Illustration by Eric Timothy Carlson
Illustration by Eric Timothy Carlson

In Washington state, a land of tall evergreens and high-minded environmental principles, one wonders what could be greener than a pot farm. Think again.

Initial regulations of the state’s new legal marijuana industry seem to favor energy-guzzling indoor operations over outdoor farms. How did that happen?

After Washington voters legalized recreational marijuana more than a year ago, regulators created a system whereby the pot sold in 334 state-licensed private stores must be grown in-state and tracked “seed to sale.” The new rules limit marijuana farms to 30,000 square feet.

Indoor enterprises can yield three or four crops a year, while outdoor farms can only produce one or two.

Regulators weren’t trying to write environmentally tone-deaf rules, and they are open to change later. Several considerations forced their hands.

For one, they didn’t want big businesses to dominate. The rules are also supposed to help coax indoor illegal producers to become legal ones -- “out of the dark into the light,” said Randy Simmons, the deputy director of the state Liquor Control Board, which has been drafting rules for the marijuana rollout.

Indoor pot has a timing advantage, too. It will probably be the product behind the counter when marijuana stores open in Washington in late May or early June. The outlets are supposed to sell state-tested crops that can be grown once producers acquire licenses, which should be available in the next few weeks.

In time, Washington should adjust its dossier of rules and push more growers to greenhouses or outdoors, and in a way that ensures they follow state regulations and are environmentally responsible.

For now, in a state known as the “land of the indoor sun,” crops grown inside will be more prevalent, and they aren’t models of sustainability.

“The emergent industry of indoor Cannabis production results in prodigious energy use, costs and greenhouse-gas pollution,” Evan Mills, an independent energy analyst and scientist, wrote in an influential report, “Energy Up in Smoke.” Indoor production facilities use “lighting levels matching those found in hospital operating rooms (500 times greater than recommended for reading),” the report says. Energy is also used in dehumidification to remove water vapor and in space heating and drying, says Mills, who was assisted in the research by marijuana consultant Scott Zeramby.

The production of an amount sufficient for one cannabis cigarette represents two pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions, an amount equal to running a 100-watt light bulb for 25 hours with average U.S. electricity, Mills writes.

The impact might be considerable. (Though in the Northwest, with its emphasis on clean hydropower, the carbon concern may not be as great.)

About 6,600 applications have been filed from Washingtonians seeking to grow, process and sell marijuana. The largest number is from those who would like to grow it.

Although voters in Washington and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana for adults, the federal government still considers it illegal. It agreed to allow the two states to proceed if they follow strictures on taking the product across state lines. If the crop is grown outside in open fields, it could be pilfered and transported to neighboring states.

But outdoor pot enthusiasts argue convincingly that if they build required fences and install appropriate security systems, outdoor operations will be manageable and protected.

As for out-of-state pot coming into Washington stores, there’s a plan for that, too.

“It will be difficult for significant amounts of California pot or British Columbia bud to show up in a Washington retail store without being detected, because of the way we have separated the supply chain,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who has been active in the pot-legalization movement. “Independent growers, processors and retailers have to issue separate reports subject to inspection and audit.”

In Washington, the Cascade Mountains divide weather and landscape. The west side is wet and tree-covered; the east is dry, producing grapes, cherries and peaches to dream about.

Marijuana grown in the sunnier area would probably need to be irrigated, so growers have to be sure their property has legal water available through wells or other rights.

While sun-grown pot is more energy-sound, that doesn’t mean outside crops are benign, as California’s experience shows.

Too many marijuana farmers there siphon water from rivers and choke already struggling salmon runs. “We have critically endangered fish in watersheds that are getting absolutely hammered by profiteering pot growing,” said Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, in northern California.

Some marijuana growers in the forests have used the poison d-CON to protect plants from wood rats. Renegade growers have leveled hilltops to plant the crop.

Greacen says he is encouraged by what he has heard about Washington’s rules. Legalization and regulation make a difference.

People who acquire a license are expected to follow the law, and marijuana crops would be subject to the same environmental requirements as any other agricultural activity in the state.

Growers on the east side of the mountains who see economic opportunity for rural areas think large indoor growing operations will be -- should become -- repugnant to consumers.

“We should not be using finite resources to produce basil, tomatoes or any crop indoors as long as there is a sustainable alternative to growing it outdoors,” said Jeremy Moberg, president of the Okanogan Cannabis Association, which advocates outdoor growing operations.

I bet the marketplace will settle this matter.

In the Pacific Northwest, it doesn’t take much to imagine marijuana buyers, like sophisticated consumers of the region’s boutique produce or high-quality wine, developing a preference for sun-grown pot. They may favor marijuana with a good story -- and that includes being grown in a more environmentally responsible manner.

(Joni Balter is a longtime Seattle columnist and writer who contributes to local NPR and PBS affiliates. This is the third of three articles on marijuana legalization in Washington state. Read Parts 1 and 2.)

To contact the writer of this article: Joni Balter at jcbalter@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.