Changing the Climate of Marijuana Cultivation

December, 2012
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Federal law enforcement priorities and funding have long driven the evolution of Northwestern California’s marijuana economy. For decades, federally-mandated prohibition campaigns pushed outdoor cultivators into the shadows, created powerful incentives to grow indoors under energy-intensive lights, and maintained a steady pressure on weed supplies that kept prices high enough to ensure that growers would always try for another crop.

Today, however, even as public attitudes—and with them state and local law enforcement priorities—have shifted pretty dramatically, federal policies remain stuck in a Drug War timewarp. Outdated federal policies continue to drive growers’ behavior, however unfortunately, and now must be seen as a key cause of the often serious environmental harms caused by unregulated marijuana production.

The Green Gold Rush really took off in the North Coast hills after the 1996 passage of Proposition 215—which gave marijuana growers an affirmative defense against prosecution in state court. Since then, steadily increasing levels of marijuana production throughout the region have sparked rising concern about environmental impacts associated with the industry.

It’s very important to keep these impacts in perspective. In all but the most egregious instances, marijuana’s impacts pale against those generated by the timber industry across the region, or for that matter those of the wine industry in the Russian and Napa River watersheds. By the same token, though, there’s no real dispute that marijuana-associated impacts can be serious and significant for the region’s critically important biological resources. In fact, the impacts associated with weed cultivation are often so concerning precisely because they compound the persistent legacy impacts of logging and roadbuilding.

Three different kinds of serious potential harms roughly frame the larger discussion of the environmental impact of marijuana cultivation in NW California:

[img_assist|nid=2888|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=282]Indoor production (growing under lights) has been credibly estimated to consume an astonishing proportion of the region’s electricity use—and contribute a similarly large, and altogether appalling, share of our collective carbon footprint. There’s a lot to be said about how to best confront the challenge of climate change driven by human carbon emissions, but it’s impossible to justify the energy-intensive production of a plant that grows perfectly well under the summer sun. This is even more true of so-called ‘diesel dope’ off-the-grid grows, where the electricity to run the lights is produced by diesel generators. Only under prohibition could the economics of indoor growing ever appear to make sense.

Biologically persistent rat poisons spread around very large scale outdoor marijuana plantations have now been proven to be causing widespread death of Pacific fishers in some of the region’s most remote areas. Poisoning dramatically increases the already unacceptably high risk of extinction that the species faces. The slow-decaying poisons also threaten a wide range of forest life, including the rodents growers are trying to kill, raptors and every other species that preys on rodents, and even deer. Other poisons are also regularly used in marijuana production, including copper-based fertilizers and insecticides that can cause serious harm to fish when even very small amounts get into streams.

A third arena of potentially serious environmental harms is the diversion of streams and springs to irrigate marijuana. Though the weed is not a particularly water-intensive crop, it does most of its growing during NW California’s long dry season, when stream flows are already low, water temperatures high, and native fish already stressed under normal conditions. It is for these reasons that water diversions can easily push bad conditions to lethal, and sometimes even dry streams up entirely.

Individual diversions may seem inconsequential, yet they can add up to big problems. On the South Fork of the Eel River at the Miranda gauge, data over the last 72 years shows a disturbing trend: even with a wet spring, flows in the South Fork have now diminished to well below the historic average. There are many factors at play here, including landscape-scale changes (younger trees are much thirstier than old ones, and the ground itself does not store water as well as it did eighty years ago) but there’s no credible suggestion that water diversions are not part of the problem.

While even the region’s environmental community doesn’t agree on every point concerning what should be done, we do have broad consensus on some core points:

Scale matters: the bigger the grow, the more likely it will have impacts that aren’t effectively managed. Likewise, site matters: the same installation can have big impacts in one site, and nearly none in another.

There’s no justification for marijuana production in the region’s remote and precious wildlands. Similarly, growing weed under lights is a crime against the climate and future generations, whether it’s technically illegal or not. 

Given that weed can be grown almost perfectly sustainably, there’s absolutely no excuse for not doing so. Consumers should be able to choose it—and growers should be able to produce it—without being targeted just for doing something that California voters have said is okay.

Ignorance can and must be corrected through education and social pressure, but greed and shortsightedness needs something stronger. That’s why the legal system needs to focus on real harms—not to let growers off the hook, but to hold them accountable.

Scott Greacen is Executive Director of Friends of the Eel River.

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