The War Over Weed

The legalization of recreational pot promises to spark a clash between growers and environmentalists.

Mike Smith stands in front of a general store in Orick, Calif., decked out in his Cal Fire officer blues.

As tourists and locals pass by, he warns them of possible death and destruction in a manner as straightforward as his name.

Though the fire can’t be seen or smelled, the dry air is as hot as struck flint in mid-August in Redwood National and State Parks, so everyone takes him at his word.

He’s stapled a “Fire Info Map” to a plywood easel in front of a cage of AmeriGas propane tanks. The map features a large red blotch — the fire — and has updates on the wind speed, humidity, and other factors that might blow this manageable problem into a massive one.

Since there’s a good possibility that a fire in this area — part of the infamous Emerald Triangle of Mendocino, Trinity, and Humboldt counties — started on an illegal marijuana grow, it’s somewhat surprising that Smith doesn’t support Proposition 64, the ballot measure that would legalize, and regulate, recreational marijuana use for adults.

The veteran battalion chief’s light, almost transparent eyebrows furrow to the point of real visibility as he considers the future.

“I’m from Riverside County, the heart of conservative country in California, so I’m worried what Prop. 64 will mean to my 12-year-old son,” he says.

Both opponents and supporters of the proposition have serious concern about Prop. 64’s effects on children. Opponents claim it will allow tobacco-style ads to run amok all over TV, while supporters claim the regulation will reduce the targeting of kids by illegal drug dealers.

Smith mentions a synthetic form of marijuana called “spice,” which reportedly sent more than a dozen people from Los Angeles’ Skid Row to the hospital in August. And no one seems to be arguing against the ineffectiveness and social injustice of the war on drugs.

He also doesn’t dispute the fact that taxation of recreational marijuana could bring in lots of money. Legalization has been earning Colorado and Washington State tens of millions of dollars each year.

On the other hand, he’s very concerned about the environmental effects of legalizing recreational marijuana.

“For generations, the people we saw up here growing, selling, and smoking weed were long-haired hippies,” he explains. “Now they’re 25-year-olds in business suits. If Big Weed takes over this area the way Big Tobacco took over the South, I think everyone should be worried about the environment.”

Although some might not agree with the comparison to Big Tobacco, there are others who think Big Weed in California could be comparable to the wine industry. One of Prop. 64’s biggest backers, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, laid out the social argument as simply as possible in the October edition of San Francisco magazine: “Alcohol’s a hell of a lot more damaging to society than some mom, you know, out there in Modesto who may vape once or twice a week.”

In its Sept. 15 editorial recommending passage of Prop. 64, the San Francisco Chronicle put it more bluntly: “Any serious discussion of marijuana legalization must begin with the acknowledgment of reality: Prohibition is not working.”

Like most thoughtful people, Smith feels Prop. 64 is a simple solution to a very complicated problem. As far as the comparison to the wine industry, his parting words before he revisits the fire to check on suppression progress say it all: “People who drink wine are not the same kind of people who smoke weed.”

Water diversion areas like this one can create droughtlike conditions. (Courtesy of Scott Greacen)
Water diversion areas like this one can create droughtlike conditions. (Courtesy of Scott Greacen)


Experts are only guessing at what Prop. 64 may or may not do to or for the environment. One result might be that the illegal growers in the Emerald Triangle will become legal and follow more environmentally sound practices. A five-year delay before allowing larger farms to grow marijuana would allow current growers a window to adopt new methods.

Once corporations have the opportunity to move in, it’s difficult to see why they would limit their exploitation of the land, air, water, and natural space.

Jim Hagedorn, the chief executive of Scotts Miracle-Gro, told Forbes in July that he wants to “invest, like, half a billion in the pot business” and that the opportunity to invest in legalized recreational marijuana is “the biggest thing I’ve ever seen in lawn and garden.” Such statements are not exactly reassuring to small growers in Humboldt County.

“It tells you all you need to know when you learn that one of the largest funders of the measure is Weedmaps, whose founder told The Wall Street Journal that he wanted to be the ‘Philip Morris of pot,’ ” Jennifer Tejada, who chairs the California Police Chiefs Association’s Law and Legislative Committee, wrote in the Chronicle on Sept. 25.

Since most polls show that Prop. 64 has a good chance at passing, the real question is whether California will govern a billion-dollar cash industry in an ethical, equitable, and environmentally sustainable way.

One safeguard against massive and immediate corporatization of marijuana in Prop. 64 is the delay of five years for licenses to people who plan to harvest 22,000 feet or more of marijuana. However, the more pressing question is: Where exactly will large corporations grow their product, and, most importantly, where will they get their water?

