Is Pot-Growing Bad for the Environment?
Faced with this dilemma, observers have proposed a spectrum of solutions. A group of patient-growers banded together as the Tea House Collective to make their low-impact farming methods a central part of their marketing to prospective members. “It’s about knowing your local farmer, the way ‘locavore’ is overtaking organic food,” says collective founder Charley Custer. Other growers tout peer pressure and education as a way to goad their fellow farmers to do better, and have put together their own guide to best practices.
Activist Greacen proposes tailoring the tactics to each style of cannabis farming. Cannabis farms on public land spread chemical fertilizers and poisons into wildlife strongholds and leave behind a mess because they have no long-term stake in the property. “It’s a lot like other kinds of rogue industry, like gold mining in Brazil,” Greacen says. “If we can’t get the feds and the cops to mobilize at the scale we need, we may need to consider going out there with large numbers of people in the early spring, walking the most vulnerable places, and scaring these guys out.”
At the other end of the spectrum, he adds, are “touchy-feely small-scale organic folks who just need some more water tanks” so they can capture their irrigation supply in the winter, when it’s plentiful. In between, “you have this vast new industry of fairly large-scale operations on private lands,” where progress is limited by the unyielding federal opposition to cannabis. “The fundamental thing we need is a shift in the stance of the US Attorneys,” he says, “who have blocked efforts to regulate cultivation.” This would allow local governments to set limits on the impact and scale of these operations, license those who agree to abide by the limits, and mow down plants at farms that refuse to get licensed.
Another approach comes from state Fish and Wildlife researcher Bauer, who wants cannabis farmers to know that he doesn’t care what they’re growing, only how they grow it. He’s willing to consider permit applications for farmers to use water from local creeks so that his agency can regulate how much they take, at what time of year, and how to keep the pumps from sucking fish out of the streams along with the irrigation water. “We’re not going to tell you that you can’t do your project,” Bauer says. “We’re going to tell you the right way to do it.”
As evidence that his agency is truly indifferent to the legality of the growers’ trade, he recalls what happened last summer when his team searched cannabis farms for evidence of environmental violations. “I think people were shocked because we didn’t touch a plant,” he says. “They thought we were there to whack their crop.” Instead, the growers were simply cited for illegal water diversion and dumping sediment into the creek. One of the raided farmers said he’d apply for a permit, Bauer says, but he never did.
That grower’s reluctance to come under the umbrella of regulation illustrates one of the central problems in curbing cannabis’s impacts: marijuana growing remains, at its roots, an underground enterprise practiced with an outlaw mind-set. Even though cannabis cultivation has flourished under the ambiguous auspices of California’s medical marijuana laws, the people who are best placed to serve as watchdogs over environmental abuses in their remote areas still feel bound by a code of silence to protect each other from the law.
Sharon is one such person—and it isn’t because she’s happy with the growth of the marijuana business. The relatively large operations in her rural valley have brought noisy generators to the hills where she used to take quiet walks. “There’s a buzz of industry now in my neighborhood,” she laments. Even though her neighbors raise their cannabis under natural light, they rely on generators to power the fans ventilating their greenhouses and to supplement the natural light. Water has become a point of contention as well in late summer, when outdoor plants are at their thirstiest. Sharon shares a water supply with the adjoining properties, which has run dry repeatedly as a nearby family has scaled up its cannabis growing. When that happens, the handful of households who depend on that system have to wait until the creek gradually replenishes their tanks before they enjoy the convenience of running water again. But even so, Sharon couldn’t imagine asking a government agency to intercede if her neighbors’ water use exceeded legal limits. “The taboo is deeply embedded in me,” she says. “I would be an N-A-R-C, and they would be justifiably angry with me.”
These attitudes die hard, and they are rising to the surface as Humboldt County considers a local ordinance requiring cannabis growers to register with the county and meet minimal environmental standards or risk being deemed a nuisance. But a hearing on the ordinance drew a skeptical public. “Registration sounds to me like ‘Come and turn yourself in,’ ” Bonnie Blackberry of the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project told the county supervisors last month. “It seems like that’s asking an awful lot, and I’m not sure you’re going to get a lot of people who will do that.”
The cannabis boom shows no signs of slowing down. Its growth heightens the challenge of bringing the industry into the bright sunshine of environmental protection—not to mention occupational safety and health, farm labor, and payroll and income-tax laws. But that is likely to prove an impossible task so long as the message from Washington is that the right scale for cannabis farming is no farming at all.
In the Special Issue
Katrina vanden Heuvel: “Why Its Always Been Time to Legalize Marijuana”
Mike Riggs: “Obama’s War on Pot”
Carl L. Hart: “Pot Reform’s Race Problem”
Kristen Gwynne: “Can Medical Marijuana Survive in Washington State?”
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: “Baking Bad: A Potted History of High Times”
Various Contributors: “The Drug War Touched My Life: Why I’m Fighting Back”
And only online…
J. Hoberman: “The Cineaste’s Guide to Watching Movies While Stoned”
Harmon Leon: “Pot Block! Trapped in the Marijuana Rescheduling Maze”