Demand drives innovation. And with an estimated $1.7 billion in annual sales in state-sanctioned markets plus $18 billion in sales on the black market, industry advocates say the marijuana market is here to stay – legal or not.
Some say that’s a good thing.
“As this industry is coming out of the shadows, you now have market pressure to create safer and more environmentally friendly products for cultivation,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.
One local company has joined the ranks of businesses around the nation trying to tap into the pot economy to make the market greener, safer and more sustainable.
With more than 130,000 registered patients in Colorado alone, “we know there’s a demand,” said Leo Hayes, owner of Sonnylight, a Pagosa Springs-based company that manufactures and sells LED grow lights.
Colorado is one of 16 states that has legalized the drug in some way, and it is the fastest-growing market for marijuana sales in the nation, according to national news reports.
Sonnylight, which offers LED grow lights driven by proprietary computer software for growing food, herbs and flowers, has begun developing similar systems for marijuana cultivation.
Hayes said medical marijuana isn’t the market the fledgling company planned to target when it launched last year, quickly expanding to sell its products through the company’s website and online through major retailers such as Bed, Bath & Beyond, Frontgate Luxury Home Furnishings, Discovery stores and Brookstone.
But plenty of the average 700 sales inquiries the company was getting each month related to marijuana. And Hayes, who is passionate about sustainability and cultivating food organically, realized that pot growers needed safety and efficiency as much as food growers.
With many patients now growing the drug in their homes, some officials say it is becoming more critical that either innovation or regulation address the safety concerns that are emerging.
Conventional grow lights use a tremendous amount of electricity and emit vast amounts of heat, escalating significantly the risk for deadly fires.
Butch Knowlton, La Plata County’s director of emergency preparedness, has warned county commissioners that the electrical systems in many area homes weren’t designed to handle the load.
The warning led to a county ban this week against growing marijuana in residential dwellings, but the prohibition applies only to large operations using more than 1,000 square feet.
County officials may require costly electrical upgrades in some buildings as part of the permitting process for those operations.
But patients and small-scale caregivers using less than 200 square feet to grow and process the drug don’t need a permit, making those fire risks harder for regulators to prevent.
“That’s the challenge,” said Hayes, a retired Mitsubishi executive. “We have to make this for the general consumer, so it’s not complex and it’s safe.”
Hayes is working to develop commercial and residential marijuana grow lights that use fewer than 100 watts of energy. That’s fewer than the average television, coffee maker or toaster. And it will produce the same results as the typical 1,000-watt grow lights available now, Hayes said.
The result is less risk, less cost and less wasted energy for marijuana-growing operations of all sizes.
Before the proliferation of states legalizing marijuana, “nobody cared about (improving) this industry,” Smith said. “The best thing to happen to this industry is bringing it out of the shadows.”
Troy Dayton, chief executive officer of ArcView Group, an organization that connects capital investors to businesses in the medical-marijuana industry, said Hayes could be on the frontier of “the next big boom,” one that will advance the industry to society’s benefit.
Hayes’ new line of lights for marijuana cultivation still are under development. He said his company is working to ensure the systems will provide the accelerated growth and “big buds” that patients and cultivators expect. Hayes said, pending current efforts to secure capital, the designs could be ready for production within a few months.
“There’s a lot more science to growing marijuana than some people realize,” said Hayes. “It’s not like growing herbs in your kitchen.”