Will There Be Cannabis on Mars?

by | Jan 14, 2019

Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

Life on Mars may seem like a far-fetched, idealistic dream for sci-fi lovers, but the reality of a human mission to Mars is probably closer than we think. As only a small example, SpaceX intends to launch a mission to Mars in the next decade, and NASA has plans to test deep space habitation facilities, with a human-crewed surface landing on the red planet by 2030.

Both private and public interest groups are envisioning what a real mission to Mars would look like, including the details around what crops humans would require to survive. While Matt Damon’s character on the Martian may have survived off potatoes, this isn’t necessarily realistic. There are currently only ten crops which have passed the Mars test, which means researchers have successfully grown these plants under Mars-like conditions here on Earth. The crops include tomato, rye, radish, pea, leek, spinach, garden rocket, cress, quinoa, and chives. But, what about a more diverse crop – what about cannabis on Mars?

The (Many) Arguments for Cannabis on Mars

First and foremost, early settlers to Mars will need access to basic medicines. Some estimates place the cost of a supply shipment from earth at $1 billion, which isn’t unrealistic considering it would need to travel at least 56 million kilometers for delivery. Resupply for the first settlement is not a feasible way to get medical care. Settlers will need to have the ability to produce their own supplies, including food and medicine.

Cannabis could offer a solution for the treatment of many medical conditions and disease areas. The surface conditions on Mars are expected to be grueling, including different atmospheric pressure, shifts in gravity, and the daily grind of setting up a space-base so far from home. Cannabis is a primary candidate for the treatment of chronic pain, inflammatory diseases, mood disorders, and more here on Earth, so it would make a perfect candidate for the first natural medicine to go to Mars.

Marijuana plants are also highly adaptable, in size, chemical makeup, and yield. It’s a plant which is useful for much more besides medicine, including for oils, nutrient dense seeds, and its fibrous stalk. All potentially useful products for early Mars settlers.

Cannabis cultivators are already pushing the limits of this adaptability in their drive to grow more productive cannabis, in increasingly smaller spaces. They are also striving to create consistency between crops, all through maintaining total control over environmental growing conditions. These are all considerations scientists are working on for growing crops in space.

A Canadian laboratory at the University of Guelph, Ontario is already working with Canadian Space Agency’s Long-Term Space Plan, NASA’s Advanced Life Support program, and European Space Agency’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative to design regenerative life support systems for long-term human missions in space.

The laboratory is also taking this technology and applying it to cannabis production. Striving for total control over the environment is a way to maintain consistency between crops and improve predictability over the final product. Commercial marijuana producers already use the same technology under development for self-contained farming in space. Self-contained and highly controlled cultivation is real, it’s just waiting for a move to outer space.

The Relationship Between Mars and Cannabis Cultivation

Mars settlers may benefit from an aquaponic set up like the one built by Green Relief, which is producing fish as well as cannabis in a closed loop system. Or move towards an aeroponic setup like the one used by GrowX, which was itself borrowed from NASA’s own experiments. Both the cannabis and space industries are already pushing the boundaries of technological advancement in their own ways, but have a lot to learn from one another.

Many former NASA scientists are also making the leap between industries, including the vice president of BIOS Neil Yorio. Taking his experience designing Bio Regenerative Life Support Systems for NASA, he now develops specialty LED lighting for agricultural use. Furthermore, Wayland Group, a medical cannabis company, is also pulling in experience from former NASA researchers, adding Dr. Hans Dendl, a former researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on to their advisory board. The potential for crossover between the industries is apparently already underway.

As the race to Mars continues at a pace similar to the competitive innovation going on in the cannabis sector, the final frontier remains a regulatory one. Cannabis is still illegal in the US, which means all programs working in conjunction with NASA (a federal agency) must work under these restrictions.

That said, Space Tango is growing crops within tiny microwave sized climate-controlled tanks on the International Space Station, and they now plan to grow hemp. Before they can introduce THC into the microgravity climate, and truly explore how cannabis works in space, US federal regulations must change to accommodate this experiment. But, with the US government recently asking for public comment on marijuana, and over 30 states with legal access to it, change might be just around the corner. Which means cannabis might soon be growing legally across the country, and eventually in space.

Biosynthesis – The More Likely Scenario

Although researchers are learning about cultivation in outer space, the more likely future of cannabis in space is going to come from a lab. Through the process of biosynthesis, an enzyme-assisted process of creating cannabinoids in a laboratory, the possibility of cannabis-based medicines in space makes more sense.

Using cannabinoid biosynthesis in Mars would allow for increased production at a significant cost-savings, without the resource-heavy requirements for growing a plant. Essentially, technicians on Mars could create specific, pure cannabinoids on-demand, as needed, without water, land, or electricity.

While it may be decades or even centuries before we see the colonization of Mars as depicted in Total Recall, it only takes a little imagination to visualize what the future holds. Imagine a strain of Mars OG actually created on Mars; or maybe the anti-gravity conditions will prove to have extraordinary cannabinoid yield, resulting in the development of anti-gravity growth chambers here on Earth? Only time will tell.