The legalization of medicinal use of marihuana triggered a major growth in local economies. It unveiled how much money was circulating in the parallel economy. On the other hand, the absence of a federal framework leads to a void in the farming system. The legal obligations on one hand, and the drive for efficiency and productivity on the other hand, results in the vast use of chemicals that are turning the practice highly dependent on chemicals. Read more in this blog that is based on five years of personal contacts and exchanges.
1. When the citizens of Colorado voted in 2011 to legalise cannabis, little they knew that pot would become the engine of the local economy, picking up the pieces after the bust of the shale gas industry.
2. While the economy grows, and producers can hardly keep track of demand, the absence of any Federal health, safety and environmental regulation, has led to the emergence of cannabis as one the most polluting industries ever.
3. The present legal framework forces (nearly) all production indoors. The use of chemicals to control moulds and mites would make the cannabis sector unfit for human consumption in many parts of the world.
4. After the rush for farming pot, the sector should self-impose the design of facilities that emulate natural conditions, including the introduction of perennial cannabis plants as was the tradition in sub-tropical regions. Farming should be outdoors, then strains from the Himalayas and the Andes should be farmed locally.
5. The cannabis farming and processing generates massive volumes of waste. Its mix with chemicals and perlite is exacerbated by the regulation to destroy the plant's left-overs on site prior to hauling. A few changes would make this millions of tons of cannabis biomass an ideal source for biogas.
6. Regulations keep the cannabis industry local, small-scale and highly profitable, void of any competition except for the neighbor. Pharmaceutical companies are soon rushing in. However for now a new generation of entrepreneurs could build up a bio-business in this captive niche.
7. The money spent on painkillers, or the money flowing to drug lords, now stays in the local economy, generating a strong multiplier effect that demonstrates how much cash was drained from these communities into the pockets of outside players, and what an opportunity it is to change the logic of trade.
8. The entrepreneurs of the cannabis industry should take the initiative to quickly move from the present state of euphoria and money making to a professionalization that sets new standards for health and safety, natural farming and local economies. This standard could support transparency on this high growth market.
9. If approved on a Federal level, then cannabis would pump an additional $200 billion into the economy each year, that otherwise would have been paid to the mafia and would have continued to stress the legal and penitentiary system. If globally permitted, we are estimating at least a $500 billion annual injection into the economy.
When the citizens of the State of Colorado (USA) voted in 2011 to legalize marijuana few could have imagined the impact of this decision on the environment and the economy. Five years later the pharmaceutical industry had lost $165 million in annual sales of painkillers just in that one state, while sales of medicinal cannabinoids (known as CBD or Cannabidiol, and THC or Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol) to suppress pain surpassed in the same year and the same territory of 5.4 million inhabitants the one billion dollar mark. The 600 cannabis shops in Denver, Colorado surpass the number of branded coffee shops. It has been estimated that thanks to the investment boom in 2016 ten thousand people moved to Denver each month to tap into the bonanza of pot, as the drug is colloquially called.
Medicinal cannabis plant growing in Colorado © 2016, Shutterstock
The economic impact of the legalization of cannabis is beyond imagination of those who put the opportunity to a vote: real estate prices boom, minimum wages boom, the local government budget booms, the number of arrests for possession is down, the prison population is decreasing, and the boom and bust of the shale gas industry is alleviated by this boom in the fast emerging pot economy. On top of these benefits, the legalization diverts cash that would have left the local economy either to enrich out of state pharmaceutical companies or foreign mafias, into the local economy with predictable multipliers. It is a boom that surpasses the promises of shale gas which was concentrated in the hands of a few, by catalyzing a revolution in the economy driven by thousands of small entrepreneurs and investors. The multiplier effect of this cash injection into the region is phenomenal.
While there are many reasons to celebrate the economic and social benefits of turning an illegal trade into a legitimate one, few have focused their attention on the environmental impact of farming cannabis for recreation or medicine.
benign organizations. The industry of making medicinal and recreational drugs from cannabis is so profitable, and demand is so strong, that the race to produce always more and more makes everyone, with only a few exceptions, use toxic mixes that do not make any environmental sense. The science and the practice of farming pot is so dependent on toxic chemicals and is void of basic insights or oversight on how to farm with both growth performance, the health of the users and the neighbors as well as the preservation of Nature in mind that one wonders if the legalization of pot has not opened the gateways for chemical farming like no other crop farmed today.
