Illustration by Louise Leong

His house was marvelously crafted, constructed neatly between two ancient evergreens and overlooking a vegetable garden, orchard and sweeping fields and forests. Through the heavy oak door, the smell of stale, sweet smoke enveloped the entryway.

“Are you going to use my face for this? As long as you keep me out of the spotlight I’ll tell you the whole story — otherwise, you’ll get the PR version.”

That’s Rennold Mare, a retired real estate agent, who recently retired from another profession as well.

“I was a grower for 24 years, but I never considered myself one until the latter half of it,” Mare said. “It was always kind of a lie. I was passing the time making money, but trying to go elsewhere. I quit because it wasn’t worth it anymore. Profits are over.”

Mare wasn’t just any type of “grower”: He grew marijuana and sold it to friends and buyers across the state, first illegally and then legally under Proposition 215. Mare was one of many in Northern California’s so-called “Emerald Triangle” (the triad of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity County, dubbed the “Emerald Triangle” in the 1960s) that provided financial stability for themselves or their families through this trade.

“We had the bare essentials,” he said, “and would make just enough to get through the year.”

Mare lived through an era of social transformation. As unemployment hit 10.8 percent in early 1983, many looked for alternatives to the deteriorating job market. One such alternative was black-market activity — a “very profitable niche,” Mare said.

The laissez-faire marijuana market has indeed had benefits — such as this unrestricted profit — but in recent history the unregulated cash crop has taken a toll both on the value of the industry and on the ecosystems that host cannabis production. To combat the economic downturn, marijuana-related businesses have sprung up to keep products competitive in an over-saturated market. Marijuana testing laboratories, regional collectives and brand-name labeling are new tools producers use to maintain price competition in the increasingly stagnant market.

But while some find strength in outsourcing consumer appeal, a campaign is taking hold of consumers in a different way, asking them to be conscious of what they smoke and reconsider eco-friendly products over energy-consuming cannabis.

“We’re trying to — on a statewide level — launch an education platform, because there’s a lot of misinformation about this [medical marijuana] movement,” said Alec Dixon, director of client relations at SC Laboratories, a new testing company based in Capitola, Calif.

SC Laboratories tests medical marijuana for various ingredients like pesticides, herbicides, plant growth regulators, molds and cannabinoid potency. There are over 80 different types of cannabinoids, a type of chemical compound, found within the cannabis plant. The most famous of these is tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC.

“People know very little and will often unknowingly smoke pesticides or mold,” Dixon said. “Some aren’t bad for your health — like powdery mildew, for example — but others like Botrytis [commonly known as bud rot] is a human pathogen, and Aspergillus, which is unseen to the human eye, can cause pulmonary aspergillosis [an organ fungal infection], which can be fatal.”

“People want to know, and are fascinated by the truth,” Dixon said. “Now that we have an audience, there is a podium to speak about the progress of this flower [cannabis]. We’re trying to say, ‘You should care,’ especially if you’re a conscious consumer, because many growers use carcinogenic plant growth regulators and toxic chemical additives to maximize yield.”

Testing labs have broadened the discussion on cannabis, replacing the “one cure for all” approach with distinct prescriptions for patients. The cannabinoid known as cannabidiol (CBD), has proven to be an anxiety suppressant, whereas THC is an anxiety agitator. The Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research has classified CBD as an anti-inflammatory for those with arthritis or fibromyalgia, and an anti-psychotic for those with schizophrenia. But the variation in potency is a subtext to the main concern.

“If we’re going to truly call this medicine, then obviously we need to remove the toxicity from cultivation,” Dixon said. “Basically, we’re trying to clean up the industry. We’re working to educate collectives, educate patients and educate growers so there is a higher standard of treatment. Just like strawberries, if you’re taking something, putting it in your body, you should know what’s in it, chemically.”

Kyle Noland* is a resident of Humboldt County who has taken up this same task of saving the industry’s lucrativeness. With a handful of growers, Noland, a cultivator himself, has created an awareness campaign he hopes will connect consumer understanding of grower practices in order to better reflect ecological awareness. Noland sticks mostly to business. As a 46-year-old married man with a 15-year-old daughter, he has a responsibility to provide a steady income for his family.

“I feel we need far more unbiased and up-front education out there to somehow have a positive impact on this uncontrolled industry,” Noland said. “In short, most folks [growers] are over-watering and over-feeding plants without much thought of where the resources are coming from to grow their crop, or where the potential pollution is going.”

When actually analyzed, some of the products commonly understood by growers to be organic often reflect a large carbon footprint and unhealthy choice.

“There are growers who are trying to make a case for toxic amounts of heavy metals like mercury and cadmium in soil additives,” Dixon said. “How that may actually affect the product that patients are buying and smoking will be interesting to see.”

