Marijuana debate should include environmental impacts

Benroy Chan

Support for marijuana is at an all-time high. 58 percent of Americans want it legalized, and four states, along with Washington D.C., have already done so. Opinions on legalization’s implications on health, crime and finance continue to dominate media attention. But one of the benefits that remains curiously absent is its environmental impact.

Despite the controversy surrounding marijuana, people need to remember that it’s just a plant — an organism requiring extensive amounts of water and energy to produce. To avoid trouble with the law, illegal growers create artificial environments for indoor plant growth, keeping it discreet and hidden. This process requires the constant use of energy-intensive tools such as artificial lighting, dehumidifiers and more. But if marijuana cultivation became legal, growers could produce the plant outdoors, reducing this high demand for energy.

The energy used to grow marijuana accounts for approximately 1 percent of the total energy produced in the United States, according to a study published in the journal Energy Policy. This amount may seem insignificant, but for every one kilogram of finished marijuana produced, there is an estimated 4,600 kg of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is known to contribute to global climate change, and taking steps to reduce our impact is crucial.

Making recreational marijuana cultivation legal could reduce these emissions in two impactful ways. First, it would allow growers to produce the plant outdoors or in greenhouses because they would no longer need to hide from the law. Second, it would give growers incentives and requirements to reduce their energy usage in utility rebates and energy efficiency requirements.

In the study, energy analyst Evan Mills said policymakers should pay more attention to the environmental impacts of marijuana as well as the avenues for incentivizing more energy efficient cultivation.

“Energy efficiency requirements can be found within most building codes in the country,” Mills said in an email. “Additionally there are all sorts of voluntary programs and policies such as utility rebates, ENERGY STAR ratings, etc.”

Still, enforcing laws and shutting down illegal growers would eliminate all environmental impacts. But this is invalid because if demand exists, someone will supply it whether it is legal or not. The debate, then, should no longer attempt to reduce usage; it should mitigate harm.

Business freshman Armando Torres said he thinks the fear of marijuana is unjustified and that laws can’t stop people from using it.

“People are always going to smoke it, whether it is legal or illegal,” Torres said. “If it is legal, then more money for the state. If it is illegal, people will find ways to get it and more money for the illegal dealers.”

At the University of Texas at Austin, marijuana use is present even though the drug is illegal in the state. Last spring, 19.1 percent of students reported using marijuana in the last 30 days. Instead of fighting a hopeless battle to end marijuana use, policymakers should legalize it and begin the process of reducing its negative environmental impacts.

Chan is a journalism freshman from Sugar Land. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @BenroyChan.