“Before it was, ‘cannabis is bad.’ Now it’s, ‘environmental degradation caused by cannabis is bad.’”
One major reason the federal government has been reluctant to legalize marijuana is because a large number of marijuana operations negatively impact the environment, a recently released report suggests.
Pointing to California’s recent extreme drought problems as an example, the report notes that “The huge volumes of water used to grow marijuana, as well as the noxious fertilizers and pesticides gushing into streams, are pushing local watersheds to their breaking point,” and that because “growers enjoy unregulated use of water,” marijuana growers are “sucking the Emerald Triangle dry.”
The Emerald Triangle refers to three Northern California-based counties — Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity — where marijuana is largely grown in the state.
As legalization advocates point out, this latest attempt to curb public support for marijuana legalization — which is at an all time high — is just another propaganda-infused effort by the feds to keep the substance illegal and support for the drug down.
Dominic Corva, executive director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy head and marijuana historian, said the government’s “newfound passion for conservation” is purely an effort to justify its long-held anti-marijuana policy.
“Before it was, ‘cannabis is bad,’” said Corva. “Now it’s, ‘environmental degradation caused by cannabis is bad.’”
Since a single marijuana plant requires about six gallons of water per day to grow — which is between 12,000 and 30,000 gallons of water each day for industrial growing operations — and the amount of land in the Emerald Triangle that is used to grow marijuana has doubled since 2009, the federal government said crackdowns on marijuana growing operations are needed to protect the environment.
Rusty Payne, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency, explained that in addition to the agency’s concerns about the safety of marijuana, DEA officials have long been concerned about the environmental destruction from marijuana growing operations.
“The environmental impacts—those are obviously concerns for anyone [in regard to] what these drug trafficking organizations are doing to our public lands,” said Payne, adding, “we’re not environmental experts—we go after drug traffickers.”
But this “new” spin that the war on drugs is actually about protecting the environment is something the federal government has been slowly implementing for years. According to Humboldt State University sociologist Josh Meisel, when he met with Tommy LaNier, head of the White House’s National Marijuana Initiative, in 2011, Meisel learned that federal authorities recognized that “public opinion has shifted, and they can’t wage this battle on the historic platform of it being an issue of morality.
“The public doesn’t buy that anymore,” LaNier reportedly said. “We’re (sic) aren’t going to win this as a battle of morality. We have to wage it in terms of the environmental destruction.
“We need to bring in … the Sierra Club, environmental individuals; we need to bring in as many people, to get them on our side to go to Congress and say, ‘Hey, this is enough. Those are pristine lands that were set aside for the use of the public, not for the production of marijuana.'”
Legalization key to environmental concerns
Dale Gieringer, an economist with the California state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, opined the feds shouldn’t be pointing their fingers at anyone but themselves, since cultivating marijuana wouldn’t be so bad for the environment if the drug was legal.
The “U.S. government is directly to blame for [ending] established efforts to regulate outdoor growth,” he said, pointing out that other local industries such as wineries and timber are potentially worse for the environment, but thanks to state and local regulations, the environment in protected.
No one is doing that for marijuana growers, Gieringer said. He reasoned that conscientious growers gather and store water all year long, while unethical growers irrigate their crops by damming streams, using diesel pumps to lead water to their sites and pump runoff that contains fertilizers and pesticides back into the water supply.
Meisel agreed, “There’s nothing about growing dope that has to involve massive amounts of energy, dangerous chemicals, water diversion, disrespect to your neighbors, and killing animal species — just like we don’t have to do that growing tomatoes. And we don’t grow tomatoes in Yosemite. These are unintended consequences of the policy, not the plant.
“It’s a strategy to undermine local growing across the board, as opposed to going after people who are violating environmental laws.”
Marijuana may still be illegal federally, but the Rand Drug Policy Research Center estimates that Americans consume between 5 million and 11 million pounds of marijuana each year, making it the second-most popular recreational substance in the U.S., right behind alcohol.
As legalization becomes more widely accepted, it’s likely that number will increase. Until then, the industry will remain slightly unregulated, even in states that have legalized marijuana.
California may not have recreational legalization — yet — but the state produces more weed than any other state, and is responsible for growing about 79 percent of all U.S.-grown marijuana. The bulk of the marijuana is produced in the Emerald Triangle.
Rand study noted that the U.S. would only need to dedicate about 10,000 acres of intensively farmed land to grow enough marijuana for Americans each year. The study estimated California would only have to set aside about 1,600 acres, which is far fewer than the some 150,000 acres the state sets aside to grow pistachios each year.
Escaping law enforcement
In addition to the drug trafficking, violence, or weapons charges growers in California can face, Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, has recently started charging suspected marijuana growers for environmental damage.
But as Ed Rosenthal, celebrity marijuana growing instructor said, the only reason marijuana growers were in the forest was because they were trying to not get caught by law enforcement.
“Are they up there for the dry weather, great soil, and ample water?” Rosenthal rhetorically asked. “No, they’re up there because it’s hard to get caught.”
“If it was grown like corn or hemp, it would be regulated, including the discharge of chemicals and the amount of water used and the way you grade,” added Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly, a self-described conservative who says he is not an environmentalist but believes the war on pot is more harmful to the environment than the drug itself.
If marijuana was legalized, “I think we’d see a decrease slowly in environmental harms and then it would be minimal,” agreed Anthony Silvaggio, Humboldt State University environmental sociologist. “Long-term, we’d see a recovery in the ecosystem.”
In short, Silvaggio said if the U.S. didn’t have prohibition of marijuana, we wouldn’t be talking about this issue of whether the marijuana plant was harmful to the environment, since the industry would be regulated, growers wouldn’t use toxic pesticides and fertilizers, and water would be rationed.