Massachusetts sets sights on green weed

He doesn't grow pot, but Sam Milton wants Massachusetts weed to be the greenest.

With recreational marijuana markets set to open in the Bay State next year, Milton's recent startup, Climate Resources Group (CRG), is one of the only local consulting firms to count  sustainable cannabis cultivation among its list of green targets.

Environmental policy expert
Sam Milton wants green weed for 
Massachusetts.
"The overarching driver in my work is to really help reduce the impact on our natural environment from the things we do and the way we consume and produce," Milton said. And while the consumption of marijuana often gets the most press, it's the production of arguably the nation's most popular non-food crop that currently presents an environmental problem. But after his state voted to legalize last fall, Milton said that environmental concerns were largely ignored in Massachusetts, just as they were in Colorado in 2012.

"All of the conversation around what the law should look like was around public safety, public health, marketing, and [there was] very little focus on the environmental and energy implications of [legalization]," Milton said.

Fortunately for Milton, he does business in a state that is no stranger to tackling environmental issues. When Massachusetts passed the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008, it became one of the first states to form a comprehensive plan to curb global warming by reducing its carbon emissions. The act required the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below its 1990 levels by 2050.

Massachusetts has since made steady progress in that endeavor. Boston is home to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which opened in 2009, and as of 2014 the state ranked 32nd of 50 states in carbon dioxide emissions. Two weeks ago, Massachusetts renewed its commitment to clean energy by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a regional cap-and-trade agreement that is proven to reduce both carbon emissions and energy costs for member states.

Last fall, 54 percent of Massachusetts voters approved Question 4, and the state joined Maine (which also approved legal marijuana that same night) as the first two states on the eastern seaboard to fully legalize  marijuana.* One of the many challenges now facing Bay State regulators is how to bring the state's robust commitment to sustainability to the cannabis industry.

State legislators began working on that in July, when they approved an implementation bill that called for the establishment of "energy and environmental standards" for the cannabis industry. Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill into law on July 28.

Getting growers to adhere to the new standards could be tricky, though. Most of the state's medical pot is still grown indoors, using energy-guzzling techniques pioneered and perfected during the days of prohibition. Some of the state's medical producers, such as the giant, Denver-based AmeriCann, are already investing in sustainable, state-of-the-art grow facilities, but other growers will need help adapting to new standards.

Milton, who holds a master's degree in law and diplomacy and has plenty of experience in environmental policy, is ready to help both new and existing growers transition to sustainable agriculture.

"As I get into the cannabis space, I realize that not everyone is driven by environmental concerns," Milton said. "The way I'm approaching my work is helping people figure out ways to reduce their costs, particularly around water and energy use."

And unlike in the West's legal marijuana states, the growers Milton helps in Massachusetts might be traditional farmers. The implementation bill calls for "provisions for the benefit of farmers and craft marijuana cultivators."

Those provisions would allow the Bay State's smaller farmers to get in on a booming new business. For example, Milton's local provider for Massachusetts' Community Sponsored Agriculture program recently approached him saying she was seriously looking into growing marijuana.

"She's not a smoker; she's a grandma," he said. "But her daughter is the one driving this and they're thinking about how can they do this and how can they do it right."

Ted Dobson is one of many Massachusetts farmers who would
welcome marijuana in their fields. 
(Credit: Joanna Chattman, Boston Globe)
Should they add legal marijuana to their traditional crop portfolios, Massachusetts farmers would not be the first American farmers to do so; there was a time when the federal government actually published pot-growing instructions. Beginning in 1915, when drug cannabis was still legally distributed as a medicine, the US Department of Agriculture published cultivation instructions for "cannabis indica" (marijuana) in Farmers' Bulletin, a series of instructional pamphlets directed at everyday farmers.

Milton believes that the potential marriage of cannabis and sustainable, small-scale farming would be a perfect match.

"Traditional small farmers, they have a respect for the land, and they want to [farm] in a way that's sustainable," he said. "I want to be at the forefront of sharing that knowledge with people. I want to make sure that the way the [cannabis] crop is grown in New England is among the greenest."

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*Washington, D.C. approved a recreational initiative in 2014, but Congress has thus far blocked the setup of markets.

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