Symbiosis with Fungi
While I worked extensively with bamboo, we had to argue all the time that this plant was not a tree, rather it is a grass. When discussing the practice of farming cannabis, it is key to remind the operators of the indoor plantations that they are growing a plant that behaves like a hardwood, while the whole treatment rather looks like an indoor flower farm. So, the industry should start with the biology of cannabis. The plant is not a hardwood, rather it acts like a hardwood. This behavioural game is a well-known phenomena in Nature: one sunflower species (Montanoa quadrangularis) behaves like a tree, but it not a tree. A naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is neither a mole nor a rat, rather it is a type of porcupine that lives in colonies like ants and bees, While we are finally coming to terms with diverse preferences in society, where not everyone behaves according to its genes, we have to realise that flower farm practices do not serve the cannabis trade.
Hardwoods perform best thanks to their unique relationships with mycorrhizal fungi. This fungus lives around the outside of the roots. Based on hands-on experience at Las Gaviotas (Colombia), the regeneration of 20,000 acres of rainforest was based on this successful symbiosis of a plant with the right fungus (Pisolithus tinctorius). The cannabis farmers buy and test mycorrhiza. However, studying the formulations applied, no one seems to have figured out which fungus suits which cannabis plant variety. The practice of spraying a mix of spores on top of an emerging plant, as if it were an expensive pesticide. Once the industry determined which fungus is the one that is "most" synergetic with the various cannabis species grown today, it will have a basis for a higher biological productivity while relying less on chemistry. This seems a key point to be put on the industry's research agenda.
ease without relying on an overkill with chemicals. If in addition the indoor farming is combined with appropriate light, including ultraviolet rays that mimic the exposure under the sun and cleanses the plants of competing microorganisms, then the production system will evolve from strength to strength.
Perennials and Canopies
How could the obsession with the flower, that contains the highest concentration of the cannabinoids, neglect the biology of an ancient perennial. Cannabis moved from the subtropical regions where rain means winter and sun is associated with summer, to the the foothill of the Himalayas where the four seasons impose annual cycles. Now that cannabis is farmed indoors in Colorado, the ideal species would be the short-lived perennial ones. Perennials would reduce the cost of handling and cut the massive waste associated with single season farming. In the end the growers wish to have more flowers, and this relies on a plant that grows an expanded canopy in early life.
all attention goes to the flower, ignoring the fact that the broader the canopy, the higher the number of flowers. The basics are known, but the practice was already blinded by the desire to achieve one single objective: to grow as many flowers as quickly as possible at any financial and environmental cost. Since a sachet of marijuana could be priced at the store as much as $70 per unit (down from $110 a few years ago), while the cost is a mere $5 (x14), the strategy is solely focused on the short term production - whatever the volume at whatever the cost. As a result, the industry is neglecting the option to go back to basics (As hippies did in 60's) and search for the perennial varieties that grow outdoor
The Absence of Federal Laws and Guidelines
The Government, which is often colloquially referred to as "The Feds" (of the Federal Government) continues to consider cannabis farming illegal, and therefore the sector is void of any Federal guidelines from the indoor air quality, health standards, the use of chemicals on medicine and food, to waste management. This Federal prohibition on top of the state-wide legalization forces all cannabis cultivation indoors. While these plants would do best outdoors, and enjoy their stable periods in the dark of the night. Why is all production is forced indoors to avoid exposure to children who may stumble on these powerful and profitable plants. This regulations acts as if social media do not exist.
Forcing all cultivation indoors jacks up the cost and pollution beyond any reason, but no one complains since the margins are so high. A small facility that may not measure more than 500 square meters is cranking out at least $10 million in cash a year. Yes, cannabis is a cash business only, since the Feds do not permit the use of the Federally insured banking system for an illegal substance, even when it is permitted in the state. This explains why cannabis farmers even have their own security companies, cash transit trucks, and money vaults. By now, they have accumulated a few billion dollars in cash and pursue the logic of the mafia.
Moisture and pH
Many of the indoor farms have opted for aero- or aquaponics, providing all the nutrients through water in ponds or moisture in the air. Whenever the owner of a closed space opts to farm a monoculture, this equates to an invitation to mould attacks. Moulds are a fungus that thrives in a space that has a wealth of cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose (the very predictable three components that characterize plants). Moulds have the power to overtake their host, stunting growth and ultimately leading to its demise. Once the immune system of the plants is stressed through the creation of this (mandated) unhealthy environment, mites will have a chance to take over what the fungi have not already put under their control. The adverse impact on productivity, health and safety by forcing the industry to an exclusive indoor farming is devastating. The reaction of the owners is to comply with "whatever the Feds desire" even if this requires to spend without restraint to submerge the cannabis families in a toxic blend of metal oxides.
When the human species does not understand something, it is tempted to kill it. Moulds are no exception. Seldom have I noted environments where chlorinated compounds in all possible mixes are used with limited consideration to the health of the workers or the customers, not to mention its impact on outdoor air quality, ground water and soil. The patients keen on having a natural cure for their chronic pain do deserve a better product and a greater care, than those with the current quality. However, the farming of cannabis seems to have dropped all restraints since the market grows fast and the regulations are non-existent, except that it should be kept out of reach and out of sight of anyone who is underage (under 21 years).
