For thousands of years, humans have consumed cannabis for medical and/or recreational purposes. By that measure, it wasn’t until fairly recently that indoor cannabis cultivation became commonplace among cannabis growers. Still, the debate around outdoor vs indoor cannabis can feel as old as the plant itself.
It is nearly impossible to know when the first indoor cannabis garden went into operation, however, it is probably a safe bet to assume that the garden was cultivated indoors due to fear of prosecution by law enforcement given the legal status of cannabis.
In the latter part of the 20th century, indoor growing became common, and due to various factors, cannabis that was cultivated indoors was seen by many consumers as more desirable compared to plants grown outdoors.
Is sun-grown cannabis truly inferior to cannabis that was cultivated indoors? It’s a very popular argument among consumers and cultivators alike. Aspiring cannabis cultivators often struggle to decide which avenue to pursue for their own garden. Below, we will explore the different facets to consider.
Many people make the mistake of assuming that all indoor cannabis gardens are the same and that all sun-grown gardens are the same, and thus, if the harvest of one indoor garden is better than the harvest of one sun-grown garden, then all indoor cannabis is better than all sun-grown cannabis. However, that is clearly not the case.
The reality is that many factors determine the final quality of cannabis plants. The soil or medium that the cannabis was cultivated in, the skill level and experience of the cultivator, the nutrients used to feed the plants, the quality of the water used in the garden, and many other factors all combine to determine the fate of any cannabis garden.
A sun-grown garden managed by a skilled cultivator who is armed with all of the necessary elements to cultivate quality cannabis will produce a harvest that is of higher quality than a newbie cannabis grower who is winging it with inferior nutrients and a lack of experience in their basement. With that in mind, there is no rule of thumb one-size-fits-all claim that can be made regarding the quality of sun-grown vs indoor cannabis.
“Good cannabis” is a very subjective term. What might be “good” to one consumer or medical marijuana patient may not be as good to another consumer or patient, and that’s very important for cultivators to keep in mind. For better or worse, many consumers and patients shop with their eyes in dispensaries and look for cannabis with a particular visual property, such as cannabis that is light green in color. Unfortunately for those purchasers, the way a cannabis flower looks is not always indicative of its quality. While it certainly can be, it’s never guaranteed.
Other consumers and patients base their purchasing decisions solely on testing scores and look for the highest THC level that they can find. However, testing scores can be misleading. Just because a particular harvest of cannabis tests high for THC doesn’t mean that it will provide desirable effects for those who consume it.
As more terpene-focused cannabis research is conducted, and more becomes known about the effects of certain terpene profiles, it is becoming clear that terpenes play a major role in the effects that a particular cannabis harvest provides. Ultimately, consumers and patients base a lot of the quality of a harvest on how it affects them biologically after consumption, so terpene profiles are a much better measure of quality than looks or THC levels. Similar terpene profiles can be achieved whether a cannabis genetic is cultivated indoors or under the sun, which is very important for aspiring cultivators to keep in mind.
The legal cannabis industry is expanding at a rapid pace in many parts of the United States and beyond. Several jurisdictions still prohibit the cannabis industry from operating, however, the walls of prohibition are crumbling with more and more states and countries getting on the right side of history, which is creating opportunities for cannabis cultivators of all sizes.
Cannabis industry rules and regulations are still evolving, yet one principle seems to be set in stone -- regulations are more favorable for growing cannabis outdoors. The most obvious evidence of that claim is canopy size. In virtually every legal market, sun-grown gardens are allowed to have a significantly larger canopy size than indoor gardens.
A larger canopy size allows cannabis cultivators to produce larger harvests during the growing season, which in turn can potentially result in larger profits for the cultivator. Of course, a larger harvest doesn’t automatically translate to larger profits. The quality of the harvest will determine the worth of a given amount of the cannabis, so a lot of low-quality cannabis may not be worth as much as a smaller amount of significantly higher quality cannabis. With that being said, if the quality is equal, a larger canopy will obviously provide more profit potential, which is clearly desirable for aspiring for-profit cultivators.
