Lessons from Colorado

As more states legalize weed, here are a few tips to make it both equitable and sustainable


New Jersey recently joined the growing ranks of states legalizing cannabis, with Gov. Phil Murphy signing legal recreational marijuana into law on Feb. 22. As with all states that have been through this process in the last few years, questions of equity and sustainability within the industry are likely to start surfacing as New Jersey moves forward.

Colorado, by comparison, is well-seasoned when it comes to navigating challenges associated with the legal cannabis industry — and we’re still learning: How can we be more inclusive of communities of color within the cannabis industry? What are we doing to ensure sustainable growing practices? States new to legalization are going to face these questions for the first time, so here are a few lessons they can learn from Colorado.

It was identified fairly quickly that one of the major barriers excluding people of color from the legal cannabis industry was Colorado’s failure to pardon cannabis-related crimes or expunge the criminal records of those incarcerated for felonies like possession or intent to sell post-legalization. This, however, was only the first snafu — legally, anyone with a felony was barred from entering Colorado’s cannabis industry for a whopping 10 years. Combined, these legal stipulations kept countless black and Latino people from participating in the legal cannabis industry and continued to punish them for something that was no longer a crime. Last year, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a bill that offered mass pardons for cannabis felons in an effort to level the playing field. Today, 87% of cannabis businesses in the U.S. are still owned by white people, with 5.7% Latino-owned and only 4.3% black-owned. 

As of Jan. 1, 2021 the delivery of recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado. Municipalities still need to vote to approve this service, with Aurora leading the pack and approving licenses for delivery exclusively to social equity applicants for the first three years — these are folks who live in low-income areas or communities that have been the most impacted by the war on drugs. More social equity bills seem to be on the horizon as activists continue working with lawmakers to give these communities a fair chance to enter the legal cannabis industry. 

When it comes to growing marijuana, questions of sustainability are vast and often complex. The cannabis industry is pollutive and resource-intensive, impacting soil and land use, water, energy generation and consumption and air quality, with waste disposal presenting further challenges. The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) released a report of the best environmental management practices in October 2020, working to understand how growers can invest in sustainable systems and encouraging governments to work on creating cannabis policies that incentivize and promote sustainability throughout the industry. The report explains that sustainable best practices actually present a way for growers to save money in the long run through proper land use, water conversation, air quality control, energy efficiency and waste reduction. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is currently working with Colorado’s cannabis industry to implement some of these systems for growing, packaging, distributing and selling cannabis. 

The Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) also set exemptions for biomass disposal and package recycling tactics in 2020, which has helped improve sustainability within Colorado’s cannabis industry; producers can now compost their leftover stalks, trimmings, roots and unusable leaves and nuggets, uprooting the previous system where growers were legally required to dilute their biomass waste with an equal amount of other garbage material such as sand, glass, bleach or shredded plastics. This practice intended to render the biomass “unusable and unrecognizable,” but ultimately doubled the waste coming out of grow houses, with half of it being non-compostable. Through the newly available composting practices, biomass, now unpolluted with other materials, can now be used in fertilizer. 

Anaerobic digestion is another waste sustainability practice now available to Colorado pot growers. Marijuana waste is stored in a box, allowing gases (in the form of methane and carbon dioxide) to accumulate and later be recovered as another commodity to store and sell, increasing and broadening revenue streams. Waste can be compounded into biochar, a component that, when added to soil, allows plants to consume and convert more CO2 to oxygen as well. There’s also biomass gasification, which converts cannabis waste into hydrogen or other gasses without using pollutive combustion. All of these alternative routes for leftover biomass promise sustainable ways to deal with the waste of the industry, generating more clean resources and decreasing land, water and soil pollution.

While Colorado certainly has more work to do when it comes to creating a sustainable, equitable cannabis industry, the work being done maps a forward-thinking blueprint on how to navigate the new challenges that legalization presents.