The Devastating Environmental Cost Of NOT Legalizing And Regulating Marijuana

Image @ PeoplesWorld

Keeping pot illegal not only contributes to its criminal enterprise, it contributes to destroying forests, water and wildlife, often irrevocably. Image @ People’s World

As discussions about legalizing marijuana meander through the machinations of various state legislatures, and the feds continue to clash with states that actually have legalized it in some measure (with Illinois recently becoming the 20th state to legalize at least medical marijuana), another devastating angle of the ‘war on drugs’ as related to this particular drug is having its impact on the environment – inclusive of animal, vegetable and mineral. Illegal grows – particularly those of the industrial kind – are not only making millions (some suggest ‘billions’) for their under-the-radar harvesters, but are literally destroying thousands of acres of natural land, killing wildlife (some of the endangered kind) and polluting and/or destroying natural streams. It’s a big problem and getting bigger, and if we’re going to confront the issue across our 50 states, we cannot ignore the environmental impact of an unregulated, untaxed and illegal industry of this kind.

Of course, you bring up pot – smoking, growing, selling, legalizing – and there’s a certain wink-and-nod response; a sense that it’s seen as generally harmless – certainly as compared to alcohol with its death, drunkenness, and devastation. And as a clear bonus, 1.) pot does have bona fides as a medical aid and, 2.) it grows fairly easily in nature, therefore offering a presumed degree of “green cred.” People openly work as trimmers in grow fields, college students make an easy buck buying and selling (and openly smoking); frankly, unlike the mobster bootleggers of Prohibition, there doesn’t seem to be an aura of criminality as much as a kind of laid-back, hippie outlaw vibe that most involved in the culture knowingly cultivate (pun intended). But what’s being ignored in that live-and-let-live equation is the long-lasting impact these grows are having on our natural lands.

No area of the country is as linked with the pot culture as Humboldt County in northern California. Known to grow some of the most sought-after marijuana in the world, you simply say “Humboldt County” and the pantomiming of taking a toke is almost automatic. In a piece I wrote last year (I’m a homeowner in the area) called Pot And Prohibition: A View From Humboldt County, I covered the sometimes ridiculous attitudes about this notorious area of California (one guy insisted he could smell pot even as he drove through Humboldt County on the freeway!), including the issue of environmental impact, but more recently, a local Humboldt County news site covered more specifically the very real, and very pervasive, damage being wrought on formerly pristine and natural land and wildlife. From The North Coast Journal:

Humboldt County Sheriff’s Deputies and other law enforcement agents found and eradicated a marijuana grow yesterday morning. Along with 8,473 marijuana plants, they found a dead fisher at the site. Fishers are currently being reviewed as candidates for the endangered species list.

At a separate event on Monday, agents found 7,521 marijuana plants at a grow site in Willow Creek, along with 14 pounds of rodenticide, two dead deer and a dead bird.

[From the Sheriffs Office press release]:

Three civilian scientific researchers with a background in wildlife, toxicology and ecology were with the officers when they entered the marijuana site. The officers eradicated 7521 growing marijuana plants ranging in size from 4’ tall to 6’ tall. All the marijuana was being cultivated on United States Forest Service Land. While conducting the investigation the researchers and deputies located the following:

* 1230 lbs. dry fertilizer
* 28 lbs. liquid concentrated fertilizer
* 14 lbs. 2nd generation anticoagulant rodenticide bait enough to kill 2,246 woodrats or gray squirrels
OR 12 fishers
OR at least 4 spotted owls
* 32 oz. Carbaryl insecticide
* 32 oz. Carbofuran (banned chemical in United States due to its toxicity to people and wildlife)
* a 1/4 to 1/8 teaspoon is enough to kill a 300-400[-pound] black bear.

Deputies also located fresh hot dogs strung from a tree on treble fish hooks, along with two dead 
deer carcasses and a bird, a Hermit thrush. Officers also witnessed environmental damage to the 

[To read full press release click HERE.]


Tanks used for grow fields. Image @ North Coast Journal

Tanks used for grow fields. Image @ North Coast Journal

Nothing much good about any of that. But it didn’t stop there. The next day (the initial report was written Thursday, August 1), The North Coast Journal reported that the Sheriff’s Department, along with several other law enforcement agencies, served several search warrants upon two other large grows, citing “environmental crimes.” These guys aren’t fooling around any more. According to the released statement by the Sheriff’s department, those crimes include unpermitted grading of forest land, the constructions of unpermitted structures; illegal stream diversions, and serious pollutions, including human feces. From the press release of August 2nd published in the North Coast Journal:

While on the two parcels California Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with Cal Fire witnessed numerous environmental crimes. California Department of Fish and Wildlife Officers are seeking additional charges through the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office for the following violations against the property owners:

• 39 total Fish and Game Code violations
• 1602-substantial alteration of a stream (6)
• 1602-illegal water diversions (4)
• 5650-pollution of state waters (17)
• 5901-impede fish passage in a stream (3)
• 5937-dam in a stream (1)
• 5652-Litter in state waters (8)
• 13387-Felony Porter Cologne Clean Water Quality Act violations (14)
• Several other county code violations including unpermitted grading (2), unpermitted buildings (4), impacts to Stream Management Areas (6), and human waste (2) were also observed and charges for those violations are being sought.

