Let’s Not Allow the Marijuana Industry to Write Its Own Rules

December, 2015

Under a tight March 2016 timeline set by new California laws regulating medical marijuana, Humboldt County is scrambling at last to write locally appropriate rules for commercial cannabis cultivation. Among the most significant problems the new rules must address is protecting watersheds already overloaded by rapidly increasing pot-related impacts.

Industry group California Cannabis Voice - Humboldt (CCVH) is arguing that we have to set loose rules to entice growers to participate in a legal industry. But loose rules won’t restrain people who are only in it for the money and are causing real harms. Loose rules won’t protect our watersheds and communities. And loose rules won’t satisfy our environmental laws, which reflect our society’s reasonable expectation that we will not needlessly wreck our rivers, nor drive native fish extinct.

Recent exposure of global environmental crises related to the automobile (Volkswagen’s “clean” diesel engines) and oil (Exxon’s climate change denial) industries illustrate a principle famously expressed by Upton Sinclair, that “it is difficult to get a man to understand a thing, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”.  Here in Humboldt, our own slice of global environmental crisis is the extinction, now underway, of species that have evolved over millions of years in the places we now call home. Coho salmon are just one of the most spectacular examples of the region’s living wealth whose future now hangs in the balance. Having hung on through overfishing, unregulated logging and draining of the estuary, coho in critical tributaries of the South Fork Eel like Sprowel Creek and Redwood Creek now face extirpation from a deadly combination of water diversions and increased erosion. Humans are taking too much water out of the creeks and pushing too much dirt around. The vast majority of the worst impacts are obviously tied to “medical” marijuana operations that have been rapidly increasing in number and size for years.

The lesson I take here is that we need to build a regulatory system for marijuana that’s strong enough to secure, for example, the level of watershed protections required to allow coho to recover in their former habitat. If we do not, we are just inviting people who we know cannot bring themselves even to acknowledge their own impacts, who face powerful incentives to ignore laws and rules, and who are immersed in a culture rife with rationalizations, to play their own version of VW’s diesel game: getting permits without actually changing the practices that are wrecking our watersheds. If we build a system of marijuana regulation that makes cheating easy, or even possible, we’ll get cheating. If we build a system that doesn’t include strong enforcement tools, we can be assured many will continue to flaunt even the simplest rules.

This is why we must not merely “discourage” water trucking, but ban it. This is why we shouldn’t allow legal growers to use illegal, dangerous pesticides. This is why we need to set a realistic cap on the number of grows the county will permit, restrict them to sizes that can be easily regulated, and ensure they are not done in unsuitable locations. This is why we should institute truly consequential fines for unpermitted commercial grows to immediately discourage any more cut and run grows.

We have an historic chance at last to effectively address these festering problems. But we must choose to act. We have to demand that  our decision-makers don’t just defer to those with the most to gain. We would not let Exxon or Volkswagen write the rules they will follow. Nor do we allow the timber industry or the wine industry to declare they won’t follow watershed-protection rules because they’re too tough. If we did, we’d have very few rules indeed, and even fewer salmon.

A final note: Because the county has to pass an ordinance quickly, there’s only time to do a Mitigated Negative Declaration, a brief environmental analysis appropriate where no potentially significant environmental impacts can be expected to occur as a result of the proposed program. If the ordinance does successfully prevent the significant impacts clearly associated with the industry today, that course is consistent with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. But if the new rules are too weak, their enforcement mechanisms too uncertain, to truly prevent those impacts, CEQA requires more detailed analysis, effective mitigation, consideration of alternative policies and, among otherwise equal alternatives, choice of the most environmentally protective. For our part, Friends of the Eel River will not shirk our duty to seek effective protection for our watersheds and fish.

This article has been edited for length.

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