The following article was originally published on VancouverSun.com
One of the greatest social shifts of the decade is underway, tilting towards a normalized future for the consumption and production of cannabis. The legalization of this historically contentious plant is now supported by 66% of Canadian voters. 35 American states have legislated some form of decriminalization, medicalization, or regulated sale. Washington State is already reaping the hefty financial rewards of legalization, with a projected $190mil rolling into state coffers over the next 4 years. Cannabis activism has moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Will British Columbia capitalize on the sweeping change of this emerging industry, or be left in the dust by our American neighbors?
B.C. has long enjoyed a progressive social attitude towards cannabis, typified by lax law enforcement and diverse cultivation expertise. The Lower Mainland aligns proximity to quality farmland in the Fraser Valley, concentration of entrepreneurial capital, and a broad user base. Vancouver is positioned to be the nexus of a new generation for Canadian cannabis research, focused on the cutting edge of agricultural science.
The basement grow-op infrastructure that has historically serviced the black market for marijuana is rapidly being replaced by a new type of cultivation infrastructure. This next generation of scaled, commercial production is rising to meet demand across Canada, replacing guerrilla bunker grow-ops with regulated and quality-assured systems backed by agricultural scientists. Legal and specialized cultivation is here to stay, with millions of dollars flowing into construction projects from Nanaimo to Niagara. Broad environmental, economic, and political impact will most certainly accompany the emergence of this $40bil industry.
The ingredients are in place for a bright future for cannabis, but a shadow looms over the future of production infrastructure: indoor cannabis cultivation. Whether in a basement or in a warehouse, indoor cultivation is both economically and environmentally inefficient. A study by researcher Evan Mills suggests that approximately 3% of Californian electricity demand powers black market marijuana growers, and the average kilogram of cannabis requires energy input that represents an equivalent of 4600 KG of carbon output. Mills adds, “Water consumption is also an issue when it comes to environmental impact, with each marijuana plant said to need between 3 and 5 gallons of water per day to grow to fruition.” Is it rational that the next step in the evolution of the Marijuana basement bunker is simply a warehouse-sized bunker?
The irony of this shadowy production model is that it provides an arguably suboptimal environment for plant growth. Average indoor lighting systems register around 600 micromoles (a unit for measuring light intensity). In contrast, the intensity of sunlight on a June day in Vancouver is around five times that. Cannabis plants need as much light as possible, and the sun remains the ideal source of photosynthetic light on earth. This is likely why we do not see many vegetable cultivation facilities in warehouses, let alone basements.
This cost flows through to medical cannabis patients as well. At a retail level, it is likely that approximately 65% of pricing from indoor cultivation represents electricity usage. This margin reflects a missed opportunity to invest in R&D, user experience, and/or cultivation technology. Around 90% of cannabis cultivated in North America is grown indoors, at an equivalent energy cost of 3 million American homes. Sungrown cultivation reduces reliance on electricity, while providing far more light to the crop.
Luckily, there is a more logical production option, one that British Columbia happens to be particularly competent in: greenhouse agriculture. From hothouse tomatoes to forestry, some of the most technically advanced environmentally controlled greenhouse infrastructure in the world resides in the Fraser Valley. B.C. universities are also hotbeds of knowledge in Natural Resources, Agronomy, Horticulture, and Cultivation Science.
Greenhouses can reduce electricity demand for Cannabis production by up to 90%, and represent the Canadian cannabis industry’s only potential carbon-offset production methodology. By combining the light intensity of outdoor cultivation with the environmental control of the most advanced enclosed systems in the world, cultivators can achieve a far more ideal environment to enable plants to thrive, while exceeding the justifiably high degree of Quality Assurance demanded by Health Canada.
Sweeping changes are imminent in the politics, science, and production of Cannabis. BC has a fertile base of infrastructure to shed this plant’s outmoded history and advance its frontiers. With states like Washington leading the charge south of the border, agriculturalists have the opportunity to witness use-cases on top of which to build a British Columbian model with substantial scientific and financial opportunity. Will B.C. leverage its broad greenhouse expertise to emerge as the nexus of this new industry, or fall behind our ambitious neighbors to the south?