A Day at the Annual Cannabis Business Summit, Part II

 As I mentioned in Part I of this post, on June 29 I spent a day at the National Cannabis Industry Association\’s (NCIA) annual Business Summit and Expo at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. I spent about 9 hours at the expo attending workshops, chatting with attendees and panelists, and trying to find the pulse of modern cannabis agriculture. Part II picks up at lunch and moves on to a workshop presented by \”Greening Corporate Cannabis,\” an organization working to make the industry more environmentally sustainable.


Say what you want about it – the National Cannabis Industry Association doesn\’t skimp on lunch.

This is no quaint observation; amped by coffee, my already-blazing metabolism had burned through my breakfast during the three-hour midmorning seminar on how to put a greenhouse together. I required sustenance.

I found it in the Colorado Convention Center\’s ample buffet of succotash, barbecued beef brisket, homestyle mac and cheese, salad, and (non-medicated) brownies and other baked goods.

Lunch was in the convention center\’s atrium, and after generously filling a plate I wandered the room looking for a place to sit. The tables were filled with cliques of lawyers, consultants, industry buddies – walking around with my plate, I suddenly felt like I was a way nerdier version of myself back in high school.

I sat down at a half-empty table next to a lawyer who was just finishing lunch. After a few ravenous forkfuls of succotash, I napkined up and introduced myself. I told him I was working on a book about the environmental history of cannabis. The words barely reached his ears before he responded.

\”We\’ve got to get that under control,\” Sean T. McAllister said, referring to the negative environmental effects of modern pot growing. \”That is just horrible.\”

McAllister\’s Denver-based firm handles an array of cases for the Colorado marijuana industry, and he has experience litigating pesticide standards, writing local medical marijuana initiatives, and suing municipal governments who have attempted to restrict patients\’ access to medical marijuana. Sean also used to be an environmental lawyer, which explains his immediate sensitivity to my topic.

One of McAllister\’s team members, a tall, well-dressed woman, walks behind Sean and they chat for a second. \”Alright, go team!\” Sean concludes, and politely excuses himself from the table – but not before sliding his card over to me.

I return to shoveling brisket and succotash, and notice that a woman I was speaking with during the break in the morning workshop has sought me out. She sits down next to me and briefly meets Sean before he leaves.

Nancy Mercanti is an entrepreneur who runs Herb-Sun-limited, a company that sells freeze-dried chopped herbs. At intermission during the morning workshop, she told me about a new project she\’s working on – freeze-drying THC into carefully measured dosages for use in edible products.

Edibles can be tricky to dose. While THC itself can\’t kill you, an overdose can have unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects such as panic attacks, hallucinations, and erratic thoughts or behavior. To help avoid this, regulators and the industry have determined that 10 milligrams of THC constitutes one dose. But the amount of THC is only one of many variables that influence a cannabis experience – a person\’s expectations, previous experiences, surroundings, body weight and chemistry, as well as the chemical profile of the plant that produced the drug, are all factors that combine for good or bad trips. Plus, as members of the French Club des Haschischins found out all the way back in the 1840s,  most people don\’t begin to feel the full effects of edible THC for about 45 minutes.

In other words, Nancy has her work cut out for her. Even if she and others in the edible business come up with a reliable way to precisely measure the amount of psychoactive THC, the retailer and consumer bear a good deal of responsibility for the effects of the product as well. As with any legal vice, regulations are a must, but so are education and individual responsibility.

Nancy asks me about my career goals, and I tell her I\’d like to one day teach history at a community college and write. We spend lunch talking about the vicissitudes of higher education and the need for better history education more generally. I check the time and realize it\’s time to head to the afternoon workshop. Nancy and I are going to the same one – \”Greening Corporate Cannabis.\”

This is the workshop I\’ve been waiting for – the one that tackles the task of turning legal cannabis production into an environmentally sustainable industry. It\’s 4 hours long. I snag a brownie on my way out of the atrium and head to the workshop.

 GCC advocates for a more eco-friendly cannabis industry.

