Illegal marijuana cultivation is devastating California’s public lands


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Garbage from a trespass grow site, including large rolls of plastic irrigation pipe, is packed and ready to be hauled away. Photo courtesy of Rick Fleming.

How could this all happen? The answers, of course, reflect the fact that we aren’t dealing with illegal plantations of corn or strawberries after all – but a contentious, high-value substance, and during a historic moment when societal views are shifting in its favor but regulations lag behind. In a video report by Dan Rather released last October, U.S. Representative for California’s 2nd District Jared Huffman said that ultimately the problem stems from the conflict between state and federal law.

In February, Huffman and 17 other members of Congress, including Colorado’s Jared Polis and Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer, urged President Obama to demote marijuana on the federal Controlled Substance Act, or remove it altogether. Marijuana is listed as a Schedule I substance – the strictest classification, higher than cocaine or methamphetamine. “Classifying marijuana as Schedule I at the federal level perpetuates an unjust and irrational system,” wrote the congressmen. With marijuana now legal for recreational use in two states and for medical use in 21 states and D.C., not to mention the trespass grow dilemma, “This makes no sense.”

Illegal growers left an animal hide to dry, presumably after it was killed for disturbing the grow site. Photo courtesy of Rick Fleming.

In the video report, Huffman emphasized that as long as it’s a federal crime, there won’t be the option to create effective institutions to regulate and tax marijuana. Until it is decriminalized, so that growers can raise their crops without hiding them deep in public forests, he said, the environmental devastation will continue. Federal regulations could create environmental and public health standards for marijuana agriculture and provide transparency for consumers who want assurance that their weed is clean and “green.”

There are, of course, less environmentally harmful ways to get weed, like growing your own. But even homegrown or indoor-grown pot brings hidden environmental costs – including six times more energy consumption than the pharmaceutical industry, according to a major national study.  But perhaps this cost is preferable to the other extreme.

“It’s really different than deforesting the forest and killing the animals and contaminating our water supply,” Fleming said. “It’s supposed to be a forest. It’s supposed to be public lands.”

Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.

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