Why Weed Is Relevant in the Flint, MI, Water Crisis

Humans aren't the only living things being contaminated by Flint's water.

The Flint, Michigan water crisis is a prime example of local and state government failing its citizens.

Lawmakers switched the town’s water supply source to the Flint River in 2014 in an effort to conserve the most valuable resource—money. The switch caused what has been described as irreversible damage to the pipes and sewer system through which the town's drinking water flowed, and contaminated it with lead. According to multiple reports, and common sense, the town’s citizens who bathed in and consumed the tainted H20 were also poisoned by it.

Nobody turned into a zombie or a Ted Cruz, thankfully, though the government declared Flint in a State of Emergency before the town (begrudgingly) decided to stop poisoning its citizens, all the while making them pay more for water than anyone else in the country. 

Theoretically, an amateur extract artist could blast some BHO-wax in their backyard in the morning. By the afternoon, it could be on the shelves of a shady Detroit dispensary.

Even now, five months after switching the supply back to the fresher water flowing from the Great Lakes, according to CNN more than 600 Flint homes have water pouring from their taps testing “well above EPA’s action level for lead.” Gross. 

So, then, where does pot play into this politico-humanitarian crisis? Aside from offering a bit of mental reprieve when smoked after a day spent drinking and bathing in toxic waste, cannabis is actually more relevant than one might think. 

Medical weed has been legal in Michigan since voters approved the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act in 2008, though the industry has yet to see any regulation on cultivation, distribution, and testing of products. Theoretically, an amateur extract artist could blast some BHO-wax in their backyard in the morning. By the afternoon, it could be on the shelves of a shady Detroit dispensary. A grower could raise an entire cannabis harvest on Flint’s contaminated water. At no point in the supply-chain between cultivation and patient-consumption, does that flower have to be legally tested. It would likely contain lead. 

Image via Freep.com

This is cause for concern.

Individual pot plants are estimated to consume six gallons of water per day. According to a Guardian report, “The $3.5 bn cannabis industry is one of the nation’s most energy intensive, often demanding 24-hour indoor lighting rigs, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems at multiplying grow sites.” Legal weed's environmental footprint may end up being just as great as its economic impact. 

Brand licensing has been touted as a cannabis-industry workaround to marketing weed brands across state borders—shipping the process, credibility, and branding of a company—and not the cannabis-infused products. This is a future that will be hard to bank on, if one state requires products to undergo lab tests, while others are free to distribute possibly dangerous products under trusted names. The medical cannabis market in Michigan should step up and serve as an example to other industries by self-policing contaminated cannabis, and lab-testing all products whether they’ve been produced using lead-contaminated water or not.

Claire T. Moore, a plant expert at Iron Laboratories, told Culture magazine: “Some authors suggest that land contaminated with heavy metals such as cadmium, nickel and lead should not be used for agricultural production . . . This suggests that if the cannabis plant is exposed to lead, under the right conditions, there may be significant accumulation of lead in various parts of the plant, particularly the leaves, followed by stem tissue and seeds.” Moore advises to err on the side of caution until more research is available. 

There’s also a process called phytoremediation. It’s basically when plants take one for team earth, and are strategically planted in contaminated soil in an effort to soak up some of the toxins. 

The logic here is that cannabis plants would function in the same way that bread and cheese fries do inside your stomach the morning after a drinking binge—except they’re plants and won’t give the earth man boobs.

From a McGraw Hill Higher Education report

“In 1998, [bio-tech firms and researchers] planted industrial hemp, Cannabis for the purpose of removing contaminants near the Chernobyl site…Overall, phytoremediation has great potential for cleaning up toxic metals, pesticides, solvents, gasoline, and explosives. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 30,000 sites in the United States alone require hazardous waste treatment. Restoring these areas and their soil, as well as disposing of the wastes, are costly projects, but the costs are expected to be reduced drastically if plants provide the phytoremediation results everyone is hoping for."

There is hope in weed, possibly.

According to Moore, “Cannabis happens to be a very promising candidate species used for phytoremediation…. But without further information regarding the effects of lead contaminated cannabis use on humans, it is impossible to discern what sort of effects it may have.”