The Hydroponics Monopoly & Medical Marijuana

by Michael Straumietis, February 2, 2010

Today, the American hydroponics industry is a rapidly growing, half-billion-dollar a year economic segment that is currently going through an important, wrenching, and necessary evolution.

On the one hand, hydroponics is an agricultural science on the cusp of bringing online dozens of sustainable, urban-rooftop hydroponics “farms” designed to grow tons of fresh, local produce and vegetables for supermarkets including Whole Foods, restaurants and for home use in cities across the nation. By growing high-quality produce on some of the thousands of acres of un-shaded urban rooftops, and by using such environmentally sound hydroponics techniques as rainwater re-use, solar heating and photo-voltaics, tens of millions of dollars can be saved in energy and transportation costs while Americans gain access to a new, “green” and affordable source of healthy food.

At the same time that urban hydroponics farming is becomes a reality, an industry-wide rift has developed over the sensible use and proper sales and marketing model for hydroponics, especially as it relates to medical marijuana. Now legal in over a dozen states and every province in Canada, medical marijuana is a reality that is here to stay and flourish.

Despite this forward progress, the hydroponics industry operates in what is essentially a “don’t ask/don’t tell” mode encouraged by some of the industry’s biggest suppliers of nutrients, lights and the various accoutrements of indoor agriculture. Having struggled over the years to deal with what has been a seriously risky business environment, the so-called “Good Ole Boys Club” has become a virtual hydroponics monopoly, dedicated to continue to support a low-profile, often hypocritical and exclusionary sales/marketing, philosophy. In a sense, these companies have become a self-policing cartel aimed at keeping things quiet and non-confrontational at the same time they maintain their vice-like grip on the sales of hydroponics in the U.S.

The reverse, positive, side of this argument suggests that it is time to collectively achieve sensible policies towards the cultivation of marijuana for medical uses and pain-relief. One of the drawbacks of the system as currently constituted is that the hydroponics monopolists have forbidden their retailers, at penalty of losing their access to supplies, to advise and guide their customers. This essentially neutralizes an enormous pool of experience, expertise and special knowledge that could be of immense benefit to retail medical marijuana customers.

Admittedly, achieving détente in the hydroponics industry is a bridge very far. In what has often been a hostile law-enforcement and legislative environment, a number of the pioneers of hydroponics pot cultivation have paid a heavy price in terms of paranoia, legal costs, economic uncertainty and, all too often, confrontation with the law. “Poking the tiger,” as many pot advocates have discovered, can be a high-risk strategy.

It has thus become far easier to maintain the fiction that “grow shops” are actually in business to help indoor farmers improve their crops of roses, orchids and tomatoes, which to a certain extent they are. But this kind of limited and limiting thinking has been responsible for a punitive atmosphere that serves neither customer nor retailer.

Ultimately, the “don’t look/don’t tell” attitude of “Big Hydroponics” is a roadblock to fair and legitimate policies for the cultivation and use of medical marijuana. What is required is a new sensibility that promotes  safe, sane and legal use and production. “Once burned, twice shy,” is a cliché that has governed the hydroponics industry for long enough. It is time instead to muster the kind of courage that is the necessary precursor to change. After all, since when has helping people to a better quality of life been the wrong thing to do?

Michael  “Big Mike” Straumietis is CEO of Advanced Nutrients, a leading developer and manufacturer of hydroponics nutrients and technology.

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