president of the California Fish and Game Commission, explained during an interview with TriplePundit, voters should take a look at the current impact that the underground cannabis industry has on the state’s wildlife, water consumption and energy use.

Sutton’s interest in reforming California’s cannabis legislation comes from a natural-resources perspective he gained during his tenure with the Fish and Game Commission. The ongoing struggles of wildlife officers in California’s “Emerald Triangle,” the triad of Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties, which grow the bulk of the state's marijuana, exposed Sutton to the cannabis industry’s destructive side. “Because they were spending all their time on the north coast combating illegal growing operations, whether because of the poaching of wildlife, stealing water or cutting down forests,” Sutton said, “these game wardens were distracted from their jobs. The last thing that they need to be doing is pulling marijuana plants out of the forest.”

From Sutton’s point of view, the marijuana industry as it currently stands is illegal agriculture, so the time has come to legalize and regulate it. And the way this law is written, the industry would also be held accountable under laws such as the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the state’s endangered species laws.

Due to the shadowy world of marijuana growing, there are not many studies that provide an accurate picture of pot’s impact on California’s resources. One study suggests indoor marijuana use is responsible for 3 percent of the state’s total electricity use, or 9 percent of total household consumption. Add the amount of gasoline or diesel used to fuel generators for indoor farming operations that are running off the grid, and pot growers certainly generate their share of carbon emissions as well. Growing cannabis indoors on a large scale is not sustainable, especially when it comes to power consumption.

Legalizing pot could bring net environmental, as well as a financial, benefits. “Currently the state is spending $100 to $120 million to repair the damage done by illegal growing operations,” insisted Sutton. “This legislation was written to provide a share of the revenues for environmental restoration and conservation, and those in turn can’t be raided by legislature or the governor. That alone provides a powerful justification for legalization.”

An industry that currently costs the state money could go from being a liability to providing the state a new revenue stream. And it would also move the marijuana from one that is literally in the closet to out in the open.

And in the end, cannabis is a plant, and thrives outdoors. But because growing pot is illegal, it is hidden inside people’s homes and remote shacks and greenhouses. So not only is an excessive amount of electricity being used to grow pot, but the industry is currently using a huge amount of water that could otherwise be used by the state’s farmers—who currently are regulated and say they have their struggles procuring enough water to grow their crops.

According to Sutton, last year DEA agents raided 2,000 growth sites in California, many of which were on state or federal lands. Those plants those agents pulling out were thirsty—Sutton quoted the typical estimate that a mature pot plant requires six gallons of water a day. These same investigators found 135 illegally built dams or other water diversion contraptions that resulted in the theft of water.

The current illegal marijuana market has its impact far beyond California’s north coast. Sutton explained the struggles land owners, including rice growers, have in the Sacramento Delta region. Some landowners have had to resort to hiring private security firms to pull out marijuana plants sowed by growers in restored wetlands. “So the landowners' perspective, who were told they had to take steps for the remediation of these lands, they feel as if they are getting punished again, as no good deed goes unpunished!” Sutton exclaimed.

In considering voting for this law, Sutton says there are five factors to consider:

  • Improved data collection of energy data, which could help California take even more steps to fight climate change.

  • An improvement in farming techniques, reducing the use of water, pesticides and additional chemicals used to grow pot.

  • The potential that more pot growers would use clean energy for their operations as this industry would have to follow regulations along with every other industry in California.

  • A legal pot industry would be subject to environmental laws, reducing actions such as illegal deforestation and the unnecessary killing of wildlife.

  • The potential to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues, benefiting climate-friendly projects such as the restoration of forest lands that had been transformed into marijuana farms.

“The carbon footprint of this industry could be reduced 75 percent without even shifting production outdoors, but if it moves outdoors, then you could succeed in getting rid its total environmental impact,” Sutton said. “Clearly, prohibition has not worked, especially when you look at marijuana’s climate impact. But we need to make sure legalization doesn’t make it worse, but instead, reduces impact on natural resources, energy and water use. And this law will allow for that to happen.”

Image credit: James St. John/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye