The rise of use of medical marijuana in California has (none too surprisingly) set off a huge increase in marijuana cultivation that, whether growers know it or not, is causing serious damage to the state’s environment and wildlife.
Unregulated in California and illegal under federal law, marijuana was legally approved for medical use in the state in 1996. But in the latter half of 2011 and earlier this year, the state shut down at least 500 dispensaries, charging them with violating federal law and state law, according to which operators must be primary caregivers to patients and distribute marijuana only for medical conditions. One U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of the state emphasized that the intent is to crack down on “large commercial operations that are generating huge amounts of money by selling marijuana in this essentially unregulated free-for-all that exists in California.”
Marijuana Farms: The Toll on Wildlife
State scientists have found that, by directing some 18 million gallons of water from rivers to water marijuana plants, farmers are thwarting efforts to recover endangered coho salmon and other threatened fish, says the Los Angeles Times. Scientists also suspect that runoff from fertilizers and excess potting soil could, along with a reduced river flow due to diversions of waterways, be the reason for outbreaks of cyanobacteria (toxic blue-green algae blooms) in North Coast waterways in the past ten years.
A number of fishers, a rare forest carnivore, have been found dead from rat poison used by marijuana growers in Humboldt County and near Yosemite. Scientists are also finding evidence of carbofuran, an insecticide that is lethal to bears and to humans in small doses.
Bigger Farms Consume Water From Rivers and Creeks
With more and more marijuana available and a glutted market, growers have been increasing the size of their crops to make a profit and cutting huge clearings in forests. By using Google Earth, Scott Bauer, the California state scientist in charge of the coho salmon recovery program under the Department of Fish and Game, found a four-acre area cleared contain 42 greenhouses. As he notes, if each greenhouse holds 80 plants, each of which use about five gallons of water a day, the whole operation would need some 2 million gallons of water in the dry season.
Only 1 percent of growers gets a permit to obtain water legally, even though those applying for a permit are not asked about what they are watering. Growers with a permit are required to collect water in the wet season and store it, rather than siphoning it off when it is most needed by coho salmon spawning in the Eel River and other waterways.
Indoor marijuana cultivation is no more environmentally conscious. The LA Times cites a study in the journal Energy Policy that estimates that indoor marijuana cultivation accounts for 9 percent of California’s household electricity use.
Is the best way for the state of California to curb these environmental hazards by conducting raids on dispensaries and farms? If marijuana were regulated so people did not have to operate “under the wire” to grow it amid the legal “free-for-all” — but rather had to acquire legal permits for water and land use — could these threats to endangered wildlife be lessened?
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