In this video newsletter, we share the story of Solstice, a commercial cannabis producer founded in 2011 and based in the state of Washington. Vice president and co-founder Alex Cooley has infused his business model and practices with values that elevate the conversation around environmental sustainability and corporate responsibility in the cannabis industry.
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The Life of a Cannabis Grower – 10 years from the first plant
When asked to write for the NCIA blog, I first thought I’m not sure if anyone really wants to read my ramblings via an open blog format. So I thought about where most of my cannabis conversations start and end. More often than not, I am asked how I started out, what it has been like, and where I think the industry, Solstice, and myself are headed. Recently I celebrated 10 years cultivating the cannabis plant and I figured this format is as good as any to rehash (pun intended) the last decade of my life.
In 2006 at the ripe age of 21, I took my first step into the cannabis cultivation world for two reasons; an act of civil disobedience, and so that my friends and I could have the best cannabis around. I was given a few seeds and a light from a close friend and in a rather paranoid fashion I began my journey in a small closet in my one-bedroom apartment in Seattle. I read everything I could get my hands on and constantly experimented with the plant. Faster than I had imagined, I was through several harvests and quickly converting my bedroom into a grow room. As the size of my grow increased, so grew my paranoia and I determined I could no longer risk my future by illegally growing cannabis.
Within days of deciding to stop growing I was introduced to the realities of medical cannabis and that I could cultivate legally with a doctor’s recommendation. Receiving my first recommendation was a massive catalyst of learning and consciousness. As a person who dealt with chronic pain for most of his life and as a respite care provider, my world was forever improved. I realized that I personally could massively benefit from the medical values of the plant and as a care provider I could help to provide these values to others. Upon that realization I jumped head first into the pool and rented my first grow house.
All the while I was growing medical cannabis for others and myself, I never planned on doing it forever. During this time I was going to college to obtain degrees in education and I never saw “Elementary Teacher’s Marijuana Grow House Discovered by Seattle Police Department” as being a good headline or one that would help me further my career as an educator. It was planned that I would stop growing at the scale I was when I finished college, but it turned out that the universe had different plans for me. My world changed forever when Seattle Public Schools went on a hiring freeze and I was told it would be years before I could get a job in Seattle.
At that point I was lost and if it were not for a good friend, Trek Hollnagel, who I had taught to grow, opened my eyes to the reality of a career in the new world of the cannabis industry. To say the least in those early days we had little to no clue what we were doing. We went from moving to California, to deciding to “revolutionize” medical cannabis in Washington by starting four companies from dispensaries to merchant services. Of course we attempted to do all of these at once. After a few years of being pulled in 1,000 directions I decided to bow out and begin a new adventure. It was then in early 2011 I founded Solstice with Will Denman and hoped to only be pulled in 100 directions by focusing on cultivation.
Will and I started Solstice with the goal of helping to legitimize and normalize medical cannabis by being a public cannabis cultivator that was transparent about what we did and why, with everyone from law enforcement to patients. Simply put, we wanted to take the plant from what marijuana was to what cannabis can be. This was a rather crazy concept at that point in Washington’s history, but we took Steve DeAngelo’s charge of “out of the shadows and into the light” to heart. When the first Times article came out about how we were building the state’s first fully permitted cultivation facility, my paranoia was elevated to say the least.
Fortunately, instead of being cast out of society and thrown in prison we were embraced and celebrated. This gave us a platform to further our goal of helping to legitimize/normalize and we were welcomed in by legislators and regulators to craft what the world of regulated cannabis was going to look like. It was then that we successfully helped to write and pass our first ordinance for cannabis at the city level. From there under the Solstice flag we have helped to craft countless pieces of legislation and regulation from the neighborhood micro level in the SoDo District to the international stage at the United Nations and everything in between. Though we spend a lot of our time working on policy (I’m currently on a plane to DC to lobby Congress with NCIA!) we actually grow a good amount of cannabis.
At Solstice we have done so much with the plant and a have stellar team that has grown the business beyond my wildest dreams. It’s crazy, we’ve gone from starting the company in the downstairs of my house to building multiple state of the art facilities and working with sun-grown partner farms with canopy exceeding acres and acres of cultivation in both the medical and adult uses systems. We are also very proud to have the distinction of being the first cannabis brand in the first fully legal state. Along the way, we have grown cannabis that has won countless awards, stopped children from having seizures, at a high point employing 75 people, and had a lot of fun along the way.
Looking back ten years to that day I propagated those first seeds in my closet, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I have been so incredibly fortunate to get to learn so much, grow a business, manage to succeed while failing a lot, make life-long friends, and some say, change the world. Going from not planning to do this for that long to not even being able to comprehend doing something else with my life; it’s been quite a ride. In truth for me, cannabis is my life’s work.