The industry is new to the natural varieties of cannabis that would grow best in Colorado’s ecosystem. Colorado has a dry and continental climate, with extended periods of heat and cold. Biologists should opt for species that thrive in such environment. It was surprising to note the absence of any knowledge of Bhutanese strains, whereas the Afghan alternative is widespread - and we wonder why (sic)? Even when the plants are indoors, we could mimic a natural environment that would ensure a fit like a glove on a hand if the core selection would be akin to the ecosystem.
Cannabis growing wild in the city centre of Paro (Bhutan) © 2016, Google
This includes a smart use of shifts in pH, enhancing the facilities' design for an alkaline environment, the flows of chlorine free water, moisture that could carry moulds, air rich in carbonic gases when the lights are on, particles that enrich growth, light and darkness as means to ensure a natural flowering. This offers a window to embrace the wonders of nature, to drop costs, increase quality and safety of end flows improve. If on the other hand the industry sticks to what the farming experts know, this engine of the economy will go down in history books as another false promise. It will leave ghost towns behind like the Gold Rush did in the 19th century.
The Blue Economy is dedicated to positive whistleblowing: what opportunities is this wildly popular and profitable industry missing? A handful of site visits between Aurora, Durango, Fort Lupton, Fort Collins, Denver and Boulder convinced me that industry oscillates between these obsessive regulations around issues that hardly matter, and a total absence of regulations around the health and safety of workers, customers and the environment that should matter. Since I do not expect the policy makers to take any lead, due to the void created by the absence of Federal permits, laws and regulations, it is up to the industry to take the initiative and start converting its act from the reality of today to the potential of tomorrow. The approach we suggest, without wanting to be prescriptive, would combine the capacity to considerably increase output, while cutting costs, reversing the environmental damage, by putting this highly popular farming onto a track that promotes health, safety and sustainability.
The first step of course is to ensure that the biodiversity of cannabis plants is adapted to the ecosystems. While this sounds obvious, it is a first important step: avoiding standardization by ensuring that each growing condition is optimal for a few strains of cannabis plants. The second step is to ensure that the indoor facilities (assuming that this will remain a requisite for the permit) operate under a mould free environment, while the plants have the ideal symbiosis with mycorrhizal fungi. The focus on biodiversity and symbiosis strengthens the immune system of the plants and this is the best (perhaps even only) way to protect the plant from mites. If the use of chlorine (highly acidic) is replaced by a bacterial and fungal control based on a benign blend of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar produced on site when needed, then we have eliminated over 90% of the health risks associated with the present farming. Perhaps ignorance of the challenges the sector faces today, and ignorance of the solutions that are immediately available blind the goodwill that nearly all have once exposed to these observations.
Indoor farming of cannabis in Colorado ©2016, Shutterstock
The third intervention required relates to waste management. The extraction of the active ingredients, with an exclusive focus on the flowers, produces - as discussed - massive volumes of waste. It is estimated that the State of Colorado generates perhaps 5 million pounds per day. This is massive. This biomass goes to landfill. The toxic cocktail of chemicals is blended with a massive volume of organic matter and a growth medium ranging from cheap soil with a poor poor carbon content, to perlite that is mines and wasted
call to consider the potential social and environmental good by shifting to a business model that ensures profitability and sustainability like seldom seen before (in any industry). The lack of Federal regulations should be exploited for the good, and this degree of freedom must be celebrated for as long as it lasts.
Glass and Gas
Glass foam produced from a mix of green, white and brown bottles. ©2015, Pittsburgh Corning
The perlite challenge is worth dwelling on for a moment more. Perlite is mined. It is used as a growth medium and discarded after only one use. Since the separation of the mineral from the plant roots is difficult, all gets dumped according to the regulations, and the industry pays the full cost without complaining. If all greenhouses were to opt for glass foam as a growth medium which is not less than recycled beer and wine bottles, even recycled car windshields, then the industry would create an opportunity to get out of the "glass trap". Indeed, the demand for recycled glass has dropped to the point that many cities have stopped recycling altogether.
The cannabis trade spurs a strong growth in demand for a sterile growth medium, promoting the presence of beneficial microorganisms. This could put new life into glass recycling as over a dozen facilities throughout Europe have demonstrated, while generating jobs with a locally available waste. This converts a cost into a revenue, and facilitates the conversion of a mined material with one that can be recycled forever, while eliminating a nuisance for the city waste manager. This is clearly a win-win-win for all and it is profitable as soon as 5.5 million bottles can be guaranteed in a region.
