Double-Edged Leaf:
Cannabis and Climate Change

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Nick Johnson, a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

Plants have long held sway over the future of human societies. They are our symbiotic partners on the planet, absorbing the carbon dioxide we breathe out and emitting the oxygen we breathe in. Plants supply us with food, shelter, and medicine—we return the favor with reproduction, granting them abundant progeny.

It is ironic, then, that the industrial revolution, an event that precipitated massive cuttings and die-offs of all kinds of plants across the globe, was in large part fueled by plants. Millions of years of the sun’s energy lay in the dead, compressed bodies of ancient ferns, reeds, and seaweed, crushed or sludged with other organic matter into underground deposits of coal and oil. Humans tapped and burned these masses of photosynthetic energy, harnessing their awesome power for wealth and comfort.

Now, we have reached the age where the promise of fossil fuels has yielded to peril. Hundreds of years of burning fuels is changing almost everything about our world and ushering in an era of accelerating climate change. Heat or rising seas may render large swathes of land uninhabitable. Mega-droughts, mega-storms, and mega-fires rage across entire continents, destroying homes and communities, killing people, sowing political unrest, and polluting air and water. Ready or not, we are being forced to confront the disastrous legacy of our own uncritical faith in the technology and “progress” of the industrial age.

It might seem strange to bring cannabis into this conversation. But, as is typical with cannabis, we find the plant on both sides of this major societal issue. On the one hand, hemp farming can be a powerful weapon to help ameliorate the effects of carbon emissions. On the other hand, industrial cannabis production has a formidable and growing carbon footprint. With the ongoing legalization of the plant and the expansion of its impact on the American economy, it is worth exploring how cannabis might be both a potential cure for and a contributor to climate change—and considering whether the plant can be more beneficial than harmful in this regard.

Cannabis Indoor Grow Operation
Medical Cannabis Growing Operation in Oakland, California, in 2012. Image Courtesy of Rusty Blazenhoff on Flickr.

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Delta-8 THC: The Latest Cannabis Conundrum

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Nick Johnson, a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

Traditionally, cannabis has been understood as a plant of dualities and contradictions. It comes in varieties that produce either fiber or drugs, for example. It grows tall and straight or short and bushy, with broader leaves or narrower ones. At various points in its history, it has been held up as a medicine and demonized as a menace. For centuries, cannabis has had its fun confounding humanity with its ambivalent identity.

Lately, however, modern technology and new laws are helping to blur the plant’s historic binaries and show us that—for all we have learned about cannabis over the millennia—we may not know as much as we think we do. Hemp, for instance, was rarely considered a medicinal plant in Western or American cultures until the advent of the CBD craze in the 2010s. Cannabidiol (CBD), a substance that “healed without the high,” broke the cannabis plant’s industrial-medicinal binary—turns out hemp could be both, after all. But we still knew one thing for certain, and this fact provided one of the most convincing arguments for the 2018 re-legalization of hemp in the US: hemp plants cannot get you high.

Delta New Hand

Well, we were pretty sure of it, anyway. Then the CBD boom went bust, and American farmers were left with fields full of CBD-rich hemp plants they could not sell. As it often does, need begot innovation. Starting in 2019, some CBD producers leveraged modern extraction technology to pull a psychotropic rabbit out of the hemp hat. Delta-8 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a molecular cousin of Delta-9 THC, the main psychoactive compound in traditional marijuana. Delta-8 THC produces essentially the same effects as Delta-9 THC, except far more subdued—and, through chemical reactions, it can be created from hemp-derived CBD.

Delta 8 Joints
Delta 8-THC Joints. Image courtesy of Elsa Olofsson at CBD Oracle.

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CAMP Shows that Cannabis Prohibition is Still King in California

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Nick Johnson, a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

CAMP 1988
Law Enforcement Officers working with CAMP hold the California state flag and pose with pickup trucks filled with confiscated cannabis plants in 1988. Source: 1988 CAMP Final Report.

California fully legalized cannabis in 2016, but many people might not realize that the state and federal agencies are still fighting a guerrilla war against it. The Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), started in 1983 by Golden State Republican governor George Deukmejian,  brings together local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in annual drives targeting cannabis farms across the state. The program—which still operates today—has amounted to one of the largest law enforcement task forces in American history. In 2020, despite raging wildfires and a pandemic, CAMP managed to destroy more than 1.1 million illegal cannabis plants in twenty-nine different counties.

Now, with marijuana legal in California (and in many other places), the logical question becomes: “why is CAMP still a thing, and is it necessary?” To answer these questions, we need to understand the history of CAMP, how its operations have changed over the years, and why illegal marijuana cultivation persists today.

Ambitious Goals

At its start, some thirteen years before California legalized medical cannabis, CAMP’s goal was nothing less than the total annihilation of marijuana in the Golden State. During its first decade of action, officers loaded into planes and helicopters, donned full combat gear, and braved growers’ booby traps and shotguns to pull up millions of plants and make dozens, or in some years hundreds, of arrests. The program grew steadily over the years as more California counties joined; by 1991, CAMP operations accounted for 56 percent of marijuana eradicated in the state.

