By Andrew Austin, Gaia Intern
This past Monday I joined UC Santa Cruz students, locals and tourists as they once again spent a spring afternoon in the Porter Meadow smoking weed to celebrate 4/20. As a freshman I was really excited to finally see it after hearing so much about it, so I walked over about an hour before the “big moment” and spent some time observing the mellow spectacle. As a cloud started forming above the crowd and people struggled to light impossibly large joints, I couldn’t help but think about the sheer amount of plants, papers, and concentrates being smoked during the day’s festivities. All over the world people were setting up camps in parks and around government buildings on 4/20 to participate in the mildest form of civil disobedience to come out of the sixties, and that adds up to a lot of pot. According to local reports, several thousand people came out at UCSC and about 10,000 gathered at “Hippie Hill” in Golden Gate Park.
The holiday has become huge, and represents not only cannabis culture but the inevitability of legalization itself. More Americans than ever think that recreational marijuana use should be legal. The industry is growing rapidly and this is unsurprisingly starting to raise some environmental concerns, particularly in areas like the Southwest that are already facing severe drought. High demand for an agricultural good translates to increased water, land, and energy needs. And while the true ecological impact of finished cannabis products varies significantly based on growing methods and processing, some Californian growers require over 1,000 gallons per plant per season. Slightly less water-intensive indoor growing methods still take up a significant amount of household electricity statewide. Even though food products like meat and almonds take up much more of the water supply, experts say that scaling down water use is crucial for all kinds of agriculture in California. Agriculture collectively accounts for 80% of the state’s “water budget,” which doesn’t include all the cannabis farming/water use that goes undocumented.
Some of the biggest problems with resource use in the cannabis industry are caused by prohibition, since the black market side of it is unregulated and has an incentive to cut corners. Whether growers comply with state laws or not they are usually more concerned with avoiding federal enforcement than conserving water or preserving land. In the “Emerald Triangle” region of Northern California and Southern Oregon, growers have deforested huge amounts of land and left tons of trash behind, and have even withdrawn so much water from streams illegally that it is threatening an already endangered salmon species.
Just two days before Earth Day on April 22, I watched people fill the meadow and the forest with smoke and reggae music. It was entertaining in the moment, but I think it’s important for students and other participants to think about what it actually took to get all of those dried, trimmed plants, brownies, and butane-filled lighters together in one place.
I don’t mean to be a buzzkill — it’s just easy to forget how much of an impact our modern consumption habits can have, especially when you’re really stoned.