Marijuana Legalization: California's Two Favorite Things, Pot and Nature, May Have to Fight It Out


As lawmakers and voters across the country debate the continued legalization of medical and recreational marijuana, the unanticipated effects of a growing industry are being felt in unexpected places.

Many have already documented a sort of marijuana arbitrage — a fledgling business of purchasing marijuana legally from specialized growers in Northern California, and opting to transport it back into the black market where margins, and risks, are higher. (This phenomenon was well-documented in a fantastic report by Karen Fillmann and Marianne McCune, for WNYC News.) But now it's ecologists who are raising alarm, many claiming that the counterculture’s prized symbol of political evolution and social progressivism may be the cause of a host of unanticipated ecological problems — a difficult blow to the many young Californian smokers who count the environment as an issue important to them.

The problems come from the unfettered use of harmful rodenticides, such as the popular d-Con, and unsustainable stream diversion. But the largest offenders actually aren’t the newly legal growers who supply to medicinal dispensaries. Large-scale illicit growers, cropping up across public and tribal lands, have continued to multiply in recent years.

“Sixty to 70% of the national marijuana seizures come from California annually, and of those totals, about 60% comes from public lands,” explains Tommy Lanier, director of the White House-backed National Marijuana Initiative. Authorities say that most of the contamination of ecologically-harmful rodenticides hasn’t happened around agricultural or residential areas, as many expected, but in these protected spaces where the use of those chemicals is illegal. That led many to suspect illicit activities, confirmed by the discovery of more than 600 large-scale marijuana cultivation centers across only two of California’s seventeen national forests — a disturbing sign that thousands of clandestine growers may still be scattered throughout the state. 

Many of these are run by Mexican cartels, requiring biologists to travel with heavily armed officials to test the area.

“In my career I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Stormer Feiler, a scientist with California’s North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. “Since 2007 the amount of unregulated activities has exploded. They are grading the mountaintops now, so it affects the whole watershed below.”

This is because marijuana is a terribly thirsty crop. A single plant requires between one and six gallons of water a day, forcing many small and large-scale growers to divert already parched streams in areas that still haven’t recovered from a harmful logging industry that decimated much of the Californian forest ecology just a few years earlier. Scott Greacen, the executive director of Friends of the Eel River, believes the marijuana industry could be the breaking point for a number of different species that depend on depleted waterways. “It’s not weed that drove the coho [salmon] to the brink of extinction, but it may kick it over the edge,” he says. “There is a gold rush. And it’s a race to the bottom in terms of environmental impacts.”

“I went out on a site yesterday where there was an active water diversion providing water to 15 different groups of people or individuals,” says Scott Bauer, of the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. “The stream is going to dry up this year." 

But the problems are widespread and, in rural parts of the state, economic. California’s sparsely-populated, heavily rural Humboldt Country reports that income from the crop accounted for more than $415 million in annual economic activity last year — or one-fourthof the total activity in the county. And yet many state and local officials are still hesitant to write permits to regulate the industry, wary of stepping over murky federal regulations that have created an inconsistent legal patchwork across the country.

What do you think? Does marijuana still have its countercultural hippie appeal, or has it become just another brand of big business? Feel free to sound off in the comments.

WATCH: Humboldt State University sociology lecturer, Anthony Silvaggio, illustrating the extent of the damage.