Walk through a forest in the North Coast of California and you may see many astonishing things: outrageously tall trees, frolicking creatures and — maybe — even a man-made clearing that has a marijuana growing operation.
In February, the United States Forest Service released a video that described the damage caused by “trespass grows” hidden within the state’s public, forested land. Rick Fleming, director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew and a trespass grow cleanup partner in the Sierra region, is featured in the film. According to High Country News, he said, “it’s not so much a political issue as it is just trying to preserve public lands.”
The United States Forest Service and law enforcement officials removed nearly 1 million marijuana plants across hundreds of sites in California in 2013.
“Sometimes it’s 10,000 plants [at a site], sometimes it’s 50 plants,” Fleming said. “That doesn’t matter so much for us. What matters is the infrastructure that’s left.”
Leftover infrastructure of these grows includes makeshift reservoirs filled with diverted water from streams.
Advocates of cannabis legalization have several reasons for supporting the cause, one of which might be protecting the environment. Nikki Gloudeman, senior fellow at Mother Jones magazine, said, “legalizing marijuana would clean things up substantially as the growing would both eliminate the strain on public lands and meet higher standards for the use and disposal of toxic substances.”
According to Think, rodenticides used to deter forest animals and bugs from visiting outdoor marijuana sites and grazing on the plants have been connected to poisoning the Pacific fisher. The animal is a member of the weasel family and a West Coast endangered species candidate for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Mourad Gabriel, a scientist at UC Davis found that 80 percent of the Pacific fishers he has studied from 2007 to 2011 were exposed to some form of rodenticide.
United States Department of Fish and Wildlife Lt. John Nores leads the agency’s Marijuana Enforcement Team. He told the Associated Press earlier this month that increased water use by farms is a full-scale environmental disaster “Whether it’s grown quasi-legally under the state’s medical marijuana laws, or it’s a complete cartel outdoor drug trafficking grow site, there is extreme environmental damage being done at all levels,” Nores said.
Gloudeman agrees, commenting that “some growers illegally colonizing remote forest lands… is nothing short of a toxic scourge.”
Thoughts on if, and how, to regulate growing marijuana outdoors differ, as some people say increased regulations may just worsen environmental damage. Marijuana users in Lake County challenged a law put into place last year that banned outdoor grows. The residents felt that they were being demonized and argued that grow restrictions like the ones being voted on in their county lumped the responsible users in with criminals. They gathered enough signatures to place a referendum for the ban on a June ballot.
“We definitely feel environmental issues are a concern. But more restrictive ordinances will force people to start growing in unregulated and illegal places on public land,” said Daniel McClean, a registered nurse and medical marijuana user who opposes the outdoor-grow ban.
Emerald Growers Association chairwoman Kristin Nevedal said marijuana growers are undeservedly taking the blame for a problem that is caused by all residents of the North Coast, according to “The Salt” blog on npr.org.
“It’s just so easy to point a finger at cannabis growers because it’s a federally prohibited substance,” she said. “The truth is, if you flush a toilet in the hills, you’re a part of the problem.”
Watch the video by the U.S. Forest Service:
What are your thoughts on if, or how, outdoor marijuana growing operations should be regulated? Let us know in the comments below.