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Turning Back the ‘Diol: CBD Hemp Prices Crash; History Repeats Itself?

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Nick Johnson, a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

CBDProducts
A sampling of the “rapidly expanding market of CBD-enhanced products.”
Image courtesy of Jeoy Pena via Wikimedia.

The booming market in Cannabidiol (CBD) products has gone bust. The boom was touched off by the federal re-legalization of hemp in the 2018 farm bill, which led many farmers, investors, and entrepreneurs to stake their hopes on a new crop supplying a rapidly expanding market of CBD-enhanced products—from gummies to lotion to lip balm. The benefits and risks of such products are still being substantiated by science, but consumers gobbled them up, anyway, looking for relief from ailments ranging from arthritis to insomnia.

Now, there are simply too many CBD products and companies on the market, using far too little hemp. Places like Colorado, Kentucky, and the Ohio Valley report an oversupply of hemp, and per-pound hemp prices have plummeted. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) reluctance to approve CBD products has irked some in the industry, but the driving factor for the bust appears to be simple economics.

Akin to WWII Program

This is not the first time Americans have produced too much hemp for their own good. In 1942, the federal government suspended its cannabis prohibition to create a domestic hemp industry to supply cordage for the US military during World War II. After years of being told that the crop was a dangerous and addictive drug, American farmers were suddenly encouraged to grow thousands of acres of hemp. In a flash, the government built 42 hemp processing facilities across the Midwest, providing hundreds of jobs and invigorating depressed rural areas.

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Craft Weed offers clear-eyed optimism on cannabis farming, regulation

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Nick Johnson. Johnson is a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

In his 2018 book Craft Weed: Family Farming and the Future of the Marijuana Industry, Ryan Stoa, visiting professor at Louisiana’s Southern University Law Center, aims to put cannabis agriculture at center-stage in the legalization movement. He argues that legalization has the “potential to revitalize the American family farm and rural economies nationwide” (p 15). His main reason for thinking so: growers care—about their plants and their local communities, and they can be regulated in a way that suits both, despite what industry analysts might be predicting.

Stoa understands that when it comes to cannabis regulation, “it all starts at the beginning of the supply chain, where farmers plant, care for, and harvest marijuana” (p 7). Despite this, in places such as California, his main study area, “lawmakers completely neglected the subject of marijuana agriculture for twenty years” after a citizen initiative legalized medical marijuana in 1996. The result has been an unregulated Green Rush that has left many well-intentioned, small-time growers to fend for themselves and given rise to fears that, when full legalization does come, it will privilege only the largest and wealthiest entities.

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Beyond the Quarantine Effect: The Multiple Dimensions of Cannabis in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Nick Johnson. Johnson is a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, millions of people already used cannabis drugs to help relieve depression, anxiety, and boredom. It should be no surprise, then, that cannabis sales are exploding during a pandemic that has forced us all to stay home, stay away from each other, and, if we’re being honest, stay anxious about an uncertain future. But as with most stories about the cannabis plant, there’s more to it than that. Just as it has helped people cope with the realities of COVID-19, cannabis might actually be useful in fighting the disease itself, and trends during the pandemic are working against the black market that has been a bogeyman for the politics of legalization.

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America’s Weed Industry Still Has a Big Environmental Problem

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Nick Johnson. Johnson is a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

It is admittedly difficult to begin any kind of essay in 2020, but writing about environmental issues this year is especially challenging, because there are so many ongoing calamities that I am loathe to add to the list.

However, whether they are wildfires, hurricanes, or disease, human behavior has contributed to these problems, so it is incumbent on us to keep taking stock of how our actions affect our environment.

On that note, I will again trot out the Very Tired Bad News Bear of 2020: cannabis agriculture remains a big environmental problem, and the industry’s increasing profitability means that we need to keep talking about it, even amid the year’s broader cataclysm.

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Cannabis and Sugar: A Bittersweet History Makes Reparative Legalization a Must

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Nick Johnson. Johnson is a historian based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is the author of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (Oregon State University Press, 2017) and associate editor of the Colorado Encyclopedia. He blogs about all things cannabis at HempiricalEvidence.com.

Whether it’s gummies, cookies, brownies, or even soda, it is hard to imagine today’s cannabis culture without edibles. Many of these stony treats offer the delectable pairing of cannabis and sugar, two of the world’s most popular indulgences. Yet most people do not know that the two commodities share a historical relationship as well as a culinary one—and that historical relationship is rooted in oppressive labor regimes.

Over the last two decades, changing cannabis laws around the world have brought renewed scholarly attention to the plant. Together with older work, recent books have helped us piece together the bigger picture of cannabis history, giving us a better idea of how the plant traveled the world, for instance, or how large-scale cannabis cultivation affects the environment. Research on the plant’s history in previously overlooked areas, such as Mexico and Africa, help us see the true depth and extent of trends that earlier scholarship only partly exposed.

One of the most significant of these trends is that cannabis traveled across the Americas within oppressive systems of agricultural labor—in particular, the sugar industries that developed across the Atlantic World after 1492.

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