Friday, July 17, 2015

A Day at the Annual Cannabis Business Summit, Part I

To get a sense of how legal cannabis farmers are thinking about and growing their crop, I recently spent a day at the National Cannabis Industry Association's (NCIA) second annual Summit and Expo at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. Since it was a pretty long day, I'm doing my readers a favor and breaking it up into two posts - one before lunch and one after.

NCIA calls itself "the voice of the cannabis industry."
I had heard about the expo from David Rice, cannabis farmer and founder of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association (WSIA). Rice's organization, like similar ones in Oregon and California, seeks to unite and be the voice of growers lobbying for an environmentally sustainable industry and for regulation that treats cannabis as a crop instead of purely as a drug. Two weeks earlier, over a spotty cell phone connection from the rolling hills of Northern California, Rice told me he was part of a panel for one of the expo's workshops and invited me to attend.

When I inquired about a press pass, an NCIA rep practically hurled one at me across cyberspace. On day one, June 29, I arrived at the convention center a few minutes after registration opened at 8:30 a.m. The registration line was already long. As I shuffled to the end, a woman filing in behind me asked if she was in the right line, and I confirmed. Her employer, a Nevada investment firm, sent her to scout out the industry for potential business opportunities. Based on the seventy or so people already in line - a generally well-dressed amalgam of growers, aspiring growers, lawyers, consultants, and reps from lighting, construction, and who knows how many other companies - I figured she would leave with plenty of options.

The registration line for the NCIA expo on June 29, 2015 in Denver. 

After picking up my registration materials, I was directed to the end of a second line to get my name badge electronically tethered to the sessions I'd registered for. Not being familiar with this process, I hadn't registered for any, but it turned out that the press pass allowed me to attend all of the workshops. Nice, I thought - though I already knew where I would spend my time. There were two workshops on the schedule for day one that seemed to directly address growing practices: one in the morning on greenhouse system design, and Rice and co.'s four-hour afternoon panel on directing the cannabis industry toward environmental sustainability.

About eighty people attended the first workshop on greenhouse systems, filling out the eight long rows of tables and chairs that faced the panel's stage in a dimly lit conference room. They came from all over the country - Hawaii, Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were all represented - and a man sitting next to me in the front row came all the way from Australia. The title of the three-hour workshop - "Complete Cultivation System Design Process" - sounded about as thrilling as pencil lead; fortunately, the panelists had many interesting things to say and the audience didn't seem to lose interest. Panelists included three reps from a greenhouse company - the company's founder, a thermal environment specialist, and a water systems specialist - a  lawyer, and a greenhouse construction consultant.

Some highlights from workshop #1

Zev Ilovitz, founder of Evirotech Greenhouses, said greenhouses can be 30-50% more efficient than growing indoors.

 1) Legally growing pot for money is not as easy as it sounds

"Compliance  should inform every single decision you make," advised Charles Smith, an attorney from New York who has plenty of experience with grower-clients. "This is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme. The idea that there are marijuana millionaires popping up all the time is just a farce, and has been promoted, I think irresponsibly, by the media."

After a Google search turned up this, this, this, and this, it's pretty hard to argue with Smith's last point. The hype and media attention gleaned by a handful of successful cannabis entrepreneurs obscures the reality: the cannabis industry is hyper-competitive, hyper-regulated, and comes with a 40 percent chance of failure - about 10 percent higher than new businesses in other industries.

2) Greenhouses require an insane amount of startup money - but are worth it in the long run

If you want to build your own cannabis greenhouse, you're gonna need about $4 to $5 million. That's because unlike warehouse growing, where the grower rents or buys an existing structure on  previously developed land, a modern, large-scale greenhouse operation is literally built from the ground up: growers need to find an empty piece of land with the right water and electric hookups, and then either build their own greenhouse or have one built on top of it.

However, because it is more energy efficient, the greenhouse is guaranteed to be more financially sustainable than a warehouse grow, which is cheaper to start up but comes with electric bills that can soar to tens of thousands of dollars per month.

