In mid-July, a group of Democratic senators introduced a sweeping bill to federally legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. Despite the fact that most experts believe the bill will not, in its current form or really anything close to it, pass into law, it’s still one further sign that marijuana will, at some point, probably, maybe, be federally legal.
Marijuana is big business, both legal and illegal. We obviously have better sales numbers on the legal side, so here’s that: $17.5 billion in 2020, despite marijuana being legal in only 14 states at the time. (We’re up to 18, now, and 37 total if you include medical marijuana.) The illegal market is fuzzier, but one survey measures it at around $60 billion.
If you want to get into growing marijuana, whether that’s for commercial purposes or as an at-home hobby, there’s an awful lot you’ll need to know. The current regulations are a mess of state and local rules, combined with the continued presence of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act, making it federally illegal. If the Senate bill passes, this will all get much less complicated, but at the moment, it’s a headache. As of August 2021, here’s your guide to growing marijuana in the United States.
Note: We use the term “marijuana” to refer to plants grown for their THC content, “hemp” or “industrial hemp” for plants grown with THC levels under the legal limit of 0.3 percent and “cannabis” to describe the whole family. These are not really scientific terms, but we have to separate them somehow, and this seems as good a way as any. If you’re curious about growing industrial hemp, check out this guide.
Is It Legal to Grow Marijuana?
The short answer is sometimes, in some places and in some ways. It’s chaos out there for marijuana cultivation, legally speaking, and if you’re starting a commercial operation, you’re going to have to work with an attorney to guide you through things.
At the most basic level, marijuana remains federally illegal to grow, possess, sell or use; it has a spot on the list of banned substances in the Controlled Substances Act and is thus not legal. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) technically has the legal authority to arrest those growing or using marijuana, and both the DEA and local authorities can, will and recently have destroyed illegal marijuana growing operations. Federal agents do not go after approved farms in states where those operations are legal, but, technically, the decision not to do so remains at the discretion of the DEA.
Let’s start with the easier side: growing at home. Marijuana is legal to grow at home, in varying amounts in 18 states if we include the ones that just legalized it and are still ironing out regulations (New York and Virginia). In many more states, it’s legal to grow at home for those with medical marijuana permits. The number of plants permitted to be grown at home varies by state, typically ranging between six and 12, but make sure to consult your state’s laws before planting.
Every state has its own variations on these laws. In Michigan, marijuana cannot be grown or possessed within 1,000 feet of a park; home-grown marijuana can be transferred in small amounts, but no money can change hands; and the plants cannot be “visible from a public place.”
For commercial farms, things get much trickier and much more expensive. Again, this varies by state and is subject to change, but states have just made up their own fees for applications and licenses, which start at a few thousand dollars and can go up into the six-figure range. In Connecticut, which permits only medical use, an initial application costs $25,000, the first registration fee comes in at $75,000 and each annual renewal fee costs another $75,000, none of which are refundable. (Connecticut’s website says that it is not accepting applications right now anyway.) California has a massive variety of different licenses for different types of farms, starting at a “specialty cottage outdoor” operation, which is up to 25 mature plants grown outside and which costs less than $1,500 for fees. Then you can get up to “medium indoor,” an operation of between 10,000 and 22,000 feet, which will cost upwards of $85,000 for the first year’s fees.
All legal commercial operations will require applications, most of which are onerous and full of red tape. States control the number of licenses they give out, and competition for them is fierce and pricey. Where things get worse, though, is that local governments maintain control of retail as well as growing operations in their towns. Even in California, while no town is allowed to curtail personal use or cultivation, the towns and counties routinely refuse to approve commercial operations, both growing and selling. Weed may be legal in many states, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to grow it or sell it.
Why Grow Marijuana?
Well, for one thing, it’s fun, and for another, if you live in one of the states with legalized recreational use, home-growing is one of the few parts of the legal marijuana experience that isn’t overloaded with bureaucracy. You can basically just do it, as long as you follow the rules for your state.
