Cannabis Provides a Unique Opportunity to Promote Sustainable, Environmentally Friendly Business Practices

The industry is in a position of influence to help us all understand what it takes to be mindful about balancing costs for consumers with conservation and sustainability priorities. 

With 21 existing cultivation centers, the state has taken the approach to ensure this cash crop leads the way toward earth-friendly industrial agriculture. Regulation for the best growing environments, however, has some tradeoffs, and there are barriers to environmental entrepreneurship that intersect with equity. What is clear is that MSOs like Cresco Labs and groups like the Illinois Environmental Council are each doing their part to create an equitable and environmentally conscious industry. 

We listen and share with Cary Shepherd, former policy director for the Illinois Environmental Council, and Jason Nelson, senior vice president of horticulture at Cresco Labs, to learn a little bit about how Illinois legislation got to be so green—and what it all means for a budding industry in these challenging times. 

Mila Marshall: The Illinois Environmental Council represents more than 90 environmental organizations across the state. Cary, can you share a little bit about how the IEC came about to working on  the recommendations for the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act?

Cary Shepherd: We worked with the University of Chicago Abrams Environmental Law Clinic to do a policy and law review on sustainable cannabis growth to help us draft language that was reflective of the priorities and concerns of the network. The focus of the bill was not on the environmental, which isn’t a bad thing—Illinois’ bill was a criminal justice reform bill—but we were able to work with IEC members to create legislation that protects the environment very similarly to how other agricultural industries are held accountable, for example.

MMSome people may feel some apprehensive about the additional environmental legislation in H.B. 1438. It seems as though the environment and the economy are always pitted against each other. What were the actual concerns from the environmental community? Why were these elements necessary to include? 

CS: Many from the community were concerned with water, energy and waste from cannabis, but most people understood that criminal justice reform and social equity was the primary issue. The environmental community wanted to ensure that this new industry wasn’t creating any unnecessary environmental harms.

MM: Typically, draft regulations from our state agencies are open to the public and we are allowed to weigh in. What was the process for the environmental regulations and what state agency was responsible for engaging on those parts of the bill?

CS: The Department of Agriculture had a tight timeline for the environmental regulations for H.B. 1438. Typically, there is an opportunity for the public to weigh in and comment; however, the public commenting was suspended.

MM: Cresco Labs operates 13 cultivation centers in seven different states with three of those centers are located in Illinois. The company also has a robust social equity agenda. What are your thoughts about industry sustainability and social equity?

Jason Nelson: I think the dialogue for  social equity was escalated and prioritized because of the direct human impact. The lack of federal legalization in my opinion hampered a more robust dialogue of social equity. But it was necessary to lead with addressing the inequities of incarceration, expungement and increasing minority business ownership. Yet as an industry we have failed to address the intersections between the environment and equity, now it is our opportunity to connect sustainability plans to a broader normalization agenda. Cresco Labs is always looking to be a leader when it comes to being good stewards in the cannabis industry.  

MM: What are the benefits to having environmental regulations for cannabis in Illinois?

CS: Most of these benefits are related to cost effectiveness and efficiency. Building a space out, for example, with the intention of sustainability and efficiency can be much cheaper than retrofitting, for example. So, one benefit is that businesses have the opportunity to begin with their best foot forward. 

MM: Jason, what are your thoughts about the challenges of Illinois’ environmental regulations for Cresco Labs?

JN: From an operator’s perspective we will always seek a balance between increasing our yields and  bringing down the electrical draw. Cannabis is energy intensive so the more we are working to encourage power company rebates that help offset the elevated costs of energy saving practices. We want to advocate for future legislative change such as allowing for open field secured production, that in and of itself would reduce the carbon footprint associated with a gram of THC produced. If Illinois were to do something the most consequential thing would be just that, it lowers the cost of manufacturing for certain products and is a win for the environment.  

MM: Who needs to be at the table to help the cannabis industry become more sustainable? 

JN: I would say we need more environmental activists to lend their voices to this space. We need environmental stakeholders to understand the absence of traditional business banking and access to capital alongside the unpredictable nature of the burgeoning industry. Our companies need to support leveraging win-win circumstances through environmental incentives, for example.  

MMWhat about hemp, Jason? How does this connect to cannabis farmers on the hemp side?

JN: I do believe there are elements of cannabis production, through hemp farming applications, that have great potential to address environmental harm. Federal grants and incentives to plant hemp on low quality soil for environmental reclamation and for use in a secondary product on the back end could be targeted to benefit Black and brown farmers.  

MM: The SEED program at Cresco is an incubator program. Do participants learn about sustainability?

JN: Most of the program is tied to supporting participant visions. They are aware of both social equity and the environment. We surely make recommendations, and they are typically environmentally enlightened operators that are open to learning how to own and operate in ways that save money and protect the environment.

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