Biden's anti-weed budget is anti-climate

The President's outdated opposition to marijuana legalization is counterproductive to his climate agenda.

Members of the DC Marijuana Justice community hold a 51 blow-up joint on the National Mall in April 2021. Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.

Remember how I told you I visited California last month? Well, I have to tell you something else I did while I was there: I bought weed.

It was a pretty cool experience. The stores there are wild. Did you know that Pabst Blue Ribbon sells marijuana-infused seltzer? It’s not alcoholic, it’s just a fizzy drink you sip to relax. We don’t have that kind of stuff here in D.C.

One reason we don’t have it is because of President Joe Biden, who is opposed to legalizing marijuana at the federal level. I was reminded of this yesterday, when DCist reported that Biden’s proposed 2022 budget actively prevents the District of Columbia from taxing and selling marijuana—even though we voted to legalize the product back in 2015.

The whole thing is a real shame—and not just because D.C. will once again be prevented from getting PBR weed seltzer. Biden’s conservative, outdated opposition to marijuana legalization is directly counterproductive to his climate agenda.

Rolling Stone explained it well in an article published April 20 (classic). Though cannabis is legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia, federal prohibition makes it illegal to transport the plant across state lines.

That means every state that wants to sell weed has to grow their own weed—and not every state has an appropriate climate for growing cannabis outdoors. So in most states with legal weed, the plant has to be grown “indoors, in warehouses, with artificial grow lights and supercharged HVAC systems,” reporter Tim Dickinson explained.

This is an extremely energy-intensive way to grow pot, especially in states where the energy mix is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. And it’s resulting in wildly high carbon emissions in some states with big marijuana markets, like Colorado:

Culturally, Colorado was a natural state to pioneer weed legalization in 2012, and the state now claims one of the nation’s biggest markets, selling more than $2 billion worth of weed in 2020 alone. But weatherwise, most of Colorado is a ludicrous place to grow pot, and as a result its industry has one of the dirtiest cannabis footprints in the country. According to the science published in March, the state’s pot cultivators now account for 1.7 percent of Colorado’s total CO2 emissions — greater than the state’s active coal mining industry. 

“There’s two big reasons behind that,” explains the paper’s lead author, Hailey M. Summers, a Ph.D. candidate at Colorado State University’s Energy Institute. “One is the weather, and one is the electric-grid mix.” Outdoor temperature is a driving factor, because indoor grows require constant circulation of fresh air. “If it’s winter in Colorado, you can’t bring in that cold air and shock the plants. So you have to use heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems to modify that air,” Summers says, “and that air is very, very energy intensive.” 

Coal-heavy states are producing lots of indoor weed

If Colorado’s weed industry is already emitting more than its coal industry, then the climate is in for trouble if regulations aren’t soon changed. The $61 billion market for marijuana in the U.S. is rapidly expanding as more and more states legalize the product. Nationwide, cannabis sales increased 67 percent last year.

Colorado also isn’t the only weed-producing state with a coal-heavy energy mix, which is driving the high emissions of the HVAC systems used for cultivation. Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and Alaska also have the potential to be high-polluting marijuana states if regulations aren’t changed, as this High Country News infographic shows:

Thus, the longer Biden holds out on supporting weed legalization, the longer the weed industry will be an unnecessarily huge emitter of greenhouse gases. And the climate does not have time for such silliness. Support for legal marijuana is at an all-time high of 68 percent, according to FlowHub; and Biden’s reason for opposition seems a bit, well, shaky. Vox reports:

Based on his public remarks, he seems genuinely conservative on the issue — arguing only for decriminalization (in which the threat of jail or prison time is removed for possession, but sales remain illegal), and calling for “more scientific investigations” into the issue, particularly whether pot is a “gateway drug.”

Biden’s weed opposition undermines climate goals

It’s unclear if Biden knows about the growing detrimental climate impact of indoor weed cultivation necessitated by federal prohibition. If does, then he should know that his opposition to legalization could undermine the rest of his proposed budget, which includes “a $14 billion increase in climate-related spending compared to 2021 levels, with $2 billion in spending for clean energy projects and $6.5 billion in lending capacity to be made available for clean energy generation, energy storage and transmission projects in rural communities,” Utility Dive reports.

Of course, this issue would be moot if the entire grid were powered entirely by renewables, and perhaps that’s what the Biden administration would like to focus on. But until that transition happens, there will be a lot of weed grown across the country—and it will be grown whether the administration relaxes federal regulations or not.

“Other pathways to greener ganja-growing”

There are “other pathways to greener ganja-growing,” High Country News reports, “including upgrading to more efficient heating and cooling systems and switching out the typical high-pressure sodium lights for LEDs.”

Moving away from the standard windowless warehouses to greenhouses or even outdoor cultivation would also significantly cut emissions, though it raises security issues and could result in smaller yields and inconsistent potency.

Of course, there is another way to reduce cannabis’ carbon footprint: Decarbonize the grid by phasing out all fossil-fueled power generation. That would do more than clean up the marijuana industry; it would impact everything else that relies on that grid, from illuminating houses and recharging electric vehicles to powering your computer and watching old Grateful Dead concerts on YouTube — not to mention keeping that Sara Lee cheesecake cold for the minute the munchies kick in.

Related Reading:

Unrelated watching:

Catch of the Day:

Fish and I enjoy a legal, taxable substance in Washington, D.C.

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