3) Greenhouses appear to be the solution to environmentally degrading cannabis growth

The efficiency of greenhouses is going to force cannabis out of basements and warehouses, possibly for good. "As people move to greenhouses, the industry will have to move to that to compete," said Zev Ilovitz, founder of Envirotech Greenhouse Solutions and a former cannabis farmer himself. "I don't see what the future is for indoor cultivation."

Greenhouses do require supplemental lighting to keep the plants on the 12-hour light cycle during the flowering phase. However, Kurt Parbst, Envirotech's thermal environment expert, said that the amount of necessary supplemental lighting depends on climate - dry, sunny climates such as Colorado's require far less lighting than say, Seattle's or Albany's. This suggests that if the industry does move to greenhouse grows, growers in some states may have a slight advantage over others. Indoor growers all have access to the same lighting technology, so this is currently not the case.

Energy isn't the only area where greenhouses are superbly efficient. Eric Labatte is a Canadian water systems guru based in Ontario, an area with the highest density of vegetable greenhouses in North America. He explained in mind-numbing detail the workings of a high-tech, closed-circuit irrigation system that amounted to damn near 0 percent runoff.

I thought of all the water wasted by growers who illegally divert streams in Northern California, and realized that not only is it important for growers to adopt these new systems, but it's also imperative that politicians create subsidies and other incentives to shunt the industry in that direction. If the industry keeps flourishing the way it is now, the future of the parched western American landscape may depend on it.

...and that was lunch. I'll have more from my day at the NCIA expo soon.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Greenhouses will solve Denver's pot-related energy woes

The Denver Post's Cannabist section reports that cannabis growing facilities, most of which are indoor, are responsible for 45 percent of an annual 1.2-percent increase in the city's electricity use since 2012:
Denver's indoor cannabis grows are using too much electricity.
"Colorado’s marijuana sector, in particular, is growing rapidly, relying on electricity to run lights that stimulate plant growth, as well as air-conditioning and dehumidifiers. The lights emit heat, raising demand for air conditioning, which requires more electricity."
 And how do Denver officials plan on solving this problem?
"Southwest Energy Efficiency Project director Howard Geller said new adjustable light-emitting diode (LED) lights have emerged that don’t put out heat. Companies installing these wouldn’t require so much air-cooling and could cut electricity use, Geller said."
Oh, of course! That's a brilliant solution! I was going to suggest moving away from lights entirely and using the sun, but it's not like Colorado gets 300 DAYS OF FREE SUNSHINE each year or anything. And don't even try to tell me that greenhouses are like, 75 percent more efficient than indoor facilities, because that's certainly impossible.

Mr. Geller's proposed solution of unplugging inefficient lights just to plug in less inefficient lights may indeed help warehouse growers cut costs, but as the director of a regional energy efficiency program he should be pushing to have this crop grown under the sun. A simple Google search using the  words "cannabis greenhouses efficient" will turn up all the evidence any official needs to start guiding the industry in that direction.

Cannabis growing in a greenhouse with supplementary lighting.
And if recent trends continue, the industry won't need much of a push; just last week at the National Cannabis Industry Association's annual expo in downtown Denver, there were multiple workshops and talks pushing greenhouses and environmentally sustainable cultivation as the next big move for the industry.

It's not just about high energy bills. Plants that receive intense heat and direct light from inefficient lighting are more stressed out and are more vulnerable to insect infestations, which ups the need for pesticides, another costly input for cannabis farmers. This is what greenhouse engineer Eric Brandstad, of Forever Flowering Greenhouses, calls "growing against the grain," or growing methods that run counter to the plant's needs. Greenhouses, by contrast, diffuse the direct rays of the sun across an entire crop, encouraging healthy photosynthesis.

Many NCIA members support sustainable cannabis growth.
"When plants are grown healthy, not against the grain, they actually will resist pests," said Brandstad, speaking as part of a panel on environmentally sustainable cannabis cultivation at the NCIA expo on June 29.

