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Radical Rant: How Much Does Marijuana Contribute to California’s Drought, Really?

Russ Belville

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"How marijuana is making California drought worse” read the headline Friday from the Christian Science Monitor.

HIGH TIMES has reported on this weed/drought scaremongering since April, when a Mother Jones article quoted a Mendocino Press-Democrat article that quoted “researchers” who “estimate each plant consumes 6 gallons of water a day…over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants.”

Gee, I wouldn’t want to have California die of thirst just because I like to smoke weed. Really, a cannabis plant will consume 900 gallons of water? Is that a realistic estimate? What if I just grow a smaller plant with a shorter grow cycle?

In July, The Ganjier reported poll results from the Emerald Growers Association and Mendocino Cannabis Policy Council claiming that cannabis plants use “one gallon of water per day per pound of processed flower.” It seems reasonable that a 10-pound plant will need more water than a 5-pound plant, right?

A pound would be my nice personal stash for the year—an ounce a month plus a quarter pound for the holidays! Let’s say it takes 150 days to grow. Am I a jerk because someone is using 150 gallons of California fresh water to supply my annual California weed habit? How awful am I in the context of other Californians’ love for other things that require water, like beer, rice or beef?

Agriculture uses up to 80 percent of California’s fresh water, according to a June 2014 issue brief, “Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency Potential in California” from the Pacific Institute. While highly variable due to different crops planted year-to-year, agricultural water usage works out to “35 million and 45 million acre-feet per year between 1998 and 2010.”

Let’s see, an acre-foot is 325,851.5 gallons, so we’re in the ballpark of 11.4 trillion to 14.7 trillion gallons of water to sustain all California agriculture for a year. Now, how does California’s marijuana crop fit in?

The Central Valley California HIDTA in 2010 claimed that “California Produces More Marijuana than Mexico.” They used something called the Krogen Formula to determine that California produced an estimated 124,315,200 pounds of smokable marijuana. Multiply that by the average 150-day grow cycle at a gallon per pound per day, and we get 18.65 billion gallons of water.

Or all the state’s smokable marijuana used approximately 0.13 percent to 0.16 percent of all of California’s annual agricultural water. I think I’m feeling a little less guilty now, Christian Science Monitor.

The Water Footprint Network is a non-profit that fights for water conservation by illustrating how many liters of water go into producing a kilogram of a particular consumable. Converting our 150 gallons for a pound of marijuana works out to 1,252 liters of water per kilogram of marijuana. Beer requires 1,420 liters/kg, rice requires 2,497 liters/kg and beef requires 15,415 liters/kg.

Damn, my Chinese takeout with Tsingtao beer just used more water than the joint that gave me the munchies!

The headline would have more properly read, “How marijuana prohibition is making California drought worse.”  

The brief by the Pacific Institute showed that agricultural efficiency techniques could reduce water usage “by 5.6 million to 6.6 million acre-feet per year, or by about 17 to 22 percent, while maintaining productivity and total acreage irrigated.” An illegal cannabis grow isn’t going to adopt those techniques, but a legal cannabis farm could be forced to.

(Photo Courtesy of SanFrancisco.CBSLocal.com)

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