“Toxic rodenticide, insecticide and other chemicals were found during a pot bust on Monday.” Image provided by Sheriff’s department;  @ Northcoast Journal

“Toxic rodenticide, insecticide and other chemicals were found during a pot bust on Monday.” Image provided by Sheriff’s department; @ North Coast Journal

And that list of “environmental crimes” is for just two illegal grows; the numbers beyond those two are truly staggering… though, of course, no one knows exactly what those true numbers are because, after all, the industry is illegal, purposely under-the-radar and being run by people akin to those bootleggers and Prohibition hustlers of yore. Locals in the county tell me the Mexican cartels are now deeply embedded in what is seen as a goldmine of “Humboldt green.” I have spoken to home and property owners of rural and hillside land in Humboldt county who share disheartening and sometimes terrifying details of skinheads leveling forests of old growth trees to plant grow fields; industrial-sized truck caravans tearing up fragile mountain roads and wildlife to bring potting soil up to the farms; of intimidations, threats, and hostility coming from growers moving into formerly bucolic, rural areas, turning them into enclaves of gun-toting guards and hapless hikers being terrorized off U.S. forest land.

“Sheriff Mike Downey holds the 
body of a dead fisher that was found
at a marijuana grow”…Image provided by Humboldt Sheriff’s department;  @ Northcoast Journal

“Sheriff Mike Downey holds the 
body of a dead fisher that was found
at a marijuana grow”…Image provided by Humboldt Sheriff’s department; @ North Coast Journal

And while those very growers – the smart, savvy ones who know how to manipulate the system – do everything they can to keep marijuana from becoming legalized and ultimately regulated, taxed, and overseen by others, just what is the state doing to intervene in the ongoing environmental devastation that’s getting worse every day? While the Feds continue to insist upon its illegality, the growers continue to grow with impunity, and the natural lands upon which this cash crop is being nurtured are being decimated, the state has basically thrown up its hands and left it to local sheriffs like the ones in Humboldt County to deal with the metastasizing problem. From People’s World:

With parts of Northern California’s scenic hillsides illegally gouged by bulldozers for marijuana farming, frustrated local officials asked the state for help to protect streams and rivers from harmful sediment and the chemicals used on the pot plants.

They hoped to charge growers under federal and state clean water regulations with tougher penalties than the infractions local officials could impose. But they were rebuffed.

It’s too dangerous, the state agency in charge of protecting the region’s water said in a letter to county supervisors.

“We simply cannot, in good conscience, put staff in harm’s way,” wrote Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board Executive Director Paula Creedon.

Which basically means, as the Feds did for many years with the mobsters of Prohibition, authorities will turn a blind eye in deference to the danger. Which, while understandable, is a clear abdication of authority on the matter of protecting our environment from encroaching criminal activity. But just as the Feds ultimately went after Capone for tax evasion rather than his laundry list of violent crimes, the government appears to be looking for an angle with pot growers that addresses the damage they’re doing specifically to water. More from People’s World:

Butte County Supervisor Chairman Bill Connelly – frustrated that even photos of illegally scraped and terraced hillsides in sensitive watersheds didn’t convince the water quality board to act – accused the board of not applying the law equally.

“My concern is that legitimate business people get harassed (by the agency), but illegal people will not be harassed because they get a pass,” he said. “They go after the timber industry and farmers.” […]

The issue of large-scale marijuana enforcement and the damage some pot farms cause is not new in a region known as the Emerald Triangle, for the marijuana that has been produced there for decades. Marijuana is the state’s biggest cash crop with an estimated $14 billion in legal and illegal sales annually.

California wildlife wardens and hikers in the state’s remote backcountry occasionally happen upon gunmen guarding multimillion-dollar pot farms. It’s one of the reasons the California Department of Fish & Wildlife recently issued its wardens more powerful weapons.

Not such a benign industry after all.

The reality is, keeping pot illegal is a losing proposition on innumerable counts. Like Prohibition, it’s taken an element of human behavior – the desire for altered states – and legislated it into law, which is always folly. And that legislation has taken the urge, and the materials grown to serve that urge, and instead of keeping America safe from the “dangers of marijuana,” has turned the commerce of the drug into big ticket crime, allowing no controls, no regulation and no taxable income to offset the costs of all this activity. In essence, keeping pot illegal is not only contributing to the long-term criminal enterprise of it all (just as Prohibition did to alcohol), it’s colluding – however unwittingly – in destroying our natural forests, water and wildlife in ways that may very well be irrevocable.

Put aside morality, temperance, attitudes about drugs, pot use, and stoners, and think, for a moment, logically. If, like cigarettes and alcohol, marijuana is legalized, it will take the industry out of the hands of criminals – for whom the environment is irrelevant – and put it in the hands of responsible growers who will be regulated and taxed… and prevented from destroying the land upon which they’re growing the crop. With the same stringent regulations as enforced on the cigarette and alcohol industries, we could better manage and control the industry of pot.

Until then, keep counting as more forest land is destroyed, more animals are poisoned, more fields and streams are decimated, and more mountaintops are leveled.

That’s the price of pot. Isn’t that too high?