Marijuana question would be better answered in state legislature

by Becky Beard
| October 2, 2020 7:00 AM

Here in Montana we are granted the right to vote on ballot initiatives once they clear a number of hurdles, including having the related petition garner enough qualifying signatures. Not achieved, however, is the ability to hold public hearings on the proposed issue — such as is accomplished during legislative debate, fiscal review and the amendment process.

On Nov. 3, we will be voting on CI-118, which would legalize marijuana here in Montana. Aside from what the proponents and opponents argue in the press about public health and safety as well as costs and revenues, there’s another angle to consider: What are the environmental ramifications?

The last 23-plus years in my career has focused on improving water and sewer infrastructure for rural Montana. Treatment technology has been modernized and improved during this time, partly in response to increasing regulatory standards. Last week, I saw a notice for an upcoming webinar, “Cannabis Wastewater Treatment Best Practice Development and Regulatory Challenges.” It asserts there is little specific regulation surrounding wastewater treatment for cannabis wastewater. Best practices data is being developed. The question: What are the associated costs?

Oregon’s 2018 data concludes that cannabis production is resource intensive. An average plant consumes about five gallons of water daily, and a single kilogram of finished flower requires 5.2 megawatts of electricity, or twice what’s required to power two refrigerators annually. This equates to 4.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or the average yearly emissions from a sedan. The Rogue River Basin in southern Oregon is under acute hydrologic strain. Illicit grow operations there add significantly to the stress on limited water resources.

Colorado’s 2018 data indicates that 4 percent of Denver’s electricity demand is now devoted to marijuana production — up from a 1.5 percent increase in 2012. Hyper greenhouses (i.e., 10,000 square feet) use eight times as much electricity per square foot than lighting for the average office building, and 17 times more than the average home.

We have the opportunity to learn from the data in other states and get a preview of how our state agencies would be affected by recreational marijuana here in Montana. Aside from the Montana Department of Revenue’s taxing supervision, we would be relying upon the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s Air, Energy and Mining Division and its Water Quality Division; the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Resource Development Division; DNRC’s Water Resources Division, Drought Mitigation; and the Montana Department of Agriculture’s Ag Sciences Division.

There are a number of significant collateral issues with this initiative if Montanans vote for CI-118. The development of such a consequential policy perhaps would’ve been better served as proposed legislation, hammered out during a legislative session. What are the true costs and resource commitments?

The author is a Republican state representative from Elliston.