Cover Story

How Green Is Your Pot?

A new collective is trying to sell sustainable, organically grown marijuana, but patients are hooked on indoor weed that wastes energy and pollutes the planet.

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Cover image for Aug 31, 2011

Dope Hits the Fan

Following the legalization of pot cultivation for medical purposes in California in 1996, Humboldt County saw a 25 percent rise in per-capita residential electricity use in comparison to the rest of California, according to data compiled by Humboldt State University.

Perhaps even bigger than Humboldt’s newfound thirst for grid power was its “diesel dope” scene: thousands of plants, sometimes grown in buried shipping containers and fed by diesel-fired generators, the kind used for hospitals in emergencies. Entire creeks buzzed at night, Kemp said, shattering the region’s famed serenity. Some local owls can no longer hunt because the loud generators destroy their ability to stalk nighttime prey.

But a tipping point came in May 2008, following the now-infamous Hacker Creek diesel spill. Renters on a Humboldt dope-growing property were trying to transfer diesel from a big tank to a smaller tank and spilled about six hundred gallons of diesel fuel into Hacker Creek, killing nearly everything in its path.

Neighbors called the cops, who fined the landlord and ordered a clean-up, Kemp said. It was said to be the third spill in that location. Land that was “the next step away” from pristine had become as toxic as a superfund site. No insects buzzed, and the air reeked of diesel and caused headaches.

“That was the only one I’ve ever personally witnessed, although the stories are that big growers don’t tend to share these things; I mean, neighbors aren’t really excited if they find out you poured diesel in the ground,” Kemp said. Still, “it happens all the time,” she added.

Top-notch, organically grown pot smells, tastes and feels better, purists say. It’s much like the difference between an industrially farmed tomato from Safeway and an organic tomato from the farmers’ market, Kemp said. “Everybody knows a tomato from a farmers’ market–it tastes so wonderful. That’s the difference that I see happening with medical marijuana. Of course, there’s good indoor, but as a whole you get healthier plants that are better for your body with outdoor. God, it’s just beautiful.”

The defiant, distorted twang of Steppenwolf’s 1968 hit “Born To Be Wild” blares from the truck belonging to marijuana grower “Kim.” His radio is tuned to 91.1-FM KMUD in southern Humboldt County, as he drives past steep gorges and through dark groves of redwoods.

Five hours north of San Francisco, up Highway 101, nature truly rules. Geology has reduced the mighty six-lane freeway to a two-lane, landslide-prone country road. Off the highway and off the grid, miles and miles up country roads whose names cannot be disclosed, mountain lion and female deer run through Kim’s front yard.

His truck rumbles past some solar panels, and he parks next to what looks like a cell-tower receiver nailed to a tree. The radio array provides Internet access, he says, as he hops out of the truck, leaving it unlocked. He ascends the steep hillside in big strides. The deer crest the ridge ahead of him. “I wouldn’t be surprised if their lips are covered with strawberry juice,” he laughs.

Further up the hill, in the blazing, 80-degree sun, an acre-sized patch of artichokes, flowers, berries and tomatoes contains some interesting guests–about 30 pot plants. They stretch skyward, leaves fanned wide in the bright heat. Each deep-green, seven-pointed leaf is its own solar panel, and it’s fueling the production of medical-grade Granddaddy Durkle, Purple Chiesel and something called Sour Tsunami. “You’ll run across that name in a few years,” Kim assures.

Rooted in big holes in the ground or in soil boxes, Kim’s plants stand waist-high on this June day, but come harvest in late September, they’ll be taller than he is and will spread up to 10 feet in diameter. Each plant yields anywhere from one to 15 pounds of high-grade marijuana, with the average being two and a half. Each pound goes for upwards of $2,000.

Kim’s kids are all grown up, and he’s been in the hills for nine years now. The grandson of an Idaho farmer, he kneels down in his dusty blue jeans and work boots and investigates the base of a plant for bite marks. He thumbs the leaves, looking for signs of malnutrition, mice, voles, gophers. He digs his fingers into the soil and checks its moisture, fills his hands with dirt and brings it into the light. The clay clods crumble through his caked fingers. “You aren’t going to get any better dirt,” he says.

