Illegal grow ops: one of Colorado’s greatest environmental problems, sustained by federal prohibition
Mother Nature is paying the price of prohibition
Growing pot can be hard on the environment, even when it’s being done legally and according to state regulations. Despite laws that require the use of energy efficient equipment, prohibit the use of toxic fertilizers and pesticides, and limit waste, the business of operating a cannabis grow operation can be a dirty one.
Even when it’s technically “clean.”
But on the illegal side of things, the problem is much worse. Because, more often than not, the people who run illegal grow ops don’t give two flying shits about the state’s sustainability standards. They’re already breaking the law, growing cannabis to sell on the black market. Why break the bank trying follow environmental regulations?
And it does break the bank. Things are hard out there for the legal cannabis growers. The price of pot has been steadily and drastically plummeting in every state where it has been recreationally legalized. It’s gone from as much as $4,400 a pound, to less than $800, slicing into the margin of profit most growers got into the business expecting to maintain.
On top of that, the state is enforcing stricter and stricter environmental standards and cities like Denver and Boulder have set lofty sustainability goals (both determining to reduce their carbon footprint by 80 percent by 2050). This has put a crunch on cannabis growers across the Front Range, pressuring many into a difficult choice: fork over the dough, streamline efficiency and reduce waste at your own expense, in order to continue selling cannabis to a market that’s paying less and less for it…
Or, start an illegal grow op, throw caution and environmental ethics to the wind and start shipping your product across state lines, to get the biggest bang for your buck.
For many, that’s a hard decision. Especially considering the financial incentives behind illegally growing cannabis: it’s easier, it’s cheaper, there’s less paperwork to fill out and no certifications, qualifications, or safety standards to deal with.
On the other hand, there is a price for growing pot illegally. One that Mother Nature herself is paying:
Illegal grow operations in Colorado account for 75 percent of the total energy used in the state to grow cannabis.
To put that into perspective, in 2017 alone, that number was 201,000 megawatt-hours of electricity and is expected to rise to 257,400 MWh by 2022. Two thirds of which is coming from illegal operations. Just in Denver, grow ops account 4 percent of the cities total energy use. And that is not trivial.
“There's obviously energy impacts,” says Kaitlin Urso, an environmental consultant with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “They're using great electricity to power lights to power each back and cooling dehumidifier station. You know, these [indoor grow operations] are running AC units in the winter just to keep up with some of the loads from the plants.”
That was something that "Erik" (an illegal grower, whose name we've changed for anonymity) backed up. Erik used to grow between 50 and 100 plants in his basement, which he would then sell to friends who would move them across state lines.
Erik admits that while he was growing, his electricity use was off the charts.
"Xcel used to include these graphs with your power bill, like, how your electricity use compares with your neighbor's," says Erik. "It was hilarious. I was always 100 worst out of 100 neighbors. And by a lot."
Of course, water is a huge factor in all of this, too.
Many times, illegal grow ops are poaching their water (stealing it from a water supply that isn’t theirs and that they don’t pay to access), or using more than they’re legally allowed to. In states like Colorado and California, that suffer often and seriously from droughts almost every summer, this presents a real problem.
Particularly if these illegal growers are also poisoning the water supply they’re poaching from…
Fertilizers, pesticides, rodenticides, fungicides, herbicides and other chemical agents that are prohibited by state law are used frequently on these operations. These chemicals are often cheaper and can be used to generate more product faster at illegal grow ops.
But they can also cause massive damage to an ecosystem if they leech into the water or soil, potentially killing off fish, insects, birds and native vegetation in droves.
“There’s also the issue of effluent, since [growers] treat the plants with quite a bit of nutrients,” says Urso. “Some are just kind of overloading the plants with nutrients… so there's sometimes a high nutrient load in their wastewater effluent. Any pesticides that they use also can end up in trace amounts in the effluent too.”
That is an unavoidable aspect of growing cannabis, but one that is always more damaging when it’s being done by illegal growers. Illegal growers often won’t dispose of wastewater effluent properly and they’re usually using chemicals that are illegal and toxic to begin with.
Large outdoor grow ops require massive amounts of irrigation utilities, plastic hosing and produce tons of garbage (particularly since illegal growers often live on the operation, either camping or living in temporary housing). But so do smaller scale, indoor grow ops.
And, if the operation is illegal, you can probably bet that their methods for waste management are too. A lot of garbage at illegal grow ops is burned, or dumped illegally, further polluting the air and environment.
A pollutive product of prohibition
Despite the evironmental impacts that growing cannabis illegally clearly has, Erik remained adament that he and his illegal-peers maintain an air of environmental consciousness throughout their work.
"A lot of us underground growers are super environmentally responsible — a lot of us are hippies," Erik says. "And when I hear The Man saying, like, 'illegal grows hurt the environment,' I think they're just looking for an excuse to raid us and shut us down. What they're actually mad about is that we're not paying taxes."
Maybe there is some truth to that. Maybe "The Man" doesn't actually care whether or not illegal grow ops are hard on the environment. Maybe the only reason give a damn is because they aren't getting their cut.
But whether or not the government cares for the right reasons, doesn't change the fact that illegal grow ops are, by nature, really hard on Colorado's environment.
So, what’s the solution to all this? Clearly people are using legal cannabis as a cover to grow cannabis illegally to their own profit. They’re trashing the environment, poisoning the water supply and using massive amounts of energy to do so. How do we stop them?
Well, there’s probably more than a few people out there who are imagining this as a problem of legalization. “If you Coloradans hadn’t legalized the devil’s grass in the first place, you wouldn’t be having these issues!” they might argue.
But truly, this is a pollutive product of prohibition at a federal level. The only reason there’s a market for these illegal growers to sell to, is because there are states that haven’t jumped on board, because the federal government isn’t willing to reschedule cannabis. If the feds were to decriminalize it nationally, black markets across the country would dry up.
There’s a reason America doesn’t have a problem with bootleggers anymore. It’s because the federal government ended the prohibition of alcohol nationally and it scuttled the black market for beer and liquor.
The situation with pot is no different — it’s just that the environmental consequences of cannabis prohibition are far greater.