Environmental challenges in the production of medical cannabis

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The legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes in the United Kingdom with effect from 1 November 2018, has generated a discussion about the environmental and sustainability implications of a newly legitimised cannabis market. 

Environmental challenges in the production of medical cannabis

Growing cannabis plants presents a series of issues for the environment and value chains. In light of this, and new conclusions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the impact of agriculture on the environment, it is becoming important to consider the impact of legal forms of cannabis on supply chain sustainability.

Internationally, cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has estimated that around 192.2 million people around the world have used cannabis over the past year, equating to 3.9% of the global population between the ages of 15 and 64. The sheer size of the illegal cannabis market presents a number of issues, not least to public health but also to the environment. These issues can only be compounded by the fact that the legal status of cannabis – as a recreational drug, as a medical product and as a crop – differs all over the globe. An unregulated illegal market and a growing legal market must mean that the sustainability and social issues presented by cannabis are only expanding.

For Britain, sustainable means of producing cannabis for the pharmaceutical industry must be found to ensure supply chain stability, even if the reality of medical demand is small.

Cannabis regulations differ dramatically across the world. Whilst in the majority of countries the drug remains illegal, an increasing number of governments are relaxing their regulations. The measures of control range from a policy of limited enforcement to legal personal cultivation and consumption in private spaces to fully legalised recreational use of cannabis. If the current trend of relaxing legislation towards cannabis continues internationally, the supply chain demands a legal market that is expanding, both in terms of recreational use and medicinal uses, will only create more pressures in the future. Emerging legal markets will only increase production of cannabis as a horticultural product to meet a growing market supply demand. Canada ran in to supply chain shortage problems within weeks of the legalisation for recreational use.

On 17th October 2018, Canada became the second country to fully legalise the recreational use of cannabis (with Uruguay legalising in 2013). This decision brings with it a new set of sustainability challenges. The Canadian cannabis market is estimated to have generated C$5.7 billion in 2017. A newly legal market, with the potential to attract between 4.2 million and 6 million consumers, is valued at anywhere from $4.2 billion to $8.7 billion per year. This translates to a vast potential amount of cannabis that Canada now needs to source to meet the demand of the legal market providing novel supply chain challenges.

A change in demand for legal cannabis, albeit small, may also be experienced in the UK after the government passed a bill on 11th October 2018 to make medical cannabis legal. This means that cannabinoid derived products, the compounds that give cannabis its psychoactive properties, are now dispensable from a specialist doctor if the clinical need is deemed great enough. The decision means that the UK will join twelve other countries who also allow for medicinal cannabis to be used legally to treat a range of conditions. The change of law means that companies that produce cannabinoid products will have to find a sufficient legal supply to meet the demand created by medical needs. This demand is anticipated to be small as only in extreme circumstances will the drug be dispensed. This in turn presents the same issues as the new recreational laws do in Canada, albeit on a small scale in the short term for supply chains. Despite the immediate shift in supply demand being small, in the longer term this will continue to present sustainability and value chain concerns for producers.

The main sustainability concerns associated with cannabis as a crop are linked with the plants origin. The cannabis plant, Cannabis sativa, is native to East Asia and is therefore suited to a tropical climate with high humidity and plenty of natural light. To replicate the plant’s natural environment and ensure its growth measures are taken which have environmental impacts.  These impacts will grow with the demand from the legitimate value chains.

Principally, the greatest environmental stress created by the cultivation of cannabis is the large amount of water and electricity used to support its growth. When grown indoors, as is typical in the UK due to the county’s climate, the plant requires artificial heating and lighting to mimic its natural environment. Studies on the energy use of cannabis cultivation suggest the amount of energy used to grow cannabis indoors produces around 4600kg of gaseous atmospheric pollution for every 1kg of product. However, depending on where in the world the plant is grown, the climate is sometimes suitable to cultivate cannabis outdoors. In these places, the amount of energy used to power lights and heating is reduced.

Nevertheless, cultivating cannabis plants outdoors does not remove the environmental issues associated with water consumption. As well as requiring a significant amount of energy, cannabis also consumes a large amount of water. Research conducted by the Oregon State Legislature estimated that a single mature cannabis plant can consume 23 litres of water per day. As a result, demand for water to support any volume of cannabis plants can be substantial in some contexts.  

The changing political climate with regards to cannabis will likely have an impact on the environment in the years to come. Not only does the current shift in attitude to cannabis represent potential issues for public health as it becomes easier in some places to access previously controlled substances, but the consumer demand this generates will likely have a notable impact on supply chains meaning producers will have to begin to consider the environmental cost of their product. It may also mean that farmers produce cannabis instead of other crops by substituting cannabis as a potentially more profitable crop.

In this light, regardless of the volume of crop produced, the impacts of a move towards cannabis production in the UK to serve the pharmaceutical market will have environmental repercussions. It is also likely, as ideas about cannabis changes and further research is conducted, cannabis derived substances may well come to be used in a greater variety of ways in medicine and be used in a range of products like food products to an increasing extent and possibly form new categories of food. There is potential, with research which has been made possible by the legal change, that cannabis as a medicine will expand in the UK and therefore increase the strains generated by production.

As markets legalise or relax, it is important to be aware of the environmental issues as well as the commonly cited social issues. Across a value chain there are significant controls that need to be incorporated to protect crop, society and the environment. ADAS can offer support on key issues of sustainability and value chain challenges.

For more information and a conversation about how we can support on legal and legitimate value chain and environmental aspects of licensed cannabis production please contact Dr Colin Morgan.


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