A study done by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found that the four major watersheds in Northern California supply water to between 23,000 and 32,000 marijuana plants. These illegal grows can suck approximately 200,000 gallons of water out of this vital watershed per day.

Supporters of Prop. 64 hope that legal growers will avoid all of the bad practices of illegal growers, which include driving huge water trucks up and down old logging roads; causing erosion in streams and harming endangered salmon populations; diverting streams from ancient redwoods in order to feed thirsty marijuana plants; and spraying juvenile plants with rodenticide to protect them from rats, which then end up in the bellies of owls and other raptors, which quickly introduces poison into the food chain.

Gregory A. Giusti, a University of California’s forest and wildlands ecology adviser for Lake and Mendocino counties, is wary but not overwhelmed by the possible environmental impacts of Prop. 64.

“Socially, Prop. 64 will be a huge change,” Giusti says. “As far as the immediate environmental impact, six plants per person won’t mean much more than six tomato plants per person. The neighbors may not like the smell of the smoke. That’s all.”

According to Giusti, a smaller but more significant piece of legislation for the Emerald Triangle may be the Heritage Act in Mendocino County, which could allow much larger plots for medical marijuana.

“Marijuana is one more crop. The issue will always be how do we measure — and anticipate — the cumulative effect of drawing more water out of our rivers and streams?” Giusti says.

Taking up the wine industry analogy, Giusti believes it’s important to note that water use became an issue with vineyards when advances in technology led to drip irrigation. Although drip irrigation uses less water, it can be used on hillsides, which allowed vineyards to expand past their traditional environmental boundaries.

“The amount of water doesn’t matter as much as where the water is coming from,” Giusti adds.

If Big Weed does move in, corporations will want a consistent product. Just like flowers or other kinds of commercial plants, consistency almost always means large greenhouses. And, apart from the oppressive heat of the desert, that means big greenhouses for marijuana could be anywhere in California.

But Giusti doesn’t believe the big corporate rush is right around the corner.

California makes its money off of agriculture because it overproduces everything and then exports it. That’s how Big Ag makes a profit here, Giusti notes, so why would Philip Morris invest in California weed, even after the five-year delay, knowing full well that transporting it out of state would violate federal law?

Illegal dumps often accompany illegal grows. (Courtesy of Scott Greacen)
Illegal dumps often accompany illegal grows. (Courtesy of Scott Greacen)


Much will also be left up to local jurisdictions to figure out. Just as the vague language of Prop. 215, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996, led to a boom in marijuana farms, vague language could lead to all kinds of unintended consequences with Proposition 64.

Take the use of pesticides, for example.

Since marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug by the federal government, with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” there are no federal guidelines governing which pesticides to use on marijuana. Without those guidelines, it’s completely up to California to test and approve pesticides for growers.

“It’s just one more layer of protection for people and the environment that’s been peeled away,” Giusti says. “And we can’t forget that marijuana is a very intimate product. People smoke it or eat it directly into their bodies. It’s not like something that’s being sprayed miles away and may or may not have some health effect.”

Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, in Arcata, Calif. is also concerned about pesticide regulation.

“The overuse of pesticides is a real problem for our fish, and it’s also a problem for consumers,” Greacen says.

Greacen points to an investigation last year by

The Oregonian. “A combination of lax state rules, inconsistent lab practices, and inaccurate test results has allowed pesticide-laced products to enter the medical marijuana market,” The Oregonian determined in June 2015.

And the wine industry comparison doesn’t sit well with Greacen either.

“It was the sudden and dramatic growth of the wine industry that helped drive all the coho salmon in the Russian River to the brink of extinction,” he adds.

Prop. 64 puts aside money for the cleanup of illegal cultivation practices, but it makes no specific anticipation of any environmental problems that will come with legalizing weed. According to the text of the proposition itself, most of the new state and local tax revenues would have “to be spent for specific purposes such as youth programs, environmental protection, and law enforcement.”

The proposition breaks down the spending of new pot revenue as follows: 60 percent for youth programs, 20 percent for public health and safety, and 20 percent for cleanup of illegal marijuana grows. The money that would fund all of this activity is largely dependent on how many people decide to buy legalized weed, and according to Prop. 64’s advocates, those numbers are unknown.

“What we see on the ground here is semi-truck after semi-truck hauling soil and water up the hills to help grow marijuana,” Greacen says. “That is not a best practice, to say the least.”

Greacen feels the argument that the weed industry will never be as bad as Big Tobacco or Big Oil is just not good enough.

