Marijuana Prohibition: An Environmental Disaster

Legalize. For the environment.
Legalize. For the environment.

Though we are always discussing the many reasons why marijuana legalization makes sense, one issue that admittedly does not get enough play here, or in the media in general, is the environmental devastation that accompanies illegal grows on public lands. Recall that the Department of Justice laid out its eight enforcement priorities for dealing with states that implement medical or recreational marijuana regimes:

  1. Preventing distribution of marijuana to minors;
  2. Preventing cannabis revenues from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels;
  3. Preventing diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal to other states where it is not;
  4. Preventing state-authorized activity from being used as a cover for illegal activity, including trafficking of other illegal drugs;
  5. Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;
  6. Preventing drugged driving and exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
  7. Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands;
  8. Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

The DOJ’s seventh priority is often overlooked, in part because growing marijuana on public lands is less of a concern in some states compared to others. California, for example, has struggled for decades with the environmental destruction resulting from illegal marijuana grows on its public land.

At the federal level, the National Forest System Drug Control Act of 1986, as well as Title 16 of the United States Code (U.S.C.), provides authorization to the Forest Service for law enforcement activities relating to the Controlled Substance Act. Pursuant to this authorization, officers of the Forest Service are responsible for performing drug enforcement duties on National Forest System lands. According to the Forest Service, “growers are known to ‘booby trap’ … their sites which creates a genuine threat to the public, forest employees, and law enforcement.” In addition to the resultant threats to humans, these illegal grows result in eradication of natural vegetation, contamination of water sources, pollution by pesticides and herbicides, destruction of wildlife and accumulation of garbage and waste in sensitive areas. Between 1996 and 1999 alone, the Forest Service removed more than 1,462,300 marijuana plants from 19,380 sites on federal land, equating to more than 3,226,000 pounds of illegally produced marijuana.

California, with its abundance of state and national park land, has struggled to pinpoint and eradicate illegal grows. According to the U.S. Forest Service, throughout California’s public forests, authorities found 315,000 feet of plastic hose, 19,000 pounds of fertilizer and 180,000 pounds of trash on more than 300 illegal marijuana plantations in 2012 alone. Not to mention the diversion of water from streams in an already drought ridden state – at about six gallons of water per plant per day over 150 watering days, a trespass grow site with 10,000 plants diverts 60,000 gallons of water per day, or nine million gallons in a season.

California is not, however, the only state battling illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands. Just last week, authorities in Virginia discovered a remote grow site containing more than 30,000 plants. Oregon has faced similar issues with illegal grows in the central and eastern portions of the state – illegal growers cut down trees, lay watering pipe, and utilize vast quantities of pesticides and chemicals.

This environmental destruction continues because it is fed by black market demand. California has long struggled to pass an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana, but until it (and other states) replace marijuana prohibition with a legalization regime that adequately regulates the production and distribution of marijuana, the environmental impacts of illegal grows will continue to worsen.

Just one more reason why legalization and regulation make sense.

2 responses to “Marijuana Prohibition: An Environmental Disaster”

  1. Given the facts that mainstream industrial pollution is (approximately) 1.5B times more destructive and that cannabis is classified as “famine food” by the UN (for it’s ability to survive drought stricken areas); this discussion is more about maintaining prohibition…. at all costs.

  2. Good points. I absolutely agree that moving toward full legalization and intelligent regulation is necessary to put an end to the practices you describe.

    However, it should also be pointed out that legal indoor production results in a gigantic carbon footprint that is terrible for the environment and likely not sustainable in business terms as prices will continue to drop. This is combined with the embodied energy required to produce all the hoods, lamps, and other equipment being employed by legal indoor growers. The dominance of hydroponic methods is not environmentally friendly either – legal operations can generate tainted waste water from synthetic fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals. As a former manager of a facility in Denver, I know that CO is not regulating waste water disposal at all. Also, natural gas (derived from fracking in many cases) and mining of raw materials are required to produce synthetic fertilizer, neither of which are green practices.

    Again, I agree that we need to push forward with legalization, but I also think regulators should look to write laws in ways that promote greenhouse and outdoor production, and responsible, sustainable energy use where indoor production is a necessity. Organic production using natural light should be the way to go in this industry, both for environmental and bottom-line reasons.

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