Environmental Impact Of Cannabis Cultivation, Processing, & Consumption

Cannabis plant growing inside an indoor grow facility

Water shortages and strained electrical grids have become hot-button issues all over the country. In states like California, this is especially true, and cannabis cultivation has been heavily criticized for its excessive use of water and electricity.

Many also blame the crop’s skunk-like odor for lowering air quality and the staggering amount of waste that the cultivation process produces.

But is cannabis really to blame? After all, the cannabis industry is a relatively new and unregulated one in the world of agricultural goods. 

It’s important to understand that data regarding energy, water use, and waste from the cannabis industry is limited due to its status as a federally banned substance.

The Legal Hurdles of Cannabis Production

Since cannabis is illegal in the U.S. on the federal level, The Department of Energy can’t fund research to determine the real environmental impact of the cannabis industry.

This also means that cannabis growers are exempt from receiving federal tax breaks for installing new technologies that reduce their carbon footprint. They also lack the decades of agricultural research that other industries have.

Thanks to legislation that was passed in 2018, the USDA can now fund hemp research. Hemp is defined as cannabis with a lower THC content, and while this move is a step in the right direction, it’s still going to be a while before cannabis gets the same treatment.

Promoting Efficient Energy

One of the biggest environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation is the amount of energy used by indoor facilities. These facilities are usually retrofitted industrial warehouses that were not designed with agriculture in mind.

In many states, regulations make indoor cultivation the only practical option for cannabis production. Furthermore, most states where cannabis is legal do not require specific energy standards.

The energy consumption of indoor growing facilities can be reduced by:

  • Installing LED lights
  • Adopting energy efficiency standards
  • Standardizing environmentally-friendly growing procedures
  • Switching from indoor facilities to greenhouses

Water Conservation

On the West Coast, where drought conditions are a constant obstacle for agricultural industries, cannabis is primarily grown outdoors.

The cannabis industry has been at the center of blame for these drought conditions for several years now, but research published in 2021 by New Frontier Data suggests that this blame may be unwarranted.

The study shows that California’s cannabis industry actually uses far less water than other those of other agricultural commodities, such as:

  • Grapes
  • Rice
  • Wheat
  • Corn

Much of the excessive water use that the cannabis industry is responsible for comes from the illegal cannabis market, which accounted for 83% of the industry’s water use in 2020.

Air Emissions

Fragrant terpenes are an organic compound produced by cannabis and other plants, such as pine, lavender, and citrus.

By themselves, terpenes are not hazardous. However, when exposed to sunlight and nitrogen oxides in the air, terpenes form ground-level ozone – a form of air pollutant.

In fact, cannabis companies are not required to monitor for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as these.

In states like Colorado, the pungent odor of cannabis has a noticeable effect on the air quality in areas where marijuana cultivation occurs.

Despite these concerns, air quality experts’ research conducted in the Denver area in 2019 found that VOCs created from cannabis cultivation does not contribute enough to ozone formation to be of any real concern.

The study also found that, at most, air pollution from cannabis cultivation would contribute to an overall 0.004% increase in the city’s ozone level.


Every industry in the 21st century has had to deal with waste of all kinds, and the cannabis industry is no exception.

In the past, states such as Colorado have required cannabis plant waste to be mixed with other waste. This changed in 2021 when the state legislature made it easier for cannabis growers to compost waste material.

Since then, other states have followed suit by implementing similar policies; however, most still require mixing cannabis waste with 50% non-cannabis waste.
A major benefit of the federal legalization of cannabis would be expanding disposal options for growers. Cannabis facilities could transport their waste across state lines, benefiting growers that aren’t located near a large enough disposal facility.

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