As with any other kind of home gardening, you may not really save that much money by growing six or eight marijuana plants yourself; think about growing tomatoes, in that the amount of labor and expense involved is going to be much higher than simply going to the grocery store (or dispensary). But marijuana is a fairly easy plant to grow, and given the comparatively high price, it might actually make some economic sense if you have a good grow.
The retail price of a pound of marijuana in California was as much as $3,400 as of last October, according to Leafly. Compare that to heirloom tomatoes, which sell for around $4 or $5 per pound. A large outdoor marijuana plant can, in ideal conditions, yield as much as a pound of dried and cured marijuana.
On the commercial side of things, it’s so expensive and cumbersome to get into large-scale marijuana cultivation that, frankly, anyone seriously considering it is probably talking to an attorney and not reading this story. Marijuana is a potentially massively profitable crop, but, at this early stage, it’s exceedingly difficult to get started and achieve success in the industry.
What Are the Ideal Growing Conditions for Marijuana?
When we talk about growing conditions, there are a couple of different situations with totally different requirements that might be in play. You can grow marijuana outdoors, in a pot or raised bed, just like vegetables. You can grow them indoors in soil, with the aid of artificial light; there’s also the possibility of soil-less systems such as aquaponics and aeroponics.
Outdoor growing is the cheapest, and it may produce massive yields thanks to increased space. But outdoor plants are also subject to pests and weather issues, whereas indoor systems offer total (albeit expensive) control.
For outdoor growing, marijuana is a remarkably resilient plant—maybe not so remarkable, given the whole “weed” nickname, actually. It prefers sunny, temperate weather, between 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and ideally not hotter than 90F or colder than 60F. It can handle more extremes, but if you live in a place where it’s routinely hotter or colder during a summer growing season, look into climate-specific varieties.
Marijuana is fairly drought resistant; you’ll only need to water it every couple of days. But if the temperature rises too high, as it does in the Southwest, you’ll want to use some shade covering or plant in an area that doesn’t receive too much direct heat.
There’s an ongoing debate about seeds vs. clones and which one is best for beginners. This can actually vary quite a bit based on your climate; your best move is to go to a dispensary that sells seeds and clones and chat with them about the specifics of your setup and locale.
As for soil, marijuana does quite well in standard potting soil like you’d get from a garden shop. If you want to plant directly in-ground, you’re best off, says Leafly, with a silt-heavy mix, light on the clay. Marijuana is also a hungry crop in terms of nutrient needs, so you’ll want to amend with compost or fertilizer.
What About Organic Certification?
No. It can’t be done. Organic certification is done through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a federal agency, and marijuana is still federally illegal, so the USDA won’t do it. That said, there are some other certifications that can explain to customers that you use certain Earth-friendly practices. There’s Clean Green Certified, a third-party certification, and the state of California is working on one of its own. Keep in mind, though, that you won’t be able to legally use the word “organic” or use that USDA Organic seal on any products.
Is Growing Marijuana Profitable?
In commercial operations, sometimes. Smaller operations have really struggled to see profits, fighting with red tape, high registration prices, competition from illegal growers and uncertain retail opportunities. They also don’t qualify for the agricultural assistance—crop insurance, loans, grants, that kind of thing—that keep much of the American agriculture industry afloat. Theoretically, if this Senate bill passes, marijuana growers would eventually qualify, but that took years for industrial hemp even after legalization, so don’t bank on it happening any time soon.
There’s an additional problem that growers, as well as pretty much anyone connected to the legal marijuana industry, faces: access to banks and federal assistance. These enterprises aren’t eligible for small business loans, although some senators are trying to change that, and various bills have passed through the House aimed at correcting banking issues, although they haven’t been signed into law. Banks, being regulated by the federal government, are squeamish about the idea of working with businesses that are federally illegal, as marijuana-related businesses are. This can mean dramatically reduced access to normal business banking, forcing marijuana growers to either operate on a cash basis or to work with smaller banks willing to take the risk (and which charge big fees to do so).
For home growers, sure, it could theoretically be profitable. With some practice and good growing conditions, you could produce quite a bit of marijuana.