Illegal pot farms that damage land should make room for legal entrepreneurs

 

If you care about protecting clean water, endangered species and public health, then you might want to consider legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

That’s because so much of the stuff is now being grown illegally on our public lands in places dubbed “trespass grows.” These secretive and often well-guarded farms do enormous environmental damage and place a huge burden on federal agencies. In California in 2013, the Forest Service discovered about 1 million plants within public forests on nearly 400 sites. Thousands of trees had been logged to make way for marijuana plants.

Growers also divert millions of gallons of water from forest streams to pot plantations, drenching a single plant with as much as 6 gallons of water daily. Perhaps even more destructively, they dump untold amounts of pesticides into the watershed. In 2012, for example, at least 19,000 pounds of pesticides were confiscated from trespass grow sites in California, which probably has the most illegal pot farms in the nation. For rare forest species like the Pacific fisher, a candidate for the endangered species list, pot farms can be killing farms. The animals are dying at alarming rates, many poisoned by growers employing illegal rodenticides.

Wayne Spencer of the Conservation Biology Institute, who develops management plans to protect fishers, recently announced that he personally supports legalization of marijuana, both for the sake of the forest and the fragile species that depend on natural areas.

Policing trespass grows also takes up a huge amount of federal agencies’ time, energy and money. The California district of the U.S. Forest Service says the majority of its law enforcement workload is now trespass-grow investigations -- “a major distraction for the mission of the Forest Service.”

Rick Fleming, director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew, says that his volunteers have worked hundreds of trespass grow cleanups, the only type of volunteer work where they partner with law enforcement.

In a time when our culture is increasingly conscious of where our goods come from as well as of the impact of our consumer choices, marijuana is largely left out of the equation. We buy fair trade-certified, rainforest-safe coffee because it benefits both ecosystems and coffee farmers. We demand organic food because we want fewer pesticides on the land and in our bodies. We seek local produce to support local farmers. Shouldn’t we have the same concerns about marijuana?

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude still seems to be stuck in the 1970s: That any marijuana from California is clean, green and hippie-grown. But as Mother Jones magazine recently pointed out, the reality is that the industrial farming of pot is probably closer to the dirty days of the meatpacking industry, as described in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. As trail crew leader Fleming puts it, Illegal pot growers “don’t give a damn about anything. They either eat it, kill it or poison it.”

Spencer describes a recent outreach event on trespass grows that ended with a well meaning person asking, “Can’t we just educate illegal growers?” Fleming’s response: “These are bad men. They will kill anything that gets between them and their profits.”

Legalizing marijuana at the federal level could nip all this in the bud. A high-profit criminal industry would be washed away by a flood of small farmers willing to try their hand at cannabis and selling it on a regulated market. Of course, that requires delisting marijuana as a Schedule I substance, as 18 members of Congress recently petitioned President Obama to do.

It’s nonsensical that pot continues to be treated as if it’s more dangerous than methamphetamines or cocaine. Washington and Colorado are already regulating marijuana for recreational use at the state level. They allow companies to grow and sell marijuana at retail, effectively removing smokers’ motivation to source it illegally, and capturing state revenues from the market -- roughly $2 million in tax revenue in the first month of sales in Colorado alone.

At least Attorney General Eric Holder has said he won’t prosecute Coloradans and Washingtonians who comply with their states’ marijuana regulations, even though they conflict with federal law. More recently he reassured banks that his office plans to make it safe for them to open accounts with state-approved marijuana suppliers. But Holder has given no more than his word that smokers, growers and bankers won’t be prosecuted; meanwhile, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill recently to pressure the attorney general into cracking down. This has happened before: In 2011, in Mendocino County, Calif., the federal Drug Enforcement Agency closed down a model program that monitored legal marijuana cultivation and used revenues to fight trespass grows.

This contradictory, irrational policy needs to end. Our public lands need a break from ruthless industrialization, and the West’s wild creatures need their home back.

Christi Turner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News where she is an editorial intern.

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