Illustration by Louise Leong.

Defining what constitutes as an organic product has been a large debate among growers, Mare said. But he ensured “growing anything under synthetic sunlight is not healthy — it’s using huge energy consumption for profit.”

“Bio-mimicry, looking to nature for a more efficient design, gives us ideas for growing more sustainable,” said Robert Sutherland, a Northern California environmental activist and blogger. “Production efficiency is how we get to professionalism.”

When asked what they actually understood about the science of medical marijuana, out of a handful of smokers most couldn’t answer basic questions beyond the potency of “indoor or outdoor.”

The lack of producer awareness for unsustainable practices, Noland said, isn’t just laziness but consumer ignorance of the unhealthy practices they buy into with every purchase.

The scope of these sustainable practices is immense, which may be daunting to buyers. The issue of water consumption is but one serious example of many malpractices, including soil usages, resource localities, environmental pollution, pesticide/herbicide exposure, and commercialization.

“The consumer doesn’t understand the immensity of the industry, the variation in product as well as production,” Noland said. “This is where we hope to enlighten people, because healthy choices will shift the producer’s ideas about how to grow their stuff more consciously.”

With the use of actual hard-hitting facts, said Dixon, SC Laboratories director of client relations, the scientific aspects of the reconsideration may be the game changer for patients.

“Ultimately, indoor cannabis production is unsustainable because of the use of fossil fuels,” Dixon said. “And with scientific research, we’ve found outdoor cannabis to have two distinctly unique terpenes which may actually justify the medical benefits of outdoor-grown products.”

Terpenes are what you smell in every plant. A combination of many terpenes gives a distinct flavoring and potency to each variety of cannabis. The significance of the two new terpenes being discovered in marijuana grown outdoors may very well confirm the health impacts the drug has on patients.

But until little-known facts like these are widely disseminated among consumers, the indoor market will continue to thrive, Dixon said.

Mare, a socially active community member, has seen his fair share of new generations come into Humboldt County and stressed the lack of concern “diesel dopers” had for environmental protection. Mare said newer generations are less concerned about production of clean pot than generating large revenues, something he thinks is unfortunate for the quality of cannabis production.

“This is where it gets interesting,” said Robert Lott, a transport-certified middleman between producers in Northern California and Santa Cruz dispensaries. “We [middlemen] do the networking, the driving, but we don’t sell anything but the product. It’s not really a concern for us because it’s not our fight.”

“Sometimes buyers want to know the background of the stuff they’re getting,” he continued, “but it’s pretty basic stuff: indoor, outdoor, hereditary strains, markup prices. But they don’t care about how the plants were grown. It’s kind of too bad.”

When asked about the lack of consideration from middlemen, former grower Mare said, “A lot of these people are in it for the simple outcome: money. Kids today just want the bottom line, the straight shoot. Middlemen especially. Some think it’s a full-time job.”

The lack of consideration by large sellers won’t change until the demand for organic production is formally made by consumers, Dixon said. In a separate interview Mare agreed; middlemen or dispensaries “don’t get paid to preach.”

Julian Palms*, a 32-year-old medical marijuana grower, has been growing indoors for more than three years. He finds interest in growing organic product, but admits it is not easy.

“I have tried to avoid it, but I use plant health regulators (PHRs) to keep up the steady growth,” Palms said. “It’s like any immune system. If it gets sick or weak you can boost the health by adding some chemical or biological agents to the food. With antibiotics, you’re boosting defense by usually strengthening white blood cells. These PHRs boost energy and bloom.”

Though Palms is concerned about his impact, he admits many growers don’t care about ecological damage because of the profit turnaround.

“To a lot of my friends there isn’t any problem with running a 100 kW generator for 12 hours a day,” Palms said. “They still make bank on their cycles, so who can blame them?”

The argument is being justified by all sides, whether it’s indoor grower or local distributor. The reaction, whether concerned or not, depends on the consumer.

“Clubs don’t care, the drivers [middlemen] don’t care, and the buyers don’t care, but if they knew the amount of energy going into this stuff and the pollution coming out of it, and the unethical means [i.e. spraying plants with pesticides] by which people are producing this medicinal drug, it might change their minds,” Noland said. “You really have to consider who’s buying your product. Our personal market isn’t uneducated yuppies. They are usually conscious consumers that understand the value in sustainable products. But this concern isn’t reflective of most.”

This lack of concern was significant to Mare as well when he grew marijuana.

“Hopefully people start to get it,” Mare said. “The campaign is hard to get moving because there isn’t an advertising business for pot yet. But the facts are already there — they just have to be used properly.”