So far, the only downside to greenhouse grows is the high startup cost, as purchasing and prepping land for a highly efficient greenhouse is more expensive than renting or buying an old warehouse.

Most greenhouse growers also use supplementary lighting to keep their plants on the 12-hour light cycle required to induce faster flowering; here is where Geller's suggestion of using more efficient lights would be most useful. In addition, according to greenhouse expert Zev Ilnocki of Envirotech Solutions, Colorado's sunny climate minimizes the need for supplementary lighting, so growers in the Centennial State stand to save more on those costs than growers in cloudier regions such as the Pacific Northwest.

Colorado already has several greenhouse grows in operation, and if the current pulse of the industry is any indication, there will be many more to follow. The reason is simple: greenhouses are better for the plants, better for the growers, and better for the environment.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Highlights from Oregon's Cannabis past

Today cannabis is officially legal in Oregon. Before today, the only Oregonians who could legally use cannabis were those registered with the state's medical cannabis system, which was approved in 1998; they could possess up to six plants and 24 ounces of dried cannabis. Now, possession and growth of the herb are legal, but there is not yet a legal way to buy it.

The full legalization initiative, Measure 91, was approved by 56 percent of Oregonians in the midterm elections on November 4, 2014; similar measures made cannabis legal in Alaska and Washington, D.C. The Oregon state legislature has spent months developing regulations for the new industry, and just yesterday sent a bill to Governor Kate Brown's desk that does the following:
  • Limits the size of existing medical cannabis grows beyond cities to 96 plants and grows in urban neighborhoods to 24 plants. New growers in both locations will only be allowed to grow half as many. Under the medical cannabis system, growers could only grow enough cannabis to supply four patients, which amounted to 24 plants, 72 seedlings, and six pounds of the dried product.

  • Allows city and county governments in eastern Oregon, where Measure 91 received the least support, to shut out the cannabis industry altogether. In the rest of the state, voters have to approve any attempts to ban the industry.

  • Bans edible packaging that is deemed attractive to children

  • Establishes mandatory standard testing procedures for pesticides, molds, and mildews

  • Restricts industry employment to residents who have lived in Oregon for at least two years, but allows out-of-state investors.

  • Tracks the product of retail growers from seed to sale and requires growers to file reports on their inventory
As Oregonians shake off the shackles of prohibition and take a toke or two in celebration, here's a look back at some interesting moments in Oregon's cannabis history:

1876 - The drug importer Craddock & Co. places an ad for "Cannabis indica" in Hillsboro, Oregon's Washington Independent. The Philadelphia-based firm calls the herb "the Great East India Remedy" and claims it is "warranted to cure Consumption, Bronchitis and Asthma." Price per bottle: $2.50.

1895 - In a public call for supplies, the board of trustees for the Oregon state insane asylum requests "1 pound granulated cannabis indica" under "Drug Supplies."

1915 - Hashish in Portland

Although it wasn't too popular, drug cannabis was imported from Great Britain (which imported it from India) and sold in drugstores throughout the United States in the late nineteenth century. On March 3, 1915, The Morning Oregonian ran a story about four drug stores in Portland's business district that were found to be selling "hashish" to youths between the ages of 11 and 18.

On May 22, the Oregonian ran a news brief that discussed an "ordinance prohibiting the sale of hashish, an opiate said to have found its way to the Portland market." Though the newspaper incorrectly identified cannabis as an opiate, it at least gave the proper official name, "cannabis indica."

1920 - A Mrs. Dolores "Fernands" - likely a misspelling of "Fernandes" or "Fernandez" - is arrested in Portland after plucking "a large fruit box"'s worth of cannabis from a plant that apparently sprung up near Union Station. She then sold a small quantity of it to a "Maxinieno Mendez" for $1.35. The police told The Morning Oregonian that the weed gives the smoker "a laughing jag."