On the panel for the Greening Corporate Cannabis workshop is David Rice, founder of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association and the grower who invited me to the summit; Alex Cooley, vice-president of Solstice Grown; Jacob Policzer, co-founder of Greening Corporate Cannabis; Eric Brandstad, general manager of Forever Flowering Greenhouses; and Scott Zeramby, horticulture and energy efficiency consultant at Entity X Cannabis Consultants and co-author of the study \”Up In Smoke: The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannabis Cultivation\” (2011).

Highlights from workshop # 2

Alex Cooley (left) talks about transitioning his Seattle-based cannabis company from inefficient indoor to more sustainable outdoor cultivation.

1) \”Pot Porn\” magazines helped make cannabis unsustainable

By mid-2015 the study that Zeramby co-authored with University of California scientist Evan Mills is a bit dated, but it still definitively and convincingly outlines the environmental costs of indoor cannabis growth, which produces about a third of the nation\’s drug cannabis crop. A full two percent of all the energy produced in the United States is being consumed by indoor cannabis growers. Making one joint puts three pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere; producing a pound of weed adds about 4,600 pounds of CO2.

\”Cannabis cultivation facilities are the most energy-intensive of any US building type,\” Zeramby added. \”More intense than all of the pharmaceutical industry.\”

Why? Zeramby notes that many indoor growers rely on \”pot porn\” magazines such as High Times to tell them how to grow. Sexy and noisy advertisements in the pages of those magazines assure growers that if they just buy the brightest lights, the chillest AC systems, and the strongest fertilizers, they will produce a big, profitable indoor crop. Essentially, Zeramby says, the horticultural strategy advanced by these publications is to \”buy a bunch of expensive products and plug them in.\”

Zeramby is an advocate for energy efficiency labeling on cannabis products, right next to THC content labeling.

\”As more states come online … we are going to see more energy used,\” Zeramby said. \”So we really need to get ahead of this before it bowls us over and before it becomes the thing that doubters and naysayers point to and say, \’look at how much energy you use, you\’re ruining the world\’\” – a charge that, as of now, Zeramby admits \”is partially true.\”

Such an energy-intensive strategy isn\’t just environmentally negligent; it\’s also counterproductive, because

2) More often than not, indoor growing makes an inferior crop

Direct lighting indoors makes life stressful for cannabis.

That\’s what Eric Brandstad\’s talk was all about – how greenhouses are much better equipped to take care of the plants than a warehouse full of lights and AC units.

\”When it comes down to the growing, that\’s where it really matters,\” Branstad said. \”One of the things I like people to undesrtand is the plants. .. I like to look at them as  a lot like people. They\’re made of water; we\’re made of a lot of water. We perspire; plants transpire. So when a plant heats up, mother nature put that self-regulating system in there so that they can sweat it out.\”

The intense overhead lighting in most warehouse and other indoor operations overheats plants – even sun-loving ones like cannabis – which causes excessive transpiration. Overheated plants are stressed, and they not only require more water but are also more vulnerable to insect infestations, which then requires the use of pesticides. Stressed plants also produce an inferior drug product because so much of their energy goes into simply staying alive instead of producing flowers and the all-important resin.

But in a greenhouse, UV rays are dispersed through the panels across the entire crop, reducing the plants\’ stress level. On hot days, overheating can still occur, but greenhouses can also be designed to have roof vents and removable or retractable walls, features that eliminate the need for AC and reduce the need for other cooling systems such as industrial fans. Thus, cannabis plants grown in greenhouses use less water because they are cooler, and the lack of stress from overheating eliminates the need for pesticides and ultimately allows the plant to produce a high-quality drug product.

Other energy-efficient cooling strategies Brandstad mentioned were potting plants in white or or organic containers instead of black ones and covering the floor of the greenhouse with a white material; both strategies help control surface temperatures, key indicators of plant stress.

Modern greenhouses include retractable side panels for natural cooling.
White floor material helps reduce surface temps and plant stress.

