Most people in the U.S. who use marijuana recreationally would also like to see it become legalized. They want to use product that is high quality, organic, and eco-friendly. Some even envision a future for marijuana similar to the wine and artisanal food industry. People would take tours of the farms where it is grown and sample the different strains and cannabis products. In fact, this type of tourism is already in full swing in Colorado. Vendors there are required to list all the chemicals used to produce their marijuana on their packaging. But until recreational marijuana becomes legal nationwide and “seed to sale” tracking systems are implemented nationally as well, unregulated backwoods farms that reside clandestinely on public and private lands will continue to flourish and cause major ecological damage, especially in California.
In the past five years alone, the amount of acreage dedicated to growing marijuana has doubled in the Emerald Triangle, say researchers. The Emerald Triangle is a triad of adjacent counties in Northern California known for producing the largest amount of cannabis in the U.S. The Emerald Triangle is also next to Sonoma County, which is renowned for its wineries and wine tourism. Also known as wine country, the area epitomizes the benefits of transparency and legitimacy that would be conferred onto the marijuana industry, consumers, and the environment if cannabis were legalized for recreational use. A discovery made by Sonoma’s Korbel Winery owners one summer day in 2011 highlights the false dichotomy that exists between the two industries. Marijuana farmers who were poaching on Korbel winery property dumped fertilizer bags along a nearby creek and hacked down 15 protected redwood trees in order to grow their crop. Sonoma County Sheriff Sergeant Mike Raasch, surveying the damage, said that “it was sad to see those nice redwood trees down.”
In California’s national forests, it is standard fare for authorities to remove along with the marijuana crop piles of trash, thousands of pounds of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and rodenticides. Authorities found one grow site that had a stockpile of a restricted pesticide able to kill humans by inhalation alone. On another illegal grow operation, trotlines containing poison-laced hot dogs were strung up around the site. Plastic drip lines on sites take away what little water exists in the drought-plagued region. Biologist Scott Bauer of the Department of Fish and Wildlife says mariujuana cultivation is “probably the number one threat” to the area’s salmon and steelhead streams, 24 of which stopped flowing last summer. “Without water,” notes Bauer, “there’s no fish.”
In addition, hillsides are deforested for marijuana cultivation and the land doused with restricted pesticides. When it rains, the deforested land turns into a toxic sludge that slides down the hill, choking off and poisoning salmon streams. In 2011, a state game warden found a black bear and her cubs convulsing on the ground at a grow site, having eaten into a stash of pesticides. The northern spotted owl has tested positive for rodenticides. Aaron Turpen of CannaCentral, a web-based cannabis information clearinghouse, commented on the Korbel incident. He noted that the destruction of and disrespect toward nature “is only possible because marijuana remains a profitable, underground drug rather than being a profitable, legal one.” Because marijuana remains illegal, California is bearing the brunt of increasing ecological damage.
Scientists are being bullied away from studying the environmental impacts of marijuana farming. Researchers have been shot at with high-caliber rifles while trying to survey the northern spotted owl. A federal biologist was chased for half an hour through the Sequoia National Forest by armed growers before they gave up. Dr. Mourad Gabriel of Fisher Disease Ecology Project says that these days he is forced to spend “100 percent of his time working on the environmental impacts of marijuana,” something he did not envision when he was studying to become a wildlife ecologist. In an article in Mother Jones, Gabriel described how his interest in fishers, an animal that may be added onto the 2014 threatened species list, led him to track them in the Sierra National Forest. In 2009, he came upon a fisher carcass that showed no signs of external injury. A toxicology report discovered the animal had ingested large quantities of rodenticide. No one in national forests except marijuana farmers use rodenticide, which they use to protect their marijuana seedlings.
Rodents who eat the poison are incapacitated for a couple of days before dying, which makes them easy prey for fishers and other animals, who then also become poisoned. When Gabriel tested the other carcasses he had collected from remote areas on California public lands, he discovered that 80 percent of them, 59 in number, tested positive for rat poison. In 2012, Gabriel wrote and published a paper on the subject for which he received angry messages and calls. People shared his home address on local news comment boards. He received vague threats against his family and dog. An email asking for information on the locations of his study sites, office, and home was traced to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico by federal agents. (There is controversy as to what portion of trespass grows are financed by Mexican drug cartels.) Then, in February of 2014, Gabriel’s dog Nyxo died after someone fed him meat that contained De-Con rat poison.
The founder of Harborside Health Center, a large medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, California, said that because of the lack of regulation in that state, “nobody really knows what’s in their cannabis.” Authorities have found this to be true also of most small-scale California growers operating on their own properties. Though rodenticides are less likely to be used, only “a tiny fraction” of them are growing organic marijuana. Legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes at the national level would solve these issues. It would also go a long way toward eliminating the ecological devastation that illegal grow operations are currently causing in California.
By Donna Westlund