Cultivating cannabis indoors requires significant start up costs as well as ongoing operation costs. The first is the cultivation facility itself. It costs far more money to purchase or rent a warehouse than it does to purchase or rent a field in most areas.
Another major cost is electricity. Plants require a lot of energy to get through the flowering stage, and even a modestly-sized indoor cannabis garden requires a large amount of electricity to function. After all, lighting, fans, pumps, humidifiers/dehumidifiers, and other indoor cultivation equipment won’t run themselves. They need electricity to work, and a lot of electricity at that. People who are growing on a large scale will suffer sticker shock when they receive their first bill from the energy company.
Compare that to an outdoor cannabis garden that is growing under the sun and requires little to no electricity. Growing marijuana outdoors also involves far less soil-related costs, with some sun-grown gardens located in fertile areas requiring little nutrients or no nutrients at all. A great example of that is in Jamaica, where some of the best cannabis on the planet is cultivated without anything more than the natural sun, rain, and soil. It’s admittedly a rare example, yet an applicable one that highlights nature's ability to produce quality cannabis in a very cheap manner.
In many legal cannabis markets, cannabis can be cultivated with the unlimited use of indoor lighting and electricity. As long as the cultivator pays the energy bill and complies with non-energy industry regulations, they are able to use as much energy as they want to. That is an unsustainable practice that will likely change in the future.
It is no secret that the indoor cannabis cultivation sector consumes an enormous amount of electricity. Take into consideration that in 2012 it was estimated that the indoor cannabis cultivation sector consumed as much as 1% of all electricity in the United States. Now consider how much larger the cannabis industry has become since 2012. Obviously, the percentage of use is significantly greater now than it was back in 2012.
It is likely safe to assume that at some point there will be energy limits placed on indoor cannabis cultivation facilities. Cannabis cultivators who base their operations on that assumption and move toward cultivating female plants under the sun will be better suited to continue their operations unchanged if/when the energy limits are implemented. It’s very tough to say when such an industry regulation could be implemented, however, it’s not a stretch to assume that it’s going to happen sooner rather than later given the aging electrical grid in the United States and around the world.
Cannabis cultivators do not necessarily have to choose between cultivating cannabis under the sun or indoors. They can actually combine the two methods to have the best of both worlds. An increasing number of legal cannabis gardens are incorporating supplemental lighting into their outdoor greenhouses. When the days are full of sun, the supplemental lights are not necessary. On cloudy days and/or when the season is ending faster than desired, lighting traditionally used indoors can be used to provide light to the plants as needed.
Another technique that is increasing in popularity is light deprivation. Light deprivation is when a sun-grown garden has a retractable roof that can effectively block the sun from shining on the plants at a given time, which provides more flexibility for cultivators. One huge benefit for indoor growers is that they can control the light cycle of a garden as they see fit. Light deprivation provides the same benefit to outdoor cultivators, which is key for sun-grown cannabis gardens in areas that have sunlight durations that are not optimal for cultivating quality cannabis.
“Good cannabis” can be cultivated outdoors or indoors, just as “bad cannabis” can be cultivated in either condition. As previously mentioned, a number of factors determine the final quality of a cannabis harvest, with the light source being just one of those factors.
Cultivators who want to grow cannabis for the purpose of generating profits need to perform extensive research to see what makes sense for their particular situation. They must take into account a number of factors including start up costs and the viability of cultivating cannabis outdoors where they are located. In many areas, successfully cultivating cannabis under the sun is not really an option, such as locations where summers are short.
Always keep in mind that quality cannabis can be cultivated outdoors as long as all of the right elements are present. As terpene profiles demonstrate, outdoor cannabis can be just as good or even better than cannabis that was cultivated indoors. When cultivated properly, indoor and outdoor cannabis harvests are virtually indistinguishable.