In our rush to convince people that legalised cannabis will be strictly managed, we run the risk of forcing our fledgling cannabis industry to adopt the least sustainable practices available. When regulations are being developed by the Health and Justice Ministries, how can we ensure that environmental issues are taken into account?
Canada legalised cannabis last year, introducing strict controls to make sure legally grown cannabis wouldn’t leak into the illicit market – which they were trying to eliminate. They also wanted to make sure children didn’t accidentally consume cannabis products.
This has resulted in many companies cultivating cannabis indoors – a high energy system growing under lights, with air conditioners and dehumidifiers.
Even when cannabis is grown outdoors, intensive cultivation of thirsty plants has the potential to harm rivers and lakes. It is estimated that a cannabis plant uses around 22 litres of water, compared to grape vines which use around 12 litres.
Once gown, Canadian cannabis products tend to be over packaged, with layers of plastic to ensure no-one accidentally consumes cannabis, and to provide space for all the information labeling.
The New Zealand Ministry of Health is developing regulations for medicinal cannabis this coming year. Working in waste, as I do, I can assure you that the health industry does not have a great track record for waste minimisation or environmental considerations. It concerns me that Ministry of Health officials may fail to even consider regulations to encourage this new industry to be sustainable.
And it could easily be a world leader in sustainability.
A new industry, with multiple well-funded companies setting up systems and processes from scratch, could readily ‘gear up’ as sustainable from day one. Instead of layers of wasteful packaging, the new industry could be regulated to introduce sustainable packaging that still ensures products are safe and well labelled
This new funding for developing sustainable packaging could be a shot in the arm for a packaging industry crying out for funding to help them move away from the plastic packaging consumers so dislike. And once established, sustainable packaging regulations could easily be rolled out across all products.
Regulation for cultivation could ensure products are not only high quality and secure, but also minimise environmental impacts. At the very least they could avoid forcing growers into the least sustainable practices, and at best direct them towards methods which cause the least harm.
Regulations should cover aspects such as:
• Sustainable packaging and waste minimisation
• Suitable site locations to minimise environmental harm, including requiring renewable energy use for indoor growing
• Water monitoring and management systems to reduce the need for irrigation
• Compostable waste management during cultivation and guidance on soil health
• Protocols on chemical application – ideally with a focus on organic cultivation
We have an opportunity. A new industry. Let’s not blow it by applying outdated production systems when we could be world leaders with the greenest cannabis products on earth.

By Sandra Murray, Environmental Consultant