Colorado’s Cannabis Laws and Environmental Benefits

By Sedona Chavez*

In early 1900, Colorado’s legislature made cannabis use and production illegal within the state. Cannabis includes both marijuana and hemp. Marijuana can have up to 40% THC levels, which can induce psychoactive effects when ingested, while hemp only has up to 0.3% THC levels, which cannot induce psychoactive effects. Penalties for cannabis use, production, or possession ranged from minor monetary fines to felony convictions, depending on various circumstances surrounding the crime. Then in 2000, the tide began to change.

In November of 2000, the Colorado legalized medical marijuana for people suffering from debilitating medical conditions. In November 2012, after many years of persevering, Amendment 64 passed. This Amendment legalized recreational marijuana use for anyone 21 or older in Colorado. In addition to marijuana, Colorado has also recently legalized industrial hemp cultivation in 2014. To cultivate hemp in Colorado, grower must register with and be approved by the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

Colorado’s expansive legal framework surrounding cannabis use and cultivation should be a model for other states when enacting cannabis laws. Other states should strive to have equally permissive cannabis laws for many reasons, but some of the most compelling reasons are the environmental benefits cannabis cultivation and use have.

Legalizing cannabis cultivation can have significant environmental benefits to land, water, and air. First, legalizing cannabis cultivation can benefit the agricultural land it is grown on because it is ideal for seasonal farmers who partake in crop rotation. If cannabis is used in crop rotation long term, the plant can keep “soil fertile without the use of toxic herbicides.” In addition, using cannabis in crop rotation can help farmers comply with organic farming standards, which could encourage farmers to switch to the sustainable practice. This would be great for the land, air, and water quality, as organic farming generates its own plethora of environmental benefits.

Second, cannabis cultivation benefits the water quality of surrounding waterways. Cannabis, in comparison to other specialty crops, generally requires minimal pesticide and fertilizer use to grow the crop successfully. When fewer man-made pesticides and fertilizers are used, fewer chemicals runoff or seep into nearby waterways through the farm’s irrigation system. Therefore, fewer chemicals from pesticides and fertilizers are available to pollute susceptible waterways.

Third, legalizing cannabis cultivation significantly reduces the amount of energy used for its production. Where cannabis cultivation is illegal, a lot of energy is used to produce it because most people grow the crop indoors. Successful cannabis cultivation requires very specific lighting and atmospheric conditions. These conditions take a significant amount of energy to replicate indoors, which is why outdoor cannabis growing operations use much less energy.

Legalizing cannabis use can also improve water quality. CBD and THC, two cannabinoids derived from cannabis, have numerous medicinal benefits. THC has been shown to alleviate pain, ease nausea, aid in sleep, treat PTSD, increase appetite, be an effective anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor agent, and be an anticonvulsant. CBD has been shown to relieve pain, be an anticonvulsant, combat anxiety, fight cancer, and reduce the risk of diabetes. Given these medical benefits, it is not unreasonable to believe the studies showing that people are beginning to switch out some of their pharmaceuticals for cannabis. When people use natural cannabis products instead of pharmaceuticals, they are reducing the amount of chemicals going into waterways (either through residual chemicals in urine or through disposal of “leftover” pharmaceuticals). Therefore, legalizing cannabis, at least for medicinal purposes, benefits water quality because it reduces pharmaceuticals entering waterways.

The legalization of cannabis use and cultivation has many environmental benefits to land, water, and air quality. Beyond environmental benefits, legalizing cannabis can also improve local economies and public health. For these reasons, all states should legalize cannabis as liberally as Colorado has.

*Bio: I am a second-year law student at Vermont Law School. I am focusing on agriculture and water law and hope to pursue a career in that field. My family grows hemp in southeast Colorado for CBD products, which is why I’m interested in the topic.