If 40-50 operators of greenhouses collaborate, then there will be a business case that could be funded out of available cash flow, and … by the way, this reduces GHG emissions.
The same logic can be extended to the biomass that is now shredded on site and hauled to landfills. This does not make sense. The fact that cannabis is behaving like a hardwood ensures its long and powerful conversion into minerals through exposure to methanogenic bacteria. Cannabis is most likely one of the most effective biogas generators since the cannabis plant never converts stems to bark implying a high potential for the production of biogas. Just like breweries realized that their massive volume of spent grains could lead to large quantities of natural gas, mushrooms and bread, the same logic could be applied to the cannabis industry provided it cuts back on its toxic cocktails. The recent super-effective digesters that operate with 12 chambers produce so much gas that it cannot be neglected anymore as a source of revenues and wealth creation. If we add that the cannabis industry is the single largest new user of power in the State, then it makes sense to take on this opportunity. And, from the point of view of the "Feds", there is nothing more secure than the "transformation" of all cannabis waste into a mineralized form generating energy.
The rapid growth from an underground business to one that occupies 600 commercial buildings and just under 2,000 production sites in less than 5 years stresses the available stock of industrial and commercial real estate. While the price per square foot has increased tenfold, and more investments pour into the economy, the quality of the buildings leave lots to be desired for the industry, which has focused on the speedy occupation of available space. Now the time has come to design dedicated structures that take the specific needs of the industry into account. It seems that few have made any serious reflections on how such an indoor cannabis farming and processing unit should look like to boost output, but probably most important to meet the standards for a product that has medicinal value.
Cannabis store in Denver, Colorado ©2016, HGABMAG.com
There is sufficient science available to convince the pharmaceutical industry the unique medical value of cannabis extracts. When scientists discovered that the brain and the cells in the immune system have dedicated cannabinoid receptors, it seems that our health of body and mind has been designed for this natural agent. The capacity to control pain without the risk of addiction is an appealing proposal. The personal anecdotes always help to put this cannabis revolution in a homely context. A close friend in his 70's had been suffering for decades from debilitating backache and had developed allergies or addition to traditional painkillers. Frank V. finally found relief thanks to cannabis after the very first topical application, and could start dancing again much to the delight of his wife who recalls the fun times they had in the 60's on the dance floor. Frank and others are the new customers visiting cannabis stores without any restrictions or guilt.
However pain is only one of the applications that has caught the attention of the industry. The relief in epileptic seizures especially among children who have otherwise no effective medicine as reported by Scientific American (January 2016) is a breakthrough, that needs further study. The reversal of Alzheimer is another one. While the pharmaceutical industry clearly sees the sign on the wall, their hands are tied since the Federal law still prohibits the farming and commercialization of these products nationwide, and only "tolerates the business" where the citizens have voted through the ballots and the state has legalized.
While many applaud that cannabis integrated into the black economy, one that generates important tax revenue, few realize how this emerging industry creates a powerful local economy much different than the promise of globalization. Now, the restrictive oversight and control of the Government secures a debilitated competitive pharma force, while strengthening a highly fractionated farming and processing system with thousands of new entrepreneurs who claim their stake. This is the 21st century gold rush and a consolidation of the sector is not in sight. The hippies and the hemp capitalists have the federal regulators to thank.
Time to take initiatives
Just a short decade after the gold rush for cannabis started, its economic impact is clearly felt, but its ecological footprint has not been accounted for nor documented in full. Neither has there been a real chance to scientifically document the marvel cannabinoids potentially represent from chronic ache to epileptic seizures. Policy makers have a responsibility to serve society, and ensure that the benefits are shared with millions, not a few. To our surprise, the conditions for the cannabis trade seem to be more democratic than any emerging industry. The emerging corporations are squeezed between the key performance indicators of "growing more and faster all the time to keep up with demand" on one hand, and the very narrowly defined controls from the Government that has not set any ecological
so that the next generation will not look back at this explosive situation with the same dismay as we look at the scars from the gold miners who indiscriminately used mercury as it was the best performing chemical at the time.
While this short paper ticks only a few of the boxes that need to be addressed for this emerging cannabis trade, it is a broad invitation to the key operators in the industry to embark on a rapid transformation to an emerging business that undoubtedly can and will make a major contribution to the economy, but at the same time applies the science and the engineering that permits these production and commercial facilities will contribute to society and turn into pioneers for the best of humanity.
 Prakash Nagarkatti, e.a. in Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs, published by the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, accessible since 2010 through: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2828614/
The aim of this blog is to present a fresh look at realities around us. Whereas I do not pretend to present the truth nor a definite position, I do wish to push the reader to think beyond the obvious. After all, time has come to dramatically improve the plight of millions, and that requires more than the predictable. Sometimes it forces us into spheres of discomfort.