“We’re driving salmon extinct up here,” he remarks. “Can’t we do better than just trying to prevent extinction?”

Greacen is clear that he has nothing against marijuana itself, just the development that comes along with it, such as setting up small, intensive agricultural operations in isolated landscapes in a pristine environment very vulnerable to erosion.

What has caused the most trouble in the Emerald Triangle area, Greacen says, has been all the logging. Before the ecosystem really had time to recover, the marijuana industry moved in. It’s been a one-two punch.

Another disturbing aspect of Prop. 64 for environmentalists is grandfathering in some illegal growers if they get their permits. Allowing growers to keep the plots they have cultivated for years, perhaps generations, has grand local appeal. And there will be incentives for these plots to be moved to less environmentally sensitive areas. But, like most big, unwieldy pieces of legislation, how people will respond — or not respond — to the law remains to be seen.

And when those who are being asked to comply have made their living breaking the law, it’s not just a change in the law that’s being asked for. It’s a complete change in the culture.

Many current growers have no interest in passing Prop. 64 because they prefer the current system of medicinal marijuana legalization that helps keep the farms smaller and more manageable.

An aerial photo of an illegal marijuana grow. (Courtesy of Scott Greacen)
An aerial photo of an illegal marijuana grow. (Courtesy of Scott Greacen)


No matter which side one chooses, there’s no denying the facts: Marijuana needs lots of water.

And most important in drought-stricken California, marijuana plants tend to need lots of water: A single, mature plant can consume up to six gallons a day, double that of a typical grapevine.

Tony Linegar, Sonoma County agricultural commissioner, shares the environmental concerns about Big Weed. But he’s hoping his county, as well as others, will establish best practices for medical marijuana cultivation that can be used as a model when Big Weed is allowed to really move in.

“My main concern when the ‘big boys’ move in is the impact that adding a whole other cash crop will have on California’s existing agriculture,” Linegar notes. “What will be the added stress on natural resources? No one really knows.”

He’s hopeful that the “layers and layers of restriction” for medical marijuana will certainly dissuade only the most serious and committed businesses from becoming involved.

Linegar also believes Sonoma’s climate can do for marijuana what it does for grapevines. “We have the warm days and the cool nights. The cool nights help the plant tissues harden off. I see this as a boutique wine country for cannabis.”

Even if Prop. 64 does an immaculate job of replacing illegal growers with more environmentally friendly growers, that’s only the cultivation part that is both legally registered and out in the open (as opposed to cultivation done in growhouses). Since Prop. 64 would allow anyone over 21 to grow up to six of their own plants, there seems to be an incentive for just about anyone to convert their closets into a weed farm with 24 hour lamps to speed growth — and put a large stress on California’s already stressed power grid.

As Greacen told Capital and Main‘s Judith Lewis Mernit in late August, “The rules are being written by people with long histories in the property-rights movement. They have zero interest in environmental protection.”

Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, believes any environmental impact will be short-lived.

“First of all, 10,000 acres of land would be more than enough to provide marijuana for the entire country at its current level of use,” Caulkins explains.

The bigger footprint, he believes, would be from the indoor grows because of the high electricity use by those who would blast lumens on their hidden crop to get as much bud as quickly as possible.

The issue for Caulkins is the near term, not the long term. “I predict national legalization of marijuana is 10 to 15 years away. In the meantime, the black market can thrive in California by supplying other states. The portion of that production that comes from guerrilla growers on public lands tends not to care as much about the environmental impact of how they grow their stuff.”

Once marijuana is legalized, though, the worries about any environmental impact of marijuana on the redwoods or streams or animals of the Emerald Triangle will be moot, Caulkins adds, saying there just won’t be any reason to grow weed there.

As far as any interstate restrictions, states’ special powers over the interstate alcohol trade were granted by the constitutional amendment that repealed Prohibition. When marijuana is legalized nationally, there won’t likely be any constitutional amendment and corresponding powers.

After national legalization, if Midwestern farmers get over their hang-up about marijuana cultivation, the crop could be mechanized, as is done for hemp and extracts in some countries. Instead of fields of wheat, the Missouri River delta, a climate where marijuana is most ideally suited, could have fields of tender bud.

As Caulkins told KQED n September: “In the long run, I think we’re going to wonder why we thought it was a good idea to create a corporate sector for promoting use of another dependence-inducing intoxicant.”

In the final analysis, it mostly feels like a question of scale. In the best case scenario, Prop. 64 creates an environmentally sustainable business by replacing the currently illegal $1 billion industry with a legal $1 billion industry. In the worst case scenario, part of the illegal industry is pushed further into the redwoods, and the environment is forced to sustain both the legal and illegal industries.

