Growing Illegal Marijuana in California Threatens Polluting the Golden State’s Waterways and Forests

Even as California prepares to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana next year, experts remain concerned that new laws and regulations still fall short in combating the thousands of illegal marijuana farms that threaten federal forest land in California. In 1996, California was not surprisingly the first to legalize medical marijuana, and last year, it became the fifth state to legalize recreational marijuana. Right now, it’s legal to use recreational marijuana, while the sale of recreational marijuana is anticipated to be legalized as early as 2018. Despite this move towards fully legalizing marijuana, California accounts for more than 90 percent of illegal U.S. marijuana farming. California’s “Emerald Triangle” —Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties — named due to it being the largest cannabis-producing region in the United States, are home to thousands of illegal farms called “trespass grows.” In Trinity County alone, there’s an estimated 4,000 trespass grows.

These areas of land are essentially engaging in unregulated farming, which has a huge environmental impact on California’s forest lands.

Nestled deep in federal forest land, these secret — or not so secret — illegal farms pull water from streams and rivers to irrigate their marijuana crops and send water polluted with banned or restricted pesticides and fertilizers back into the creeks. Growers use fertilizers and pesticides long restricted or banned in the United States, including carbofuran and zinc phosphide. Carbofuran, in particular, is a neurotoxic insecticide so toxic that it’s been banned in the U.S., Canada and EU. Growers also use these poisonous toxins to keep wildlife from eating the cannabis plants, gnawing on irrigation tubing, and invading their campsites in search of food. These toxins cause neurological damage and internal bleeding. In humans, symptoms of exposure to these fertilizers and pesticides range from nausea, blurred vision, convulsions, spontaneous abortions, and death. Use of any chemicals in national forests is against federal law as pesticides have killed sensitive species and fertilizers can cause algae blooms and bacteria problems in adjacent rivers and streams.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) already has a dedicated Cannabis program to address the activities associated with cannabis cultivation and the adverse impacts on fish and wildlife resources. The program addresses, among other things, diversion of water, land clearing, road construction, and introduction of pollutants (fertilizers and pesticides) into waterways and other habitats. The CDFW’s Cannabis program consists of environmental review and permitting, enforcement, and coordination with other agencies developing and implementing regulatory programs for cannabis cultivation.

By way of example, there’s the Lake and Streambed Alteration Program, which ensures that individual and cumulative effects of water diversion and discharge associated with cannabis cultivation do not affect the instream flows needed for fish spawning, migration, and rearing, and to otherwise protect fish, wildlife, and water quality. Another regulatory program is The Watershed Enforcement Program, which is composed of teams of law enforcement and scientific staff to prevent and also remediate environmental damage from cannabis cultivation sites. The Cannabis Restoration Grant Program is another example of a program that funds projects that restore watersheds impacted by Cannabis cultivation in key areas of Coastal Northern California.

The CDFW’s programs can only reach and make an impact on the growers that choose to register and comply with the CDFW. As California moves to license growers, officials most certainly plan to regulate the use of chemicals, but like CDFW’s Cannabis program, these rules can only be enforced against those who cultivate marijuana legally.

Obviously, this presents a rather large environmental problem given that California is home to 90 percent of the illegal marijuana farming in the country — a problem that needs a solution.


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