By Jackie Roman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory as part of the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project.
Smrita Choubey left her corporate job to follow in the footsteps of her family in India by bringing together farming and traditional healing. So, she jumped into New Jersey’s budding cannabis industry.
But, she didn’t want to be one of the big indoor growers who “use as much electricity as a whole town.” She wanted to grow her weed outside on a Warren County farm, using the sun and rain.
That was five years ago.
Choubey has been held up fighting for local and state permits to grow cannabis outdoors — a method of weed production that farmers and researchers say creates less environmental pollution and uses significantly less energy.
One year into the legal cannabis industry, there are still no outdoor cannabis farms in New Jersey. In an industry where barriers to entry are already notoriously high, Choubey said there are few people willing to spend the time and money to try to get permission to cultivate outdoors, despite its sustainability and benefits to the environment.
“We’re the only ones — because it’s so hard,” Choubey said.
For a product long associated with the social and environmental justice movement, cannabis actually creates a lot of environmental pollution, experts say. Studies have found the production and distribution of cannabis requires a substantial amount of energy, emits greenhouse gases and generates significant waste with plastic product packaging.
“Cannabis is really meant to be grown outdoors, to be the most sustainable,” said Robert Mejia, adjunct professor of cannabis studies at Stockton University.
There are places where cannabis grows wild — Northern California, Mexico, Jamaica, Panama — and that’s really where the plant is meant to grow outdoors, Mejia said.
“So, what happens in a lot of the different states that have similar weather to New Jersey, is that we grow it indoors, and as soon as you bring it indoors, you’re bringing in a lot of issues with sustainability,” Mejia said.
Indoor cannabis cultivation is energy-consuming, mainly due to heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and lighting needed to grow the plant indoors. A typical industrial grow facility can be the size of several football fields and have thousands of plants at various stages of growth in a warehouse-like building lined with fans, bright lights and irrigation equipment.
The average industrial facility is also likely to pump in thousands of gallons of water a day. All of the energy consumption leaves a sizable carbon footprint, researchers say.
Indoor cannabis cultivation in the U.S. results in greenhouse gas emissions of between 2,283 and 5,184 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of dried flower, a 2021 research study by University of Colorado researchers found.
It’s unclear how much power and water New Jersey’s legal cannabis industry has been using since it was legalized last year and expanded to 17 growers. The state Board of Public Utilities does not track energy utilization for the cannabis industry specifically, a spokesman said.
The Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which regulates the state’s medical and recreational marijuana industries, does not collect the data either. But, the governing body does attempt to minimize environmental impact through its regulations, a spokeswoman said.
License holders are required to “implement a plan to increase sustainability in its operations” that may include: a waste reduction plan, a water usage reduction plan, sustainable packaging or the use of renewable power.
Although there are no outdoor farms growing legal weed in the state, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission is not against it and welcomes the idea, officials said.
“We understand that outdoor cultivation is less expensive, more sustainable, and more environmentally friendly. Our regulations allow for outdoor grow, and we would look forward to seeing licensed cultivation businesses start growing outdoors,” said Christene Carr, the commission’s spokeswoman.
In other states, researchers say the cannabis industry is leaving a big environmental footprint.
Indoor cannabis cultivation facilities in Massachusetts, where recreational marijuana has been legal since 2016, are responsible for 10% of all the state’s industrial electricity use, according to the Northeast Sustainable Cannabis Project.
“So, this means that just as other industries are working hard to curtail their climate impact, energy-intensive indoor cannabis has come along to undermine the Massachusetts goal of reducing greenhouse gasses emitted,” said Sanford Lewis, general counsel for the Northeast Sustainable Cannabis Project, in a 2021 interview with Worcester Business Journal.
A study in the Journal of Cannabis Research also found that cannabis plants emit a significant amount of biogenic volatile organic compounds, which could cause indoor air quality issues.
But, growing outdoors presents its own set of problems. Odor is a major reason for community skepticism around marijuana cultivation facilities, both indoor and outdoor, industry officials say.
Earlier this year, the township council in Galloway in Atlantic County declined to provide a letter of support to a hopeful outdoor cultivator hoping to get a license from state marijuana regulators. The denial followed residents’ concerns about the odor that could come from a marijuana farm, the Press of Atlantic City reported.
Security, soil erosion, water diversion and chemical runoff are among the other concerns frequently cited by opponents to outdoor grow.
Waiting for the green light
Choubey, the entrepreneur hoping to start a farm in Warren County, said she addressed many of the concerns about outdoor marijuana farming while appearing before the land use board in Frelinghuysen in December. She was asking for a land use variance to grow cannabis on a property in the township.
She is in the final stages of purchasing 254 acres of farmland in Frelinghuysen, a township with many farms and a population of roughly 2,000 people, according to the latest census. The farm will serve as headquarters for her holistic wellness company, Veda Farms, which aims to harness the medicinal uses of cannabis.
Choubey was born and raised in suburban New Jersey, but her family has owned farmland in India since the 1800s. They taught her an appreciation for ancient medicinal practices, such as Ayurveda, which focuses on a natural and holistic approach to wellness, she said. Growing marijuana outdoors in a pesticide-free, organic environment is a central part of Choubey’s business philosophy.
“We want to revive the ancient medical uses of cannabis,” Choubey said.