This is the second workshop where cannabis was discussed entirely in the context of agriculture – which was quite reassuring in the midst of all the horrific statistics on indoor cannabis growth. Sean McAllister is apparently not the only one worried about getting this situation \”under control.\” And indoor growers need not be shamed or afraid of the change, because

3) It is possible to convert an indoor operation to an outdoor operation

Just ask Alex Cooley. His company, the Seattle-based cannabis producer/processor Solstice, was the first permanent cannabis production facility in Seattle, and it is in the midst of transitioning from large-scale warehouse grows to more sustainable greenhouse grows.

\”I hate to admit it when these guys are around, but I am a warehouse grower,\” Cooley said. \”I run lots and lots and lots of [high-intensity] lights.\” Cooley\’s goal  is to transfer all of his company\’s indoor cultivation out under the sun, whether in greenhouses or completely outdoors.

Cooley explained that when he first began growing cannabis, growing outdoors was simply not what anyone did.

\”When I did research about growing cannabis in the city of Seattle, it was growing it under a lamp,\” he said. \”And for me that grew from one light to two lights, to fifty to 100. … That\’s the culture I\’ve been a part of being in Seattle, and now [I\’m] trying to change that culture and shift that preference.\”

Cooley broke down the process for shifting the preference – of both growers and consumers – from indoor- to outdoor-grown cannabis into two major hurdles: financing and creating a sustainable facility, and what Cooley refers to as \”selling the sun grown,\” or creating demand for sustainably grown cannabis amongst consumers.

To clear the first hurdle, Cooley advised potential growers to identify and work with financial partners and developers who have a vested interested in building an environmentally sustainable operation. Developers must also be convinced that sun-grown cannabis is more valuable in the long-run than warehouse growing. For example, Cooley said pitching the financial sustainability of his company\’s new outdoor sites was key in getting his developers on board for a huge shift in investments.

\”A warehouse facility, in my opinion, will not be viable in ten years at the longest. At the shortest it won\’t be viable in five years,\” Cooley said. \”So tell your developer, \’look, all this infrastructure you\’re putting in a warehouse – 5,000 amps of power and all of this HVAC and doing a change of use like this … it\’s not going to work for a tech company in five years when you have to lease to someone else.\’\”

Cooley notes that consumers are trained to prefer indoor cannabis because of prohibition, which made indoor cannabis into an underground horticultural art and produced a cornucopia of different cannabis strains, each with its unique profile of smells, tastes, and psychoactive effects. In short, indoor cultivation has spoiled consumers into expecting a high-quality product that they assume can only come from the indoor environment.

\”I have a negative experience with sungrown, like a lot of people have,\” he said. \”I used to throw a couple plants outside; it did what it did, half the time it got botritis and it rotted out, and I really didn\’t care. Maybe there was a little bit to smoke [but] it wasn\’t great, it wasn\’t like the stuff I was growing in the basement.\”

But as Brandstad\’s talk explained, that has changed, and consumers need to know that greenhouses can produce the same quality of cannabis as warehouses. For Cooley, creating a marketing campaign that educates consumers about sun-grown cannabis is an essential part of \”greening\” the industry. He cited Harborside Health Center, one of the largest medical cannabis dispensaries in the Bay Area, as one of the leading promoters of such a campaign:

\”Today with  really great greenhouse-grown [cannabis] you can\’t tell the difference,\” Cooley said. \”It is that quality. So, [it\’s about] moving away from that and just having an honest discussion … that allows the consumer to see a side-by-side comparison and say \’wow, this really is quality cannabis.\’\”

Overall, my day at the NCIA\’s annual summit left me confident that, although most cannabis isn\’t currently being grown sustainably, a combination of market forces and the will of a significant number of environmentally conscious folks within the industry is pushing it in that direction. It seems that one day in the not-so-distant future, the domestic cannabis industry in the United States will be fully reliant on the more efficient, more profitable, and more environmentally sustainable practice of greenhouse growing.

Then, instead of talking about when people used to grow shaggy outdoor plants in the \’60s and \’70s, old-timers in the industry will reminisce about the silly days when \”ganjapreneurs\” thought it necessary to affix thousands of lights to the ceilings of re-purposed warehouses in order to productively and profitably grow a plant that – just like any other – is perfectly happy in the sunshine and the breeze.

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