If a redwood doesn’t get water from an illegal or legal operation, why does it matter to the redwood?

One option to replace illegal growers with legal ones seems to be to create something like a boutique, organic wine market that does not use pesticides. The idea is that people will pay for a safe, plant-friendly product, and that the illegal growers will simply be run out of business.

But Scott Greacen remains unconvinced by that marketing strategy. “The majority of wine sold today is Gallo, and the vast majority of beer sold is Budweiser,” Greacen told Capital and Main. “And the people who buy Gallo don’t care about the lack of salmon in Napa’s streams.”

Even Gavin Newsom’s Blue Ribbon Committee that studied the impact of legalizing recreational marijuana recognized that the transition from illegal to legal cultivation would not be quick or easy. “Illegal cultivation,” the committee found, “especially trespass grows on public and private land, will remain a problem that deserves attention even after legalization.”

Proponents of Prop. 64 continue to point to the overflowing coffers of Colorado and Washington as the main reason for passage. In a perfect world, California would wait 10 years and see how the Colorado and Washington experiments play out. But corporate interests have a way of winning over the slow, methodical science needed to protect the planet. At the very least, most experts argue California should follow Washington’s model and not Colorado’s.

Colorado’s challenges will not be California’s, though. Most of Colorado’s municipalities opted out of allowing marijuana, with Denver and Boulder becoming the de facto bases — and therefore the object of not just the scorn of the rest of the anti-marijuana state but also Colorado’s upset neighbors — Oklahoma and Nebraska, which are suing Colorado in federal court because of the increase in drug traffic over their borders. They charge that Colorado’s law, Amendment 64, was “devoid of safeguards.” And approximately half of Colorado’s cannabis businesses failed within a year and half, according to the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Both Washington and Colorado have what California does not, namely, more open spaces for cultivation and, in the case of Washington, a reliable source of water.

Trees cleared for a marijuana grow in Humboldt County. (Courtesy of Scott Greacen)
Trees cleared for a marijuana grow in Humboldt County. (Courtesy of Scott Greacen)


A few miles from where Mike Smith warned of fires, within the confines of Patrick’s Point State Park, lies the remains of a Yurok village. It’s so quiet in the village that you can hear the morning fog drip from redwood needles and splash onto the weathered picnic tables.

Traditionally, Yuroks lived along the nearby Klamath River. Today, they are the largest tribe in California, with a population of roughly 5,000 members.

As for “best practices” for environmental stewardship, it’s difficult to find a better model than the Yuroks’. According to a damp and lonely information board, with a drawing of a female Yurok tribe member dressed in a bark skirt, deerskin aprons, and decorative shells, the tribe traditionally fished for salmon and sturgeon, and hunted deer and elk. They caught deer with snares and lanced salmon with long shafts barbed with sharpened bone. They never targeted whales, but if one washed up on shore, they had the sense not to let all that good blubber go to waste. If their food tasted bland, they dried seaweed in the sun to procure salt. When the meat ran out or couldn’t be caught, they made do with acorns.

Modern Yuroks are still keenly aware of and invested in their environment. “Operation Yurok,” a combined effort with tribal, state, and federal officers, seized 80,000 illegal marijuana plants in July.

“We have zero-tolerance for marijuana grows on the Yurok reservation,” Yurok Tribe Chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. told the Times-Standard newspaper of Eureka, Calif.

The architecture of the site is exemplified by the traditional homes sunken into the moist earth. Made of sturdy redwood planks, the homes were originally held together by square poles tied by grapevines. The homes that are sunk deepest into the earth come complete with a ladder.

What feels most telling about the tribe’s intimate relationship with the land is the fact that Yurok homes all had names associated with the earth, such as “narrow” or “trail descends.” And not just homes either — the names of the Yurok people almost always were names of physical places, and the translation of the word Yurok itself means “downstream.”

It’s tempting to think that the introduction of legalized marijuana is a kind of brave new world, the crossing of a new frontier. The truth is that this threshold has been crossed every time we’ve brought an agricultural product to a place that it had not existed before.

And modern civilization doesn’t have to go back to ancient Native American ways to understand how to treat the land.

Aldo Leopold, legendary environmentalist and author of A Sand County Almanac, perhaps said it best: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”

When measured by that ideal, the plan to mass-produce recreational marijuana seems to fall short.

In the far back of the village is a rejuvenated native garden, an impressive array of medicinal herbs used for everything from headaches to menstrual cramps. Compared to the plan for commercial, large-scale, recreational marijuana in California, the garden is small, efficient, and just plain common sense.

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