Over the course of 12 hours and three public meetings, Choubey explained the mission of Veda Farms and provided public testimony on the biggest concerns with the outdoor growing of weed. Afterward, she was approved for a land use variance to grow cannabis on 3 acres of her farm.
But, Choubey still has obstacles to face before she can put plants in the ground. She needs to go back to the land use board for site approval and then get a resolution passed by the township committee explicitly allowing Veda Farms to grow cannabis outdoors. Frelinghuysen’s township ordinance currently only allows indoor and greenhouse cultivation.
Simultaneously, Choubey is still in the process of getting Veda Farms fully licensed by the state Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
It has been frustrating, she admits. While she’s spent years trying to get permission to grow cannabis on an environmentally-friendly outdoor site, Choubey has seen others get licensed to build one-acre farms indoors with hundreds of lights and water-intensive hydroponics.
“Can you imagine the electricity use?” Choubey asks. “Why are we doing that when the sunshine is free?”
Despite the lengthy process, Choubey said she remains hopeful.
“I do think that they want to work with me, but everyone is figuring this out from scratch,” Choubey said.
The introduction of a new waste stream
Growing marijuana in New Jersey is nothing new. Cannabis has long been grown illegally in gardens, window sills, basements and in remote areas.
But, it became legal to sell marijuana for medicinal purposes in 2010 and for recreational use to adults last year. The new industry came with a complex set of regulations.
Cannabis businesses must apply for a license with the Cannabis Regulatory Commission in order to engage in any commercial cannabis activity, including growing plants and selling products. New Jersey is one of the few states with legal weed that does not allow people to grow marijuana at home. It remains a felony to grow cannabis without a license.
New Jersey’s regulations include few rules about how sustainable commercial growers must be or how much electricity and water they can use.
In the same year New Jersey implemented what is widely considered the country’s strictest ban on plastic bags in an effort to cut down on single-use plastics, the state also launched a new industry that introduced a whole new waste stream of single-use plastics.
Practically every cannabis product comes in a plastic package, whether it’s a cartridge, edibles, or just a plain flower. This is largely due to the strict health and safety regulations around cannabis that require specific labeling and tamper-resistant packaging, industry officials say.
New Jersey cannabis law states all packaging for cannabis items must: be fully enclosed, opaque, of a single color, and light resistant; be child-resistant; protect the product from contamination; and be able to be resealed in a child-resistant manner unless the package contains a single serving cannabis item.
Dispensaries must also place all purchases inside a separate bag before a customer can leave the store with their cannabis products.
A report from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, Canada’s major public broadcasting company, found that for each gram of cannabis sold in that country, as much as 70 grams of plastic waste was generated.
In 2018, Canada’s first year of legalization, it’s estimated that between 12.7 million and 14.1 million pounds of plastic from cannabis packaging ended up in landfills, according to a study from environmental services company [Re] Waste.
Users who want to limit their waste by buying in bulk will find it impossible, given regulations only allow dispensaries to sell someone the equivalent of one ounce of cannabis. And recycling is complicated by the added cost of decontaminating containers before re-use.
Addressing weed’s environmental impact
In New Jersey, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission “attempts to address environmental impacts through its regulations,” a spokeswoman said.
Prospective cannabis businesses are required to submit an “environmental impact plan.” Additionally, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission requires a license holder to properly dispose of cannabis waste and hazardous waste.
The requirement for an environmental impact plan is important, but it’s not the same as industry-wide requirements and environmental standards, said cannabis consultant Spencer Belz.
“As we have seen with other things that these companies are doing, there’s easy ways to make it seem like they’re moving forward but not actually doing anything. Or they’ve done the research and there’s just no viable options for them,” said Belz, owner of Last Mile Cannabis Consulting.
Some of the biggest sellers of legal cannabis in New Jersey — Curaleaf, Ascend Wellness Holdings, and RISE parent company Green Thumb Industries — either did not respond to inquiries about their sustainability efforts or declined to comment. But all three companies have information about sustainability efforts on their websites.
Curaleaf, the largest grower and seller of legal cannabis in New Jersey and one of the biggest in the nation, is auditing its practices to identify new areas for improvement and “partnering with consultants to find eco-driven solutions to lighten our footprint,” according to the company’s website.
Ascend Wellness Holdings is using biodegradable packaging for the second phase of its new product line—Simply Herb, according to a press release. And Green Thumb Industries has environmental stewardship initiatives focused on creating new sustainable packaging and using less energy.
But in order to harvest true sustainability in the cannabis industry, Belz said, “the CRC or the state government itself should absolutely impose some regulations on these operations.”
When asked if the Cannabis Regulatory Commission plans to add tougher environmental requirements on the cannabis industry, a spokeswoman said the governing body addresses environmental impacts through its regulations.
Though companies must present a sustainability plan, the commission does not currently offer any incentives for the cannabis industry to save energy, reduce waste or minimize pollution, a spokeswoman confirmed.
Through New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program, new indoor horticulture facilities can receive incentives for installing energy efficient measures. But, there are no programs specifically and solely for cannabis facilities, a spokesman said.
State laws require that at least 70% of all tax revenue from recreational cannabis sales be earmarked for investment in “impact zones,” defined as cities with high crime indexes and unemployment rates for their population. But, none of that money goes toward sustainability programs or environmental research, officials said.
“There’s plenty of waste in all corners of capitalism in the world. And the cannabis industry is supposed to be different than the rest,” Belz said.
This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory as part of the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project.