1966 - This happened:

1973 - Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize cannabis, reducing the penalty for possession of up to one ounce to a $100 fine.

1998 - 54 percent of Oregon voters approve medical cannabis via Ballot Measure 67.

Oregon readers may know of more events that should be included here; if you are one of those readers, please let me know in the comments what else I should add!

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Hempiricist Asks for Your Help

Projections for first month of Crowdfunding campaign.

And now comes the point where I humbly petition my one-time visitors (the majority of my readership here), as well as the few people who have nothing better to do than read this blog regularly, for a pittance to help fund my research activities this summer.

I'm asking for a few bucks here and there to pay for food, fuel, and (modest) lodging as I make my way from Denver to Oakland to Medford, OR, and back again.

As part of my ongoing investigation of modern Cannabis agriculture and its effects on the natural environment, I will be traveling to:
  • Oaksterdam University, the Cannabis-growing school in Oakland, CA, to observe a class on modern Cannabis horticulture,  and 
  • to the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon to walk the hills of one of the nation's lesser-known weed-growing regions (Northern California, after all, gets all the press). There I will meet with an archaeologist with whom I will co-author an article on the history of Cannabis culture in Southern Oregon, as well as interview local growers and mine local libraries for historical documents.
My wife and I just purchased a new vehicle so that we could both remain functionally apart as she travels across Colorado on medical rotations for her Physician's Assistant program. The extra set of wheels makes this trip possible, but my part-time income from a local non-profit does little more than pay the bills (although I am extremely grateful for it). 

So please, if you have both the will and the spare change to help me make this book the best it can be, throw some coin at my GoFundMe campaign or my Paypal Account (by clicking on the "Donate" button to the right).

Thank you!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Bruce Barcott, Weed the People (2015)

I have spent more than two years on this blog lobbying for people to see cannabis as a plant instead of a drug. That’s why I was delirious with joy when I read the following realization that journalist Bruce Barcott had during a talk with a grower for his recent book Weed the People:
“I tuned him out because at that moment it occurred to me I had never been in the presence of a live marijuana plant. What an odd thing. I’d been living for nearly half a century in a nation obsessed with marijuana … and had never, ever come face to face with the actual living plant itself. That struck me as completely insane. Because you know what? It’s not a nuclear warhead. It’s not a deadly virus. It’s a plant.” (p. 106-7)
Thank you, sir! 

Anyone who doesn’t know how to feel about the rising tide of cannabis legalization in the United States should read Barcott’s book, because he is right there with you. Or rather, he was, before he finished Weed the People. As Barcott points out, weed in America is a lot like gay marriage in America; the younger generations consider the legalization of both common sense, but it has taken the older generations a few more years to recover from their indoctrinated stupor and let exposure and experience guide them into the light.

Through his well-balanced, thoroughly researched, and highly compelling book, Barcott offers just such a re-education. His success rests partly on the fact that while researching Weed the People, Barcott underwent the same re-education, the same dissolution of his preconceptions against cannabis and those who use it, that many of his readers are likely to experience. 

But make no mistake, Weed the People is no narcissistic trot through its author’s epiphany; rather, the brilliance of the book lies in Barcott’s ability to bring his own thoughts, reflections, and prejudices into honest dialogue with the reality he finds in the field. 

And—this is shocking for a pot book written by a journalist—there is plenty of reality in Weed the People. It is an outstanding work of journalism that covers nearly all the current issues in a refreshingly responsible and un-sensationalist way: The “weed is great” crowd will love the first 12 chapters, in which Barcott details the medical utility of the plant, his own experience getting a medical card and making his first sweaty, anxiety-ridden legal weed purchase, and all the unjust evils that have befallen the plant and its champions over the ages. But that same crowd will undoubtedly wince at chapters 13-16, in which he puts the “100-percent safe” myth directly to bed by examining the very real and very concerning evidence surrounding cannabis’s effects on young minds and the mentally ill. 

