Mandated LED lights – necessary regulation or bureaucratic overreach?

The state of California yesterday announced a proposal that, if enacted, would force all legal cannabis growers to switch to LED lighting by 2023. The proposal, now under consideration by the state’s public utility commission, comes on the heels of several new studies that more thoroughly document the excessive electricity use of indoor growing.

A typical indoor cannabis grow (Colorado Springs).

Sustainability is becoming more popular within the cannabis industry. But some growers in northern California are outraged by the LED proposal, arguing that it would cost them millions to upgrade their grow houses.

So, is California’s proposal a necessary one, given the increasing amount of data that points to indoor cannabis’s large carbon footprint, or is it going above and beyond reasonable regulation, as some of California’s growers allege?

High-Energy Cannabis: Made by Prohibition 

Whenever we discuss regulating the legal cannabis industry today, we must remember that today’s cultivation practices developed under prohibition, when growers faced huge fines and prison time for growing and adapted by developing sophisticated indoor growing systems. These often include not just energy-intensive halide lights but also fans, A/C units, and even carbon dioxide generators.

Some sustainability-minded growers have taken to using all-LED lighting for the plant’s “veggie” phase, where the plants grow out stems and leaves and have not yet flowered. More powerful lights, however, are required to push the plants through the flowering phase, where they develop the large flower clusters that will eventually become the final product (marijuana).

Cannabis plants in the “veggie” stage under LED lights (Fort Collins, CO).

This approach, however, is on a completely voluntary basis and is usually only possible for operations that have the capital to invest in new lighting technology. California, meanwhile, has the largest number of indoor grows in the country, as well as the largest concentration of illegal growers, so it makes sense that the state is turning to intensive regulation to address this growing environmental problem.

That is, it makes sense if LEDs are indeed the energy-saving boon that officials are claiming. But there are some scholars who dispute that. Evan Mills, arguably the nation’s leading researcher on cannabis-energy issues, writes that “the devil is in the details” with LEDs: “Peer-reviewed research suggests that marijuana grown under LEDs may take longer to mature and have lower yield, thus saving little if any energy,” because the lights must be on longer over each plant.

So now we have a situation where the state may be pushing growers too hard to do something that might not even have the benefits it thinks it will have; as usual, northern California growers are going to have to be convinced that they need more government regulation on top of the reams’ worth of rules they must currently follow.

Trust Issues 

Northern California growers, in particular, have a long history of opposing regulation designed to curb some of the social and environmental impacts of their industry. Their skepticism is based on repeated violations of trust, such as when Mendocino County leaked grower information collected in its 2011 “zip tie” program to the DEA, after promising not to.

Like the indoor cultivation model, the suspicion and noncompliance among California pot growers is a developed response to the heavy-handed and relentless enforcement by federal and state agencies over the last 40 years. Add to this the fact that most of these growers provide crucial economic support for their communities, and there is powerful incentive to oppose the kind of ambitious regulation reflected in an LED mandate.

So, while the state is pushing in the right direction with this lighting mandate, it is going to have to make (and keep) a whole lot of promises, and work harder than it might think it does, to earn the trust and compliance, of northern California growers.

Possible Solutions 

If the policy indeed goes through, perhaps some state-sponsored loan program to help growers meet the new lighting requirements would cultivate more support among small-time growers. There is some precedent for this, albeit in the more general, pandemic-driven bridge loans the state offered to small businesses (including cannabis growers) in April. Enacting a mandate without any kind of institutional support – the state saying, “let’s do this together, we’ll help you” – is simply going to be taken as an over-aggressive act against people just trying to get by.

Until growers in northern California can feel confident that their businesses won’t be unfairly burdened, they are unlikely to change their minds about the LED proposal, or any other widespread mandate, anytime soon.

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