Up here, the only sounds are birdsong and the wind rustling through the grass. Noticing the breeze, Kim fetches some long, thin sticks and drives them into the soil at an angle. The sticks help the plants support themselves in the wind. Later, Kim’ll stake the outlying branches down, quadrupling the final width of the plant.

Northern California’s highly advanced medical marijuana market is dominated not by hippie-grown, outdoor, sustainable marijuana, but by fossil-fueled and nuke-powered indoor weed. The medical stuff is just a small fraction of the recreational market, but, in total, indoor pot consumes an estimated 8 percent of all electricity generated in California and 1 percent of all electricity generated in America. Its greenhouse emissions equal that of six million cars. Growing just one joint indoors emits two pounds of CO2.

Indeed, marijuana, once synonymous with all that is green, has become anything but in the region that gave birth to the environmental movement. Residents in the liberal Bay Area routinely elbow past each other to buy cage-free eggs, free-range beef and organic strawberries, and yet their weed habit costs a Fukushima’s-worth of power every year.

Why? Because medical cannabis users seem to prefer the high they get from indoor-grown pot, not to mention the way it looks, smells and tastes–even if it’s helping to destroy the planet.

But the Tea House Collective, a group of growers including Kim and about two dozen other hippies and their families in southern Humboldt County, is trying to reconnect the medical pot world to the green movement. With offices in Berkeley, the collective has embarked on a farm-to-door delivery service throughout Northern California. The angle: nurture a niche for sustainably farmed, solar-powered, organically grown, high-potency, outdoor medical cannabis.

The only question is whether they’ll succeed in marketing and selling off-the-grid marijuana, grown the way it used to be.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Kim, twisting up a fatty. “But we do have really good weed.”

Taking It Inside

The roar of the air conditioning and fans inside this pitch-black Marin County grow room is constant–24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even though it’s a baking-hot, dry, 85-degree day outside, the air inside the growop is comfortably warm and slightly humid.

The aroma of ripening, high-potency cannabis saturates the entire air supply. Matthew Witemyre–chief of staff for the Bay Area collective Medi-Cone–turns on a handheld, green LED light, illuminating two spooky rows of about a dozen flowering medical marijuana plants. Behind a locked door on a property guarded by a retired cop, the green light reveals pregnant, white buds in the breezy darkness.

The lights must stay off because the finishing buds are on a timed cycle of light and darkness that makes them flower. This late in development, each fist-sized cola is sticky, dense and hard and glows an alien green in the LED light.

Medi-Cone is finishing off about a dozen huge plants of Trainwreck, Candy Kush and others in three grow rooms. The small collective grows, grinds, rolls and distributes pre-rolled joints to Bay Area dispensaries. In just a year, Medi-Cone has grown from serving 12 dispensaries to 40, and the vertically integrated collective strains to keep up with demand.

But that’s not its only problem, said Witemyre. There’s also the electricity bill. All these fans and air conditioners and lights consume thousands of dollars of juice per cycle. The PG&E bills have surprised the growing company, and it can’t get a commercial power rate.

But that doesn’t surprise Evan Mills, an energy analyst employed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California. Working independently this spring, the Ph.D revealed some startling statistics about indoor cannabis and the huge amounts of electricity it sucks up. Indoor pot cultivation generates about $5 billion in electricity bills per year in the US, he estimated, and most of that energy is wasted because growing indoors is 75 percent inefficient.

Mills calculated the carbon footprint of indoor pot and published it in an incendiary independent paper titled “Energy Up In Smoke: The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannabis Production.” A member of the International Panel on Climate Change, Mills cares about energy efficiency. He’s worked on everything from data centers to homes, to kerosene used for lighting in the developing world.

“I began noticing the hydroponic and indoor gardening stores popping up all over the place and discovered that the shelves were more densely packed with fans, lights and dehumidifiers than soils and fertilizers,” he wrote in an e-mail. “As a long-time energy analyst, I naturally began doing the math on how much energy was being used.”