But Barcott is no prohibitionist. At one point he has dinner with Kevin Sabet, the leader of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (pp. 168-71). SAM is perhaps the nation’s largest anti-pot group, pushing for a complete rollback of legalization in states where it has occurred. Barcott hears Sabet out over some pork shoulder and tries to point out the flaws in Sabet’s claim that, since nobody is getting arrested for joints anymore, legalization doesn’t need to happen (the main flaw is that thousands of people—a disproportionate amount of them black—still do get arrested for possession, with real consequences for their loved ones and life chances). 

When he realizes that Sabet wants to hear none of this, Barcott does the right thing, if not the “objective” thing—he tosses Sabet and his ideas right into the dustbin of cannabis ideology. No more print space for you, Kevin. Barcott wastes little time with prohibitionists in his book. As he should—they are truly a dying breed, and it’s time more journalists stopped giving their arguments print space and airtime. 

The book clocks in a bit long at 317 pages, and there are too many chapters (30). But I found myself so engrossed in Barcott’s straightforward and oft-hilarious writing that I hardly noticed how many of those chapters I was blazing through. Barcott also does something that more journalists need to start doing—he balances concern for the negative effects of cannabis with facts and figures on alcohol and other drugs, arguing that “we need to consider marijuana within the context of other inebriating substances and their effects on society” (p. 241).

I mentioned that Barcott covered nearly all the current cannabis-related issues, and one that he left out is hugely important: the environment. There are some 30,000 cannabis grows in Northern California, most of them unregulated and environmentally destructive. In Colorado regulations make it nearly impossible to grow outdoors, using natural light instead of fossil fuel-burning electricity. It takes two-three pounds of CO2 emissions to produce a single joint. Barcott points out none of this in his book; the closest he comes to it is when he asks a large warehouse grower in Denver how much he spends on electricity each month (p. 141). This struck me as a bit surprising—isn’t Barcott from Seattle, one of the most environmentally conscious places on Earth?

Nevertheless, Weed the People is a journalistic triumph, one that will likely convince many people still on the fence about pot legalization that OK, yes, he’s right, we need to be more rational and regulate this stuff. In that, Bruce Barcott has done a favor for not only himself but also for the majority of level-headed Americans who are sick and tired of mainstream lies and failed drug policies. The legalization movement owes him a "thank you."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mapping Cannabis Cultivation in California, 1900-1960

Thanks to a plethora of books, articles, documentaries, and TV and radio stories, many people across the country know Northern California as the hotbed of cannabis agriculture in the Golden State. Today, the region is home to an estimated 30,000 grow sites. But before the Back-to-the-Landers seeded a revolution in the redwood-covered hills during the 1960s and '70s, nearly all California-grown cannabis came from the farms, ranches, cities, and suburbs from Sacramento on south.

The following maps show a total of 142 instances of cannabis cultivation in California from 1900-1960; of those, 75 instances were reported between 1950 and 1960. The map on the left shows cultivation sites from c. 1900-1950 (the colors mark the decade but aren't relevant in this post), and the map on the right shows sites from 1950-1960. Note the relatively scarce amount of reports on Cannabis cultivation over the first half of the twentieth century (left), as well as the conspicuous absence of cultivation in Northern California throughout both periods:

These maps also demonstrate an important shift in the location of cannabis cultivation, from rural sites such as farms and ranches to urban and suburban sites such as backyards, gardens, and parks.

Zoomed-in versions of these maps more clearly demonstrate the shift. First, the map of cultivation sites from 1900-1950. Note the sporadic locations of sites in the rural Central Valley, as well as on the outskirts of cities such as Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles:

Now, the map of the 75 reports on Cannabis growth from 1950-1960. Note the lack of reports from the rural Central Valley, as cultivation sites (as well as instances of natural growth) clustered in the San Francisco and Los Angeles Metropolitan Areas. The high density of cultivation reports in both locales reflects an emerging cannabis culture amongst the rapid urbanization and population growth after World War II:

Cannabis cultivation was prevalent in many urban areas across the country during this period, from New York City to Chicago to Denver. But as opposed to other states, whose populations of cannabis users, dealers, and growers were dominated by the working class, California's sunny climate and rampant growth translated into people from all walks of life trying their hand at cannabis cultivation; growers included Hollywood actors, middle-class couples and beatniks, and suburban teenagers, as well as members of the working class.

