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July 17, 2017 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

The Green Option

A debate has been spreading around the world about the failed war on drugs. Countries are increasingly liberalising their policies towards cannabis in favour of legalisation, with different forms of regulatory regimes governing its manufacture and distribution cropping up.

I’m not here to argue the merits of this debate in relation to penal policy, although obvious benefits include a safer, regulated cannabis market, removing power from black market gangs, and addressing the racial disparity in drug arrests and incarceration rates. Advocates have been arguing these points for years with little traction. Instead, I will make the case for legal cannabis on the basis of the economic and environmental benefits it can reap.

Many believe that this shift towards liberalisation is inevitable, and despite New Zealand’s reluctance to have any meaningful discussion on the topic, we will have to face it eventually.  One vital consideration is often left out of the discussions around the world, but it is something New Zealand will need to consider when we finally face the issue — the implications for the environment.

Richard Branson recently suggested that New Zealand consider cannabis cultivation as an alternative to dairy farming, citing dairy’s environmental destruction as an obvious reason for change. He is not the first to have said it, and his comments make sense. New Zealand is extremely well-suited to develop sustainable cannabis cultivation: we have the climate to grow it outdoors (indoor growth is extremely energy-intensive), we have the infrastructure already in place, and as a country with some of the highest rates of cannabis consumption in the world, we have the expertise to do it.

As a transitional economic option, cannabis cultivation provides a much more environmentally conscious alternative to dairy farming. The environmental harms of continued and expansive dairy farming in New Zealand have been well researched and are gaining considerable media and public attention.¹ Whether it is the ecological deterioration of our waterways caused by effluent and fertiliser run-off, or the hazardous rates of methane released by cows contributing to levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the dairy farming industry in its current form is not environmentally sustainable.

Many defenders of the dairy industry rely on the belief that the industry is the “backbone of the New Zealand economy,” contributing billions of dollars to GDP. But the dairy industry is extremely vulnerable to external market forces, and having all our milk in one basket can have potentially devastating economic effects.² Even members of the dairy industry see the need to diversify the economy, with some farmers expressing an interest in a legal market for cannabis cultivation.³ The largest recreational cannabis retailer in Colorado since legalisation there is an ex-dairy farmer from the Waikato, suggesting that the transition is not all that hard to imagine.

Not to mention that the New Zealand tourism industry is increasingly challenging the dairy industry as our biggest GDP earner. The success of our tourism sector is premised on our image as one of the most naturally beautiful countries in the world. Our two largest earners are at odds, and continued environmental degradation from the dairy industry means that our 100% Pure campaign is not quite realistic — 60% Pure may be more apt.

While not as harmful as dairy farming, cannabis cultivation is not without its environmental impacts. As with any large scale farming, it poses the risks of soil erosion, land degradation, and run-off from pesticides. Ecologists at the University of Berkeley conducted a study on the impacts of cannabis cultivation on surrounding ecosystems, and found that cultivation could potentially have a large impact on water resources in the area. They concluded that future policy on cannabis cultivation needed “both incentives and regulatory tools to prevent and mitigate the environmental damage.”

Governments are placed in a unique position to create a robust regulatory regime before cannabis cultivation is legalised. This would allow issues of taxation, education, distribution and, importantly, the environment to be considered and dealt with from the outset. Rather than having to fix any problems once the industry is firmly established, policy can be put in place from the beginning to ensure that cultivation is sustainable and that the industry develops with minimal environmental impact.

A proper regulatory system will require a body such as a commission or authority that will grant permits and ensure compliance with regulatory standards. Part of this process could include environmental considerations such as limiting use of synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. Limiting the size of cultivations or incentivising small-scale farmers would also ensure that top-soil health is protected. Revenue from taxes can also be reinvested in developing and distributing best management practises and facilitating discussion between the industry, communities, and sustainability experts to encourage long-term sustainable growth.

While we’re a long way off ditching dairy, cannabis legalisation could provide opportunity to diversify our economy, reducing harm to the environment and ensuring the preservation of the beauty of Aotearoa, not only for the benefit of future generations, but also to continue setting an example to the world.


  1. See, for example, Rachel Young, “Dairy Farming Harming Water.” Stuff. (Online ed). 21 November 2012. and Peter Fowler, “Scientist Warns of Ticking Time Bomb.” Radio NZ. 22 February 2016.
  2. China’s dominance over dairy imports is evident by the impact of the ban on milk powder from New Zealand following the botulism scare: Naomi Tajitsu, “China Bans New Zealand Milk Powder Imports on Botulism Scare: NZ Trade Minister.” Reuters Business News. (Online ed). 4 August 2013.
  3. Charlie Mitchell. “Industry Calls for Kiwi Farmers to be Allowed to Grow Cannabis” Stuff. (Online ed, 24 April, 2016).

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