Illustration by Louise Leong.

The campaign is amassing a database from respected individuals in the local community and from institutions of objective, rather than subjective, standing. But numbers are just numbers for Noland, the campaign leader, as he argues in order to make an impact, “you have to make things relative.”

Both consumer and commercial retail suppliers see this as reasonable. Local dispensaries see little salience in mudslinging against indoor marijuana, but do like the idea of putting science into their sales.

Humboldt grower Noland’s campaign work incorporates these databases of grower practices into digestible facts and pamphlets in order to get consumer attention.

One of the headings on a campaign flier reads “70 Gallons of Diesel Fuel = 1 Pound Indoor Pot”; a product statistic generated by Evan Mills, long-time energy analyst and staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University of California. Mills has done extensive work on the energy consumption involved with medical marijuana production.

“From the perspective of individual consumers, a single cannabis cigarette represents two pounds of CO2 emissions, an amount equal to running a 100-watt light bulb for 17 hours assuming average U.S. electricity emissions (or 30 hours on California’s cleaner grid),” Mills said.

Studies like these, done in a professional environment, have given concrete support to the fight against energy-consuming marijuana production, and with the combination of health problems presented by toxic additives, it may give campaigners what they need to change consumers choices from indoor to outdoor.

“Facts like that hit hard, man,” Mare said as he rolled a cigarette for himself. “If every time someone lit one up, they thought about — what, 17 light bulb hours? They would probably start to think about their buys, right? That’s why I think the indoor market is so damn powerful. It’s not natural, it’s not organic — it’s ‘pollution pot,’ but the buyers don’t really know that, and that ignorance is actually keeping prices up.”

But today, even with new scientific education about environmental impact awareness, will there be time to save this export market before the economic collapse? The three counties’ economies rely heavily on the production of cannabis and the steady generation of revenue, but with industrial production becoming more prevalent, profit-per-pound will drop.

It is hard for any person to forecast the market, but there is still joking and comedic speculation among community members. The future of Humboldt County is not, however, solely dependent on the success of the cannabis market, said Noland.

“In my opinion, I feel that it is important that we [Humboldt County] as a community try to diversify our economies and not only hold onto the marijuana monoculture mindset to follow this so called ‘Napa model,’” Noland said.

The Napa Model reflects the industry in the county southeast of Mendocino County, which grows solely wine products. Instead, he argues, through farming specializations, small communities can diversify their agricultural practices and limit the requirement of imported goods through sustainable alternatives such as livestock, energy collectives or large scale community gardens.

By choosing more sustainable alternatives, growers avoid direct negative feedback loops. These alternatives include importing products, growing cannabis and producing pollution.

Sustainable practices, according to Keenan and Mare, allow for a redirection of outcomes, serving more environmental benefit, in balance with crop profit.

Sutherland reiterated the slim market that existed for sustainability.

Illustration by Louise Leong.

“Don’t get me wrong. I know there are some people out there that do store water for their crop [lowering impact on streams during summertime droughts], but they are an extremely small, small minority,” Sutherland said.

Compared to the sheer mass of production, Sutherland doesn’t think small action is enough.

“I learned from the drug task force in Eureka that last year 168,300 pot plants were confiscated, [and] when I asked what percentage of total production in the county they thought that amount represented, they answered 1 percent,” Sutherland said. “That means that last year there were an estimated 16,830,000 marijuana plants planted in Humboldt County, both indoor and outdoor.”

The numbers were shocking to hear, Sutherland said.

“Keep in mind, Humboldt’s production is in rivalry with Mendocino County, with Trinity County in close proximity to these numbers as well. And although population in Humboldt County hasn’t grown much in the last 20 years, the amount of water consumption is vast in comparison. Shifting cultivation outdoors virtually eliminates energy use (aside from transport), although

when mismanaged, the practice imposes their own environmental impacts.”

Dixon however is hopeful for a reconsideration of the market.

“If we’re just dosing our products with toxic chemicals,” he said, “how different are we from the pharmaceutical industry?”

The campaign will slowly continue, trying to bring consumer and producer closer together. Bringing light to the benefit that organically grown products can offer.

Michael Pollan, a renowned critic of the agricultural industry, champions the power of the consumer in any industry. The viral campaign “Vote with your Fork,” produced in the New York Times, shows that with every healthy choice made, the industry will adapt to serve the buyer. Cannabis activists like Mare have asked patients to “Vote with your Joints” in order to accomplish this same transition.

Noland continues to work on agendas for upcoming cannabis conferences.

“In short, this is a very complicated situation we are facing here in our community and we can only speculate on the future,” Noland said. “For the sake of the environment, the industry must change.”

*Names have been changed.