Edgar Perez tends to cannabis plants at THC Design in Los Angeles. THC Design is a cannabis grow that focuses on environmentally conscious growing practices in order to reduce their carbon footprint using various methods. (Ana Venegas, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Growing weed has a bad rap for harming the environment. Some growers are trying to change that

Environmental groups see regulation and oversight as key factors in minimizing impact as the industry moves forward

Inside a warehouse in an industrial part of downtown Los Angeles, where rats can be as big as seagulls, the one thing standing between some aggressive rodents and a lucrative crop of cannabis is Ghost, a 2-year-old black and white cat.

What, no rat poison?

Ryan Jennemann, co-founder of THC Design, doesn’t believe in it. For his Southern California cannabis farms he employs two rescued cats and dogs to deter rodents from chewing on the stalks of his crop, killing the plants. And his conservation mindset extends to other aspects of THC Design.

A series of pencil-sized tubes runs from his plants to drain runoff water into a recycling system. A dehumidifier captures water from the air to reuse and nourish the strains of cannabis, which sell under names like Blueberry Dome, Agent Orange, XJ-13 and Skywalker OG.

At its best, Jennemann estimates THC Design captures and reuses 1,500 gallons of the 2,000 total gallons every day — nearly four times more the average American family of four uses each day.

Even the stems and branches cast off by Jennemann’s discarded plants are re-used, donated to a company that makes recycled paper.

“Cutting a thing here or there to make an extra buck, I think, is very shortsighted,” Jennamann said. “I think being environmentally friendly is the best way to make that money.”

california environmentally friendly
Army veteran Steven Passmore is part of an internship for veterans at THC Design in Los Angeles. THC Design is a cannabis grow that focuses on environmentally conscious growing practices in order to reduce their carbon footprint using various methods.
(Ana Venegas, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Not everybody in the cannabis industry works that way.

Though California is expected to turn marijuana farming into a multi-billion dollar legal business over the next decade, it’s also expected to remain host to a vast world of illicit farms, often grown without permission on state or federal lands. Often, these mini-farms, known in the industry as “trespass grows,” are nothing short of environmental disasters.

Pot pirates steal water from public watersheds. They use poisons and fertilizers that eventually work into the food chain, harming species as diverse as Northern spotted owls and the Pacific fisher.

“They’re the worst of the worst,” said Scott Bauer, the senior environmental scientist supervisor with the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Watershed Enforcement Team, referring to illicit pot farmers.

“These trespass grows, they divert all the water out of a stream. They’ll often put dams on streams and pour the chemicals right in there. … They bait these sites with hot dogs laced with poison. A bear will come in and eat their human food.

“It’s some really sad stuff.”

The problem is getting worse, experts say, even as the state develops a legal — and environmentally regulated — cannabis industry.

Mourad Gabriel, executive director of the Integral Ecology Research Center, a nonprofit that studies wildlife, has studied the decline of the Pacific fisher, a member of the weasel family that looks like a cross between an otter and a badger. In his work, he’s looked at how trespass grows affect the environment, and noted that the land captured for such uses has grown steadily in recent years.

“This is such a metastasizing problem,” Gabriel said. “Every national forest has been impacted by this.”

Gabriel added that the problem is bigger than any single government agency.

“We need to take an interdisciplinary approach. We…  need to be honest and state these are our public lands and unfortunately, right now, law enforcement is inadequately staffed, and (lack of manpower) opens the door to the illegal drug trade.”

The pirates have a huge advantage over cannabis entrepreneurs like Jennemann — money. Squatting on public land and using pesticides can generate bigger profits.

As a result, environmental groups see cannabis regulation and oversight as key factors going forward.

“It’s so important to get the marijuana industry out of the black market and into a regulated market,” said Jonathan Evans, the environmental health legal director and senior attorney for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

“(California) has to make sure there is a level playing field, and make sure the ones that are cutting corners aren’t given a competitive advantage.”

Trespass grows aren’t the only ones with a significant impact on the environment. Indoor cannabis grows, like THC Design, use tremendous amounts of energy replicating nature’s seasons, sometimes depriving plants of light while other times bathing them in simulated sunshine.

In 2012, when only medicinal cannabis was legal, marijuana cultivation consumed 3 percent of California’s electricity consumption or roughly the amount used by one million California homes. That same year, grows were estimated to make up 1 percent of energy used across the United States.

With recreational cannabis becoming legal in California as of January that energy is expected to increase.

“We need to see carbon neutral cannabis that reduces the types of energy (consumption),” Evans said. “Higher solar energy would really reduce the impacts of electricity use.”

Jennemann, among others, wants to install solar panels but he’s hesitant. Before he invests big money into panels he wants some certainty on the fate of the industry. And even if he makes that investment, it will make only a small dent in the company’s energy consumption.

An element of Prop. 64 is the allocation of funds to environmental conservation. Through the measure, which will create a legal recreational cannabis industry starting next year, 20 percent of the proceeds from marijuana sales will be set aside for restoration of open spaces. It is estimated that within the first year $200 million may go toward cleaning up watersheds and habitats ravaged through illegal trespass cannabis cultivation.

Nonprofit environmental groups like Gabriel’s have already begun working with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to remove dams and waterlines that divert water from streams in favor of trespass grows. They’re removing tons of trash and hazardous material left behind by the illicit farmers and they’re reintroducing vegetation to former grow sites, Bauer said. The agency recently devoted $1.5 million toward restorative efforts.

“As the voters wanted we need to be making sure we have an environmentally friendly marijuana production processes,” Evans said. “I think there’s a real opportunity here for California to be the leader on this issue.”

That could please consumers like Tanya Reeves.

A medical user, Reeves frequents the Evergreen dispensary in Santa Ana because she believes the cannabis there is grown without the use of pesticides.

“For me, the environmental factor is very important,” Reeves said. “I think about it with everything I do.”

Reeves and those who share her view are key customers create a strong market for growers who want to tout their product as being environmentally friendly and carbon neutral.

“I’ve been in cannabis for 30 years,” said Scott Davies, who owns Winterbourne Farms in Humboldt County, which he describes as a carbon neutral grow. “I’ve waited my whole life for the chance to differentiate what I do as a farmer from the environmentally disastrous, headline catching growers.

“Absent the regulatory framework, we haven’t been able to differentiate what we do from the more abusive components of the cannabis industry,” he added.

Davies said the trespass growers, and the publicity they’ve generated as polluters, has been “galling,” particularly because he spends energy and money creating a cleaner product.

“It’s something that has defined the face of the industry for far too long,” Davies said. “Its exciting to see a different narrative about what cultivation should look like.”

Davies — who also co-founded Humboldt Legends,which markets and retails the cannabis he grows — describes his cannabis like the grapes of a fine wine, imparting flavors of the local landscape.

He believes cannabis cultivators shouldn’t draw water from tributaries and can be carbon neutral. On his farm, in the town of Honeydew, he has a large reservoir and solar panels that he says meet his energy needs. The job of pesticides, he says, is done by good fencing.

“Cannabis is and needs to be a forbearance crop,” Davies said.

“We forbear withdrawing any water from our watershed during the dry months of the year, from March to October. Not water from creeks, springs or rivers. The only way around that is to store water. It’s very simple: Store water when there’s lots so you can use it when there’s not.”

As Davies sees it, good stewardship and business practices are not only compatible but one and the same.

“By the time you need to spray Eagle 20 (a pesticide) or something like that, things have gone horribly wrong,” Davies said. “It’s sloppy. It’s messy. It’s bad for the consumer. It’s bad for the farmer.

“It’s bad all the way around.”

This story was first published on TheCannifornian.com