One widely circulated quote equates the carbon footprint of producing a gram of hydroponically grown cannabis to that of “driving seventeen miles in a Honda Civic.” And while that beats seventeen miles in a Hummer, it’s a number we have the power to greatly reduce. Part of what excites me about this freshly-legal industry is that we have the opportunity to shape it in a way that big business has thus far failed to do by not putting a higher profit margin above the health of the planet.
In August I was asked to speak about this very topic in Las Vegas at the 2nd annual NCIA Southwest CannaBusiness Symposium. It gave me a chance to reflect on something I’m passionate about – the real environmental impact of what we do, what isn’t working, and how we can create positive change for this and future generations of growers and patients.
Get Under The Sun
It takes vast resources to power a warehouse grow that relies on High Intensity Discharge (HID) or High Pressure Sodium (HPS) lights. Automated light deprivation greenhouses can produce cannabis of equal or greater value as that produced indoors at half the cost and one quarter the environmental impact.
Cannabis used for extracts can all be grown outdoors. Provided you live in a climate that allows for outdoor cultivation, sun-grown cannabis is excellent starting material for extractions. The finished form will be far from the flower, so why not take advantage of one of our most powerful (and free!) resources?
Keep It Lean Indoors
I know that not every method of cultivation can rely exclusively on solar power. However, in indoor grows, we can focus on efficiency.
For most indoor grows, Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems are a huge resource suck. I’ve discovered that the best method is to utilize a centralized Variable Air Volume (VAV) system.
Make sure the envelope is sealed. Keep your buildings well insulated to prevent energy leaks. Without a higher energy code and tighter insulation, many industrial-scale grows hemorrhage energy and resources.
Lay Down the Law
Frankly, some of the cities and states currently passing laws to regulate cannabis cultivation have the least enviable power infrastructures. Las Vegas, which relies heavily on coal and natural gas, is ahead of the curve in terms of legislation, whereas clean n’ green hydro-electrically-powered Washington State has yet to create stringent and sustainable regulations. Legislators have been more concerned with issues of security and diversion than environmental impact. The “pot is dangerous” paradigm needs to shift to “unregulated grow practices are dangerous for the planet.”
We can effectively undo all the good of a smart grow with wasteful packaging.
Think cradle-to-grave for your packaging: Where did it come from? What is it made of? Where will it go after it has been used? That plastic container might be a good fix in a pinch, but think about the impact it has as you scale.
We’ve got to reduce plastics and push glass, wood, or paper wherever possible. Almost every gram of cannabis that goes out into the world from a processing facility is wrapped in plastic – and we all know that it can’t be properly disposed of or recycled. However, the plastic used for business-to-business bulk orders could be saved and reused.
At Solstice we’ve been designing glass containers with cork and wood tops for our flower. They can be collected, reused, or returned for a deposit. Our pre-rolls are made from 60% post-consumer recycled paper and printed with vegetable ink. Every little bit counts.
Have Multiple Bottom Lines
The “Triple P bottom line: People, Planet, Profits” is the newest, sexiest take on commerce with a conscience. The Triple P works primarily because it’s a flexible paradigm; it gives business owners a framework in which they can question and evaluate the human and environmental cost of every move they make.
Across industries, innovative leaders are finding more generous, humane, and ultimately more sustainable ways to do big business. Some of these are easy and inexpensive: utilizing proper waste disposal, bike-to-work incentive programs (a Solstice favorite), Plant-A-Tree days, or making sure your pesticide program is safe for employees and the planet.
Sometimes however, there is an unavoidable immediate cost to doing what’s right. Google uses a fancy fuel cell with 2-3 bloom boxes for their building infrastructure. They’re getting loads of good PR for this – in part because very few people can afford to use them.
But it is my belief that the more you grow, the more capital you’re bringing in, the more you have to give to impeccable resource management.
Everyone knows that cannabis makes money; we’re looking at a multi-billion dollar industry over the next 5 years. Hobby systems and garage standards are not scalable for the cannabis boom. Whatever the laws might ‘allow’ us to do, we have to stay ahead of the curve and firmly within our own conscience.
Alex Cooley is the owner of Solstice, a member of NCIA since April 2013. Solstice founded their Seattle-based flagship in 2011 as the first-ever permitted cannabis production facility in Washington State. Solstice has taken an environmentally conscious approach to high quality cannabis production and has cultivated over 350 different types of cannabis, creating one of the most robust genetic libraries anywhere in the world.