According to federal drug statistics, the annual production of cannabis nationwide is an estimated 17,000 metric tons–with one-third of it being grown indoors. So Mills then modeled what an “average” 10-by-10 foot indoor growing module would produce (0.7 kilograms per cycle) and need in terms of power (2,698 kilowatt-hours per cycle). At an average of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour in Northern California, growing four indoor plants to harvest costs about $323 in electricity approximately every 90 days.

California’s indoor marijuana crop alone would fill 600,000 such grow modules–1.7 million for the nation, Mills estimated. With our current power supply mix, one Medi-Cone joint equals about two pounds of CO2 emissions. It’s like running a 100-watt light bulb for 17 hours.

The April paper exploded online, with dozens of blogs and newspapers, including The New York Times, mentioning Mills and the study. Mills says that some of the data he published has been misconstrued. “The media has really missed the story and misrepresented the analysis in many cases,” he said. “Nine out of 10 reports focused on who to blame rather than what to do about it. The blame often was placed on producers rather than consumers, which is always a dubious thing to do.”

Compared to other energy uses, indoor pot farming isn’t that bad, indoor cannabis defenders argue. Indoor pot only uses one-sixth as much electricity as household refrigerators, they contend.

But Mills responds: “I don’t have sympathy for cannabis advocates who say that the energy use is too small to worry about–it’s not.”

The most humorous reaction came from certain conservative climate-change deniers, he said. They were “stumbling over themselves to inadvertently acknowledge the fact of climate change so that they could then blame [pot-smoking] ‘liberals’ for the [climate] problem and claim that the oil companies should be let off the hook.”

“Professionally this has been very exciting,” Mills concluded. “It is rare in this day and age that you come across an energy end use that has never been measured, and then to find that it represents something like 8 percent of California’s residential electricity use.”

Mills’ analysis also turned the stomachs of many die-hard environmentalists in Humboldt County. Because, in a way, they knew they helped create the problem.

Presence of a Pot Farm

Weed cultivation has become something like Humboldt’s version of the legendary golem: once the creative pride of the region, now an unstoppable force that threatens their way of life. Just ask Kym Kemp–author of the southern Humboldt blog “Redheaded Blackbelt,” which covers the growing culture there. A native and a lifer, Kemp’s family has been in the area since the late 1850s.

Pot growing was part of the sixties and seventies back-to-the-land movement, she said. Hippie gardeners crossed American native sativas and imported Hindu Kush indicas and got faster growth, earlier flowering and serious highs.

Local growers became super successful at adapting the plants, and dope became the economic engine of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties, she said. In the eighties, the federal Campaign Against Marijuana Planting and its famous helicopters only succeeded in driving growers indoors.

Using street lights for sun and media like hydroponic rock wool for soil, indoor weed became perversely stronger. Untethered to any need for soil or sun, the Emerald Triangle’s potent indoor dope growing practices then spread like an invasive species.

And just as “hydro” practices moved south from Humboldt, the state began to see a rolling back of decades of pot prohibition: Proposition 215 in 1996; Assembly Bill 420 in 2004; Attorney General Jerry Brown’s guidelines in 2008; numerous court victories; the Obama administration’s “Ogden” Memo in 2009; and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signing of a bill to downgrade possession of marijuana to an infraction in 2010 have taken the risk out of the federally illegal weed.

In addition, the Great Recession, coupled with the collapse of the construction industry, has prompted nearly every half-bright pot aficionado to come up with the same idea at the same time: Grow it.

Hydro is a feature in almost every neighborhood in Northern California now. Billboards from San Francisco to Humboldt advertise hydroponic supplies, such as chemical nutrients, plastic hosing, high-intensity discharge lighting, fans, air conditioning and water tanks.

Perhaps tens of thousands of people–many from the cratered real estate industry–have entered the California business of growing dope. The medical marijuana industry alone in California is now estimated at $1.3 billion per year. Perhaps one out of 40 homes in the city of Oakland has an indoor garden, as measured by the number of fire department calls per year featuring the presence of a pot farm.

But the fact that seemingly everyone in California took to indoor growing didn’t cause the rugged Humboldters to retire. They reloaded.