During the late 1960s a number of factors, including increasing urban crime rates and the decline of urban counterculture enclaves such as San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood, many young counterculturals left the cities for the countryside. A great many of them headed north and ended up in the rugged hills and dense forests of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties; in these remote areas, some began to experiment with cannabis growing for personal use or to make a living. In time they and their descendants would build an entire cannabis-based economy, leading to the region's current nickname, the Emerald Triangle.

All maps copyright 2015 by Nick Johnson. Map data obtained via

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Modern Day Reefer Madness: After shootout, Louisiana sheriff claims legal pot will bring "insurmountable havoc," totally forgets about the gun thing

Just listen to Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand's epic anti-cannabis rant, given at a press conference two days after his deputies gunned down an armed pot dealer in a shootout on the streets of New Orleans:

For those of you too lazy to watch, Normand is incensed that the media is bothering to inquire about the role of his deputies in the shooting, as witnesses reported that the victim, 25-year-old Desmond Willis, fired at officers after he was pulled over:
"We are thinking about decriminalizing marijuana, and we think all of this s*** is going to go away when we do, so, hello?" Normand said. "The havoc it will wreak on our streets will be insurmountable."
Whew, that is some grade-A Reefer Madness lingo right there. Sheriff Normand's bout of eloquent hysteria would've made Harry Anslinger proud. Good thing the CBS news crew in New Orleans did its homework and squashed this uninformed claim where it stood:
"In fact, crime stats in Colorado shows both violent crimes and property crimes are down since pot became legal, and [Kevin] Caldwell [executive director of pro-legalization group Commonsense NOLA] said part of that is because of the jobs and economic boost the marijuana market has created for the state."
Indeed. I live by South Broadway in Denver, near at least a dozen legal Cannabis dispensaries, and the streets are noticeably free of havoc, insurmountable or otherwise. After nearly fifteen years of legal medical marijuana and nearly sixteen months of legal recreational pot, Colorado is decidedly not the crime-ridden, degenerate wasteland that prohibitionists hoped it would be. Regulation works, however imperfect it may be, and it can help prevent deadly black market-related shootouts like the one Normand's deputies were involved in.

It's not surprising that a good-ol'-boy sheriff like Normand blamed Cannabis for the shootout; like the DEA and many other police departments across the country, he views drug-related crime as a symptom of the drug itself rather than of the draconian laws against it. It's pretty simple: pistol-wielding street dealers have no place in a legal, regulated Cannabis market.

Unlike the sheriff - who wondered quite loudly at his press conference "[w]hy are we not talking about the drug dealing!?" - I don't wonder why Willis was dealing pot; the illegal drug racket is an alluring option to those who grow up in a world of poverty, limited or no education, and few other options for making a living.

Instead, I wonder why nobody is talking about the seemingly effortless acquisition of firearms by anyone and everyone who wants them. After all, it was the obvious and deadly threat presented by the firearm, not the pot, that threatened the lives of the deputies and the public, in this case and many others like it.

I wonder if Normand's office has done any investigations into how these drug dealers are acquiring their guns and how the flow might be stopped, or at the very least combated? If anything is causing "insurmountable havoc" on American streets, it is the deadly combination of arcane, simplistic anti-drug laws and an unchecked, and seemingly unscrutinized, underground firearms trade. These two phenomena are responsible for more "drug-related" violence than any amount of pot ever. Our inability to discuss and engage these two huge oversights in public policy is what ultimately provides the impetus for broad-daylight shootouts like the one in New Orleans, which could have very easily claimed the lives of law officers as well as innocent bystanders.