Today is 4/20 - maybe it’s just another day to you but for stoners everywhere, it’s a holiday that celebrates kicking back and toking up. Five years ago cannabis users were doing this in secret but today, that’s all changed. This year, Californians can finally enjoy the holiday without worry for being shamed or arrested. My home state has now joined the District of Columbia, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and 4 other states in the US that have legalized cannabis for adult, recreational use.
This year is sure to be an historic one for the California cannabis industry. Although other states have led the charge in terms of legalization, California has consistently been the largest producer of cannabis. As the California Growers Association (CGA), an advocate for cannabis farmers, notes, “other states replaced an illicit import based market with domestic production whereas California must transition an existing unregulated marketplace.” Despite murky legal status, a forced cash-only industry, negative stigma and plenty of misinformation, the California cannabis sector has continued to grow, grossing more than $2 billion in 2017 alone. These big bucks and the potential for more is exactly what positions California to influence policy and culture nationwide.
Let’s face it, with this much money and power at stake, cannabis can no longer escape capitalism. Due to the crop’s numerous health properties and growing support for legalization nationwide, it’s reasonable to assume that cannabis will soon be an accepted industry throughout all 50 states. The industry is unique in that it has not yet been subjected to wide-scale industrialization, corporate corruption, or globalization and therefore has the potential to pioneer new and more sustainable ways of doing things - an opportunity which other sectors haven’t had in a long time.
Many are likening the prosperous cannabis industry to California’s gold rush in 1849 - and with so much opportunity out there the comparison isn’t all that far off. What we often forget about the Gold Rush, though, is how environmentally disastrous it was for the golden state. Digging and blasting away earth in the foothills and redirecting waterways for the purpose of extracting more and more wealth changed California’s landscape forever and took a toll on it’s natural habitats. Which is exactly what industry insiders are concerned will happen with cannabis. In a state already suffering from intermittent drought and a central valley that sinks a foot or more per year due to excessive pumping of groundwater it’s easy to see that this new agricultural boom could cause some serious environmental problems.
The CGA estimates that there are around 68,150 cannabis farms in California today. Many of these farms are already operating with sustainability in mind, but there are many others that cause concern for environmentalists and consumers alike. A recent study released by UC Davis showed that illegal cannabis cultivation on state and federal lands was polluting waterways and killing native species of wildlife as a result of heavy rodenticide use. In 2016, the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories (ACCL) issued a warning concerning pesticides and fungicides that they suspected to be present in “50% or more of commercially available flowers and concentrates.” The presence of these chemical residues may cause unknown effects and much like the presence of pesticides on our food, it is highly possible that the substances are harmful when smoked or ingested into the human body.
Amanda Reiman, the VP of Community Relations at Flow Kana, a California craft cannabis brand, believes that this is where we can begin to educate the consumer on the importance of sustainable cannabis farming. She points out that “if you’re the type of person who goes to the farmers market, buys cage free eggs and pasture raised beef then you should also be asking those questions about your cannabis.” Similar to food and fashion, cannabis begins in the soil before it goes through a multi-layered supply chain in order to end up in the hands of consumers. The soil is precisely what Flow Kana and numerous sustainable farmers in California are looking to protect.
Amanda tells me that Flow Kana “work[s] with farmers going beyond organic, using regenerative models like compost, beneficial insects and plants, using soils that are native and really are relying very little or not at all on pesticides and are actually improving the land every growing cycle.” Even during a time of prohibition there have been small farms and businesses who care about their product, the people who use it, and the planet. However, it is these small farms who stand the most to gain as well as the most to lose now that cannabis is legal in California. They have been among the first to step up and apply for permits despite the challenges that they face.
There is a dire need for a more robust state infrastructure to support the legal industry. The Medical and Adult Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MAUCRSA) that governs California’s cannabis industry currently requires growers to take numerous test samples from each harvest. All testing must be performed in state-licensed labs, most of which are located far away from the rural areas where cannabis is grown. Farmers are also struggling with a lack of county manpower to process permits. Flow Kana recognizes that these issues are challenging, particularly for small farmers who have a lack of resources and funding, but that it is the nature of this newly legal industry. The organization is hopeful that their advocacy and educational work will eventually pay off, saying “we’ll probably look back in 20 years to see how far we’ve come, but right now it’s tough to see that far down the road when these are all things we’re doing for the first time.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Johanna Mortz of Polykulture Farms, one of the small growers that Flow Kana works with. Johanna expressed some concerns that are familiar to many sustainable brands in that their biggest struggles revolve around education. “Currently our biggest challenge is that we’re small and unfunded and doing this on a smaller scale because we care and love what we’re doing and we want to leave our land better than we found it.” This story rings true for so many small sustainable cannabis farmers, particularly in Northern California within an area that’s known as the Emerald Triangle (comprised of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties). Cannabis in the Emerald Triangle is a major cash crop and while the topography of the region offers prime conditions for growing sustainable cannabis, these farmers are competing against more and more large-scale grows in the Central Valley and Southern California who do not necessarily care about sustainability and may have more resources at their disposal.
In the interest of farms like Polykulture, who truly adhere to a triple bottom line priority of people, planet, and profit, Flow Kana is working to ensure that legalization will provide an opportunity to change people’s conceptions of cannabis. During the era of prohibition, much of the industry catered to high-tolerance consumers who were looking to get the most bang for their buck. The result was more growers who opted for energy-intensive indoor operations. However, with its myriad applications for health and it’s ability to safely replace addictive pharmaceuticals for many patients, that status quo is slowly shifting. Now that consumers have the luxury of asking questions about their cannabis and how to use it, Flow Kana is working to implement standards and certifications for pesticide-free, sungrown, and sustainable cannabis. The company is also working on their own ad campaigns to tout the environmental and health benefits of purchasing sungrown cannabis and they have a number of educational initiatives that they plan on bringing to their farmers and the public in the near future.
Hearing Johanna speak about Polykulture gave me a glimpse into an ideal future for the legal cannabis industry. Rather than dreams of growth and massive scale, Polykulture’s vision for the future looks a lot more like a “thriving small farm that produces a CSA which will deliver cannabis, herbs, vegetables, and flowers to your doorstep.” She says that “for those who have carried the industry for so many years during prohibition, this is why the small farm hidden in the trees is still here today, for that vision.”
As it turns out, supporting a sustainable cannabis industry comes down to a lot of the same actions that it takes to encourage a sustainable fashion or food industry. Asking questions about where products come from, how they were grown or manufactured, and who grew them is the number one thing that every consumer of cannabis - both recreational and medical - should be doing. Beyond that, advocating for better regulations and working with legislators to continuously improve the laws is incredibly important. In an industry that derives much of its influence from money, the consumer’s voice and purchasing power can play a big role. Supporting small businesses like Polykulture as well as the larger initiatives like Flow Kana is a small but potent action that consumers can incorporate into their personal cannabis routine.
Sustaining Life will be delving deeper into the topic of sustainability and cannabis in the coming weeks and speaking with more sustainable cannabis companies like Mondo Meds, Kiva Confections, and Lowell Smokes. Next up we’ll be discussing further steps along the cannabis supply chain (packaging, plastic, and edibles), labor in California’s cannabis industry, cool women and people of color in the cannabis industry as a whole, and sustainable ways of consuming the medicinal plant. If you have specific questions or suggestions for topics within the subject that you’d like to hear about, please leave a comment below! For now, I’m off to enjoy 4/20 and the weekend with a sungrown, organic, California cannabis filled joint in hand...