Today is Earth Day for the adult cannabis market in Illinois. The industry is able to help us all understand what it takes to balance consumer costs with environmental and sustainability priorities.

With 21 existing cultivation centers, the state has paved the way to ensure that this market crop leads the way for environmentally friendly industrial agriculture. However, regulation for the best environments for growth has some tradeoffs, and there are barriers to green entrepreneurship that intersect with equity. What is clear is that MSOs like Cresco Labs and groups like the Illinois Environmental Council are doing their part to create an equitable and environmentally conscious industry.

We’ll listen and share with Cary Shepherd, former Policy Director of the Illinois Environmental Council, and Jason Nelson, Senior Vice President of Horticulture at Cresco Labs, to learn a little about how Illinois law got so green – and what it was everything means everything for an emerging industry in these challenging times.

Mila Marshall: The Illinois Environmental Council represents more than 90 environmental organizations across the state. Cary, can you tell us a little bit about how the IEC came to work on recommendations for cannabis regulation and tax law?

Cary Schäfer: We worked with the University of Chicago Abrams’ Environmental Law Clinic to conduct a policy and legal review on sustainable cannabis growth to help us design language that reflected the network’s priorities and concerns. The bill’s focus wasn’t on protecting the environment, which is not a bad thing – the Illinois bill was a criminal justice reform bill – but we were able to work with IEC members to create laws that protect the environment very much like others Agricultural industries, for example, are held accountable.

MM: Some people may be concerned about the additional environmental legislation in HB 1438. It seems like the environment and the economy are always being played off against each other. What were the real concerns of the environmental community? Why did these elements have to be included?

CS: Many in the community were concerned with water, energy, and cannabis waste, but most people understood that criminal justice reform and social justice were the main issues. The environmental community wanted to make sure that this new industry did not cause unnecessary environmental damage.

MM: Typically, draft ordinances from our government agencies are publicly available and we are allowed to have a say. How was the environmental regulation process and which government agency was responsible for these parts of the bill?

CS: The Department of Agriculture had a tight schedule for the environmental regulations for HB 1438. Normally there is an opportunity for the public to express themselves and comment; however, public comment was suspended.

MM: Cresco Labs operates 13 cultivation centers in seven different states, three of which are in Illinois. The company also has a solid social justice agenda. What do you think of sustainability and social justice in the industry?

Jason Nelson: I think the social justice dialogue has escalated and prioritized due to the direct human impact. The lack of federal legalization has, in my opinion, hindered a more robust dialogue on social justice. But there was a need to take a leadership role in tackling the injustices of the imprisonment, extermination and increasing ownership of minority businesses. As an industry, however, we have failed to address the intersections between the environment and justice. Now is our opportunity to link sustainability plans to a broader normalization agenda. Cresco Labs always strives to be a leader when it comes to being good stewards in the cannabis industry.

MM: What are the benefits of environmental regulations on cannabis in Illinois?

CS: Most of these benefits are related to cost effectiveness and efficiency. For example, the expansion of a room with the aim of sustainability and efficiency can be significantly cheaper than retrofitting, for example. So one advantage is that companies have the opportunity to start on their best.

MM: Jason, what do you think of the challenges Illinois environmental regulations are facing Cresco Labs?

JN: From the operator’s point of view, we will always look for a balance between increasing yield and reducing electricity consumption. Cannabis is energy intensive, so we’re working even harder to promote discounts for energy companies that help offset the increased costs of energy-saving practices. We would like to advocate for future legislative changes, such as enabling secure outdoor production, which in itself would reduce the carbon footprint associated with one gram of THC produced. If Illinois did something, the worst would be just that, it lowers the cost of manufacturing certain products and is good 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 give this space their voice. We need environmental actors to understand that in addition to the unpredictability of emerging industries, there is also no traditional commercial banking and no access to capital. Our companies must support the use of win-win situations, for example through environmental incentives.

MM: What about hemp, Jason? How does this relate to cannabis farmers on the hemp side?

JN: I believe that there are elements of cannabis production through hemp cultivation applications that have great potential to combat environmental damage. Federal grants and incentives for growing hemp on poor quality soils for environmental remediation and for use in a secondary product in the back end could specifically benefit black and brown farmers.

MM: The SEED program at Cresco is an incubator program. Are the participants learning about sustainability?

JN: Most of the program is related to supporting the visions of the participants. They are aware of both social justice and the environment. We certainly make recommendations and they are usually environmentally conscious operators willing to learn how to save money and protect the environment.