Regulating Pot to Save the Polar Bear: Energy and Climate Impacts of the Marijuana Industry

24th June 2015 By: Gina S. Warren

I. Introduction

It goes by many names:  cannabis, marijuana, pot, chronic, grass, reefer, shwag, Mary Jane.[1]  Whatever the name, the trend is clear:  the weed is legal but the herb ain't green.  Nearly half of all U.S. states have enacted-or have pending-legislation to legalize, decriminalize, or in some way permit the use and cultivation of marijuana.  As a result, marijuana has become a significant topic of conversation in the U.S.-especially in the areas of social policy and criminal law.  One conversation yet to reach fruition, however, is the industry's projected impacts on energy demand and the climate.  As the industry grows, so will its negative externalities.  Indoor cannabis cultivation is one of the most energy-intensive industries in the U.S., requiring electricity to power lamps, to maintain consistent temperature and humidity levels, and to power fans for ventilation, among other things.  This energy consumption, unless otherwise mitigated, results in significant greenhouse gas emissions.  This article explores the opportunities that legalization brings in addressing the negative impacts on energy usage and the climate.  It concludes that simply incorporating the marijuana industry into the existing energy regulatory framework will do little to address its negative impacts.  It recommends that state and local policymakers take advantage of the opportunity to consider climate risks and energy usage before issuing business licenses for indoor marijuana cultivators.

Section II analyzes the trend of legalization, or at least decriminalization, of marijuana possession, distribution, sale, and use.  Portugal and Uruguay have legalized (or decriminalized) marijuana.  Nearly half of the states in the United States have done the same, particularly for medical use.  Four states-Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington-plus the District of Columbia have legalized it for recreational use.  This Section will take a close look at some of the new cultivation and use laws and discuss how the United States federal government is responding to the trend.

Section III summarizes marijuana cultivation methods and their negative impacts on the environment, energy usage, and the climate.  Whether cultivated indoors or outdoors, growing marijuana creates significant negative externalities.  Indoor cultivation is highly energy-intensive and results in significant greenhouse gas emissions.  However, it allows for-according to some-a better, more controlled yield and product.  It is also less likely to result in environmental damage and requires less on-site security personnel.  Outdoor cultivation, on the other hand, does not have the energy requirement.  However, without regulation it can result in significant impacts to the environment due to deforestation, overuse of pesticides and rodenticides, and extensive irrigation.

Next, Section IV of this article will explore the opportunities that legalization brings in addressing the negative impacts of indoor cultivation on energy usage and the climate, such as curbing electricity theft, utilizing utility energy efficiency programs, and connecting to the electricity grid.  Clandestine marijuana producers use inefficient and carbon dioxide-spewing on-site diesel and gasoline generators to meet their electricity needs.  Legalizing the marijuana cultivation can allow these producers to connect to the grid, which would decrease waste and emissions.  As will be discussed in Section V, however, shifting indoor growers onto the grid will not fully address the issue.  The vast majority of the electricity supplied by the United States' grid is from fossil fuel sources.  The marijuana industry is already one of the most energy-intensive industries in the United States, and with legalization its energy consumption is only expected to grow.  This is at a time when the International Panel on Climate Change ("IPCC") is reporting that the energy supply sector is itself the largest consumer of energy and responsible for nearly thirty-five percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.[2]  With continued industrialization across the globe, energy demand is expected to increase exponentially.[3]  While it may not be feasible, or even reasonable, to consider the complete removal of fossil fuels as sources of electricity, it is possible to take steps to prevent new industries-especially highly energy-intensive ones-from contributing to the mix.

State and local policymakers at the cutting edge of regulating new industries such as the massive, legalized marijuana industry have a unique opportunity to incorporate carbon-free energy requirements into their licensing schemes.  Working from a clean slate, policymakers can embed climate protective provisions within their regulations.  Thus far, Colorado and Washington, and various local governments within those states, have established licensing requirements for most aspects of the marijuana industry.[4]  Colorado, and in particular Boulder City and County, have taken steps to implement a 100% renewable energy requirement for indoor marijuana cultivators, and Washington is in a good position to do so as well.  Implementing such a requirement will ensure that the burden will be borne by the industry instead of by the general public.  Marijuana can continue to tout itself as the "green" industry that it is perceived as being, and public policymakers can help to save the polar bear.[5]


[1]."Marijuana" Synonyms, The Online Slang Dictionary, http://onlineslang [] (last visited Mar. 25, 2015).  According to the Online Slang Dictionary, there are 115 words for marijuana:  420, bammer, BC bud, blunt, bomb, bone, boo, boo-yah, bubonic chronic, bud, buddha, burger, candle, cheeba, chiba, chief, chiefs, chino, choke, chronic, cigga-weed, cigweed, clickem, colitis, combustible herbage, crippy, cronick, dank, dirt weed, ditch weed, doja, dolja, doob, doobie, dope, drat, draw, dro, dub, dube, Dutchie, endo, erve, fatty, fatty boom blatty, gange, ganja, ganje, giggle stick, gonj, grass, green, green bud, heim, herb, herbal refreshment, hippie lettuce, hog leg, hooter, hydro, indica, indo, j, jay, jib, joint, keef, kief, kill, kind bud, la la, left-handed cigarette, limbo, loud, Mary Jane, Mexican dirt weed, mighty mez, MJ, mota, Mr. J, nib, nugget, onion, paca lolo, pakaloco, pakalolo, pato, pot, purp, reefer, reggie, reggs, roach, schwag, shake, shwag, skater, skunk weed, smoke, spliff, spliffy, sticky icky icky, sweet, tea, Thai stick, tical, toke, treats, trees, tweed, wacky tobaccy, weed, whifty, woolies, zombie.  Id.

[2].T. Bruckner et al., Energy Systems, in Climate Change 2014:  Mitigation of Climate Change, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 518 (O. Edenhofer et al. eds., 2014) [hereinafter "Working Group III"], available at http://mitigation2014
.org/report/publication/ [] (last visited Mar. 25, 2015).

[3].Id. at 21.

[4].As will be discussed infra, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C. have not yet established licensing requirements, as the marijuana recreational laws just passed at the November 2014 elections.

[5].Ezra Rosser notes that the majority of the population will never have an occasion to see a polar bear, but polar bears are the representative for the anti-global warming movement.  Ezra Rosser, Offsetting and the Consumption of Social Responsibility, 89 Wash. U. L. Rev. 27, 70-71 (2011).


  |   VIEW PDF