As a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, Jared Blumenfeld is one of the foremost sustainability experts on the West Coast.
He left the agency in 2016 and recently launched Podship Earth, a podcast covering a wide range of topics from Bitcoin to wildfires to cannabis. His 10th episode, “Greening Weed,” dives into the worlds of both legal and illegal marijuana as he talks to growers, dealers and regulators about the environmental impact of America’s leading cash crop.
SunGrower & Greenhouse spoke with Blumenfeld about sustainability in the cannabis industry, the organic movement and the EPA’s sad state of affairs under the Trump administration.
SunGrower: What was your takeaway from looking at the sustainability issues of the cannabis industry?
Jared Blumenfeld: One of the big takeaways, especially from the West Coast — now that we’ve got California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada all with legalized, recreational cannabis — is that it’s come out from the shadows.
Now there’s a whole system in place to encourage sustainability. With the work that farmers have to go through to meet the regulations, it isn’t easy being a weed farmer in 2018. That’s completely lost on most consumers. They just think, “Yay, it’s legal.”
There’s still a lot of illegal cannabis flooding the market and there are some pretty big health impacts on consumers. People don’t realize that all these noxious chemicals are impacting their health.
It’s just a fascinating time. You’ve got these two markets in parallel. I think as consumers, our actions can allow folks who are doing the right thing to thrive and stop the black market, which also happens to be bad for people and the planet.
SG: Did you talk to many people who didn’t care about sustainability?
JB: As with all farming, if you look at any crop — almonds, potatoes, broccoli — you find people at all ends of the spectrum. If we said we’re only going to allow sustainable ag in the United States, can you imagine a black market of non-organic potatoes or a black market of non-organic broccoli?
It costs a lot less to get weed on the street, but you have no idea what you’re getting. You have no assurances of anything. I was surprised at how little dispensaries and other places talked about sustainability and made it an issue in their stores. If you go to Whole Foods, let’s say, there’s a big focus on organic, that it’s GMO free, all these values. I went into five or six dispensaries and if you go up to the person at the counter, they might be able to point you in the right direction, but there isn’t a lot out there in terms of advertising or the branding that surrounds organic and sustainable and regenerative. I thought that was interesting. It seems like a big opportunity.
SG: Water and pesticides are both addressed in state regulations, but energy seems to be ignored in the rules of legal cannabis. How do you see energy concerns in this industry at the moment?
JB: Certainly a lot of the county-level regulations in California don’t address energy use. You would think a place like Berkeley or San Francisco would. There doesn’t seem to be much attention on the huge energy suck that is indoor cannabis grows. I was really surprised by that.
There’s certainly opportunities to be a lot more efficient from an energy perspective, in terms of both lights and where the energy comes from, such as solar panels.
In terms of the total amount of energy used by all the indoor grows in the United States, it was the equivalent of 1.7 million homes being powered for a year. So it’s a lot, especially when there’s an outdoor alternative that doesn’t use any energy.
Some of the growers I spoke to said it was a little bit like the organic movement. Originally, people wanted the Macintosh apple, really red and shiny, with lots of wax. And people said the same thing is now true with weed, that the indoor grows produce the absolutely perfect flower. That’s an issue with consumers because they want it to look fabulous. And sometimes people complain that the outdoor, sun-grown weed doesn’t look as good. It’s the same thing with a tomato. An heirloom tomato might look pretty weird, but it tastes amazing, whereas a greenhouse tomato is bland.
The next thing people are going to catch on to is, “Hmm, there’s a lot of energy used in these indoor grows.” How do we reduce it through energy efficiency and renewable energy, and should we be giving preferential treatment to the outdoor grows that don’t have the large carbon footprint?
The price is going to dictate a lot of this, with it coming down as precipitously as it has. Those grow lights are expensive. That’s a big input. And the same with pesticides — it’s a big cost. So if you can grow without pesticides and without lights, you’re going to have a competitive business advantage, irrespective of the sustainability advantage. You’re going to be ahead of that game and you’re going to be able to outlive indoor grows.
SG: Was there anybody you interviewed for “Greening Weed” who resonated with you after putting the show together?
JB: Cyril Guthridge with Waterdog Farms certainly had a really good understanding of what it took and what it meant to do regenerative cannabis cultivation.
And also Cris Carrigan (director of the Office of Enforcement at the California State Water Resources Control Board), somebody who has had to clean up the absolute worst of the worst, was really interesting to talk to. Those two were standouts.
SG: Did you research or address cannabis issues in any way when you were at the EPA?
JB: Yeah, we were working with the DEA on their raids, particularly on public lands in the Klamath National Forest. It didn’t look like agriculture, it looked more like hazardous waste sites. The damage we saw was really startling: Huge capacity pumps that were sucking these rivers dry; a lot of automatic weapons; a serious military operation with big environmental consequences. I had no idea that was the scale of operation that was happening in the forests and until that time, I really didn’t know about the impacts to really fragile stream and river systems.
SG: That was probably on the true, black market side. What about on the semi-legal medical side that has existed in California for 20 years?
JB: I hadn’t been involved in that from a regulatory perspective. On the medical side, there was an understanding in the Obama administration that the goal was to let those folks do their work and not get into the issue of how they fit into the regulatory system. I would not have been particularly welcome as a federal enforcement person, so I wanted to be sensitive to that.
SG: What are your thoughts about what is happening with the EPA under the Trump administration?
JB: Basically, this administration has a very clear and forceful focus on giving polluters a free pass and basically endangering public health and the environment in the process. Whether it’s oil and gas or mining or the car industry or Big Ag, for years and years, these companies have wanted to ignore the scientific findings of peer-reviewed journals that show the impact of harmful chemicals, for instance, on human health and the environment. It would be a lot cheaper for those companies if they didn’t have to do it — the only problem is that it comes at great expense to our health.
The scale of damage that is being done to the EPA is without precedent. They’re trying to really curtail science and scientific opinion. It’s a pretty worrying time. I can’t sugar-coat it. It’s pretty bad.
The only silver lining, if there is one, is that they’re not doing very good work in terms of eliminating some of these protections, so it makes them very vulnerable in court. But that doesn’t compensate for the very large amount of damage they are doing. And it’s very intentional. It’s not covert, cloak-of-night; they’re doing it right out in the daylight.
Recently, a whole slew of atrocious ethical — and in some cases illegal — violations by Scott Pruitt (head of the EPA) came to light, like building a $43,000 sound-proof room because he was worried about people spying on him, taking first-class flights and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to go to Morocco. And the reason he still doesn’t get fired is that the rank-and-file Republican business people say he’s helping them deregulate the EPA, so they need to keep him there. It’s a dark time.
SG: What would you tell the cannabis grower or the farmer who is interested in sustainability if they were to ask your thoughts?
JB: I would say they’re in a great line of work. A lot of people care about sustainability issues and don’t get to practice it every day. The cool thing about being a farmer — whatever you’re growing — you get your hands dirty, you understand the importance of healthy soil and water. For all the people who are in this business, they’re